Saturday, July 14, 2012
The following definition of literary v. commercial is given by Zadie Smith:
"…the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true."
Many of my longtime readers will know that I'm a literature snob. I like to think and be challenged by books. I'm not concerned about being transported to some exotic fantasy world with sparkly vampires. I want to find beauty in sentence construction. In that sense, I definitely approach literature from the second model.
I'm not sure, however, that I agree with the dichotomy presented - that literary fiction makes you work for it and commercial fiction doesn't. There are many masters of fiction - Le Carre comes to mind immediately - who I wouldn't say make the reader work. They aren't "entertainments" as in dumbed down so far that the brain ceases to be necessary in the reading function, but on the other hand certainly aren't challenging in the way, say, a Joyce or Pynchon is challenging. But they are still damn good yet still don't quite appeal to a mass audience in the way Dan Brown does. (I can think of many "genre fiction" titles and authors to throw in here that are in this middle ground.)
The post author, Mike Duran, perhaps makes a somewhat better distinction than the either/or of Smith:
we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participation. Not only do most readers not want to work harder, many writers make sure they don’t have to.
This certainly seems to be the case. We want everything handed to us - as a society we seem to have become allergic to intellectual pursuits beyond Words with Friends. And if writers are going to be incentivized to write fluff (you know, incentivized with things like money and sales) of course those interested in such are going to give us the junk food we want. After all, McDonald's is ubiquitous for a reason.
On the other hand, as evidenced by my ever expanding TBR pile, there are many contemporary authors who have loftier goals - be they at the level of a Harbach or Franzen, Wallace or Markson, even Haddon or Shteyngart. Regardless of whether we're talking about deep subjects, philosophical puzzles, postmodern experiments or just novels written above a 5th grade level without a lot of exclamation points, these authors are looking to provide something more to their readers beyond a lazy afternoon alternative to an Adam Sandler movie. (That's kind of an old reference now. I guess to be hip these days I should say Seth Rogan.)
That said, I don't believe that authors have an obligation to make readers work. Given our present culture, I think if there was an obligation to do so, the majority of readers - as in those driving Jodi Picoult and James Patterson to the top of the best sellers list - would give up on reading en masse, and then we wouldn't be any further ahead. But the lack of an obligation doesn't mean that authors shouldn't think about their role in culture, and their ability to raise up the level of discourse instead of driving it down. Because honestly, I'm sick of having conversations about 50 Shades of Gray. I want to talk about Scars.
And though my knee jerk reaction to the first question - does good writing necessarily demand more from a reader - was no. What about Le Carre? The more I thought about it, though, I realized that it does demand more of a reader. A good book might not - I'm thinking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which is atrocious writing but a story that thoroughly engrossed me, but good writing really does. It demands an attention span. It demands an act.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
I don't know exactly why I stopped blogging. It's not (like some of my previous absences) that I haven't been reading, because I have been. And reading some really, really great stuff to. Like Lightening by Jean Eschenoz, and AnimalInside by Lazslo Krasnahorkai. And most definitely Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 (What the hell took me so long to get to Pynchon????)
One potential contributing factor to my blogging break was the fact that in the past six or seven months or so, I have discovered a number of really friggin awesome book review sites, and I just can't compete. I have review anxiety. That and work has been...taxing.
Discovering these new review sites, though, not only completely made me feel inadequate, it also made my reading list EXPLODE. So...to update you, here are some mini-reviews. (I expect a review of Juan Jose Saer's Scars to come next week…)
AnimalInside - Fucking amazing. Just find a copy and read it
Tiger's Wife - Includes some interesting fantastical elements, but works better viewed as a YA novel. Even for a first outing for the author, I thought it was lacking.
Austerlitz - Left me asking Shawn (fueled by some whiskey) if he would have put Brendan on a kindertransport, leading to an unproductive conversation.
Everything that Rises Must Converge - The final piece in my O'Connor trilogy that I've been working through for years. I definitely enjoyed the short novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bare It Away more than this one, but for a Southern lady, O'Connor was NUTS in a really fantastic way.
Principles of Uncertainty - This is the inside of my mind in book form.
Red Shift & Dream of Scipio - Kind of a long story. My friend Steve recommended Dream of Scipio, which oddly sounded like Red Shift which I had just acquired. In reality they are nothing alike, and I enjoyed Dream of Scipio much more than Red Shift. In fact, I really didn't like Red Shift. Dream of Scipio made me feel really, really sad and I'm not sure why - I should be pretty immune to it by now, I would think.
Roseanna - Swedish detective fiction pre-Steig Larsson. There were actually a lot of plot points that were similar, and I'm not sure if that's because detective fiction is that formulaic or it's a Swedish thing, or if it's Larsson's problem.
Monday, March 5, 2012
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
We Need to Talk About Kevin is brutal and unforgiving. It’s terrifying. Disturbing. To the core. It will make people ask you if you are ok. And you will not be ok. Trust me.
The novel is comprised of a series of letters that Eva – mother of Kevin – is writing to her (ex?) husband Franklin. Kevin was the perpetrator of a high school massacre and is now serving time in a detention facility. Eva is looking back over her son’s life, trying to figure out if she was to blame…what she could have done differently along the way. What was wrong with Kevin? Was he “wrong” from the start, or did something happen that made him the way that he was? Shriver’s novel shocks over and over again…and even when it feels to be winding down, finally coming to “Thursday” there are still more shocks to come.
It’s not often that a novel can really, really stir up emotions…particularly emotions that are completely contained, shall we say, within the action of the novel. This isn’t a case where I’m reading my own life – thank god! – into the action, seeing myself in the characters. This is sheer rage, sheer sorrow over what Shriver puts to us. You have to have the stomach for this novel. And even after every twist and turn, I had to restrain myself from balling my eyes out at the ending. I did not see that coming, though I should have…it was hinted at but I chose to think, “no…it cannot happen.” It did. I’ll leave it at that.
It’s rare – very rare – that…that what? So many things – that you meet a character that is so horrifying in a very human way. I know what I’m trying to say here, but it’s a difficult idea to form and verbalize. A story might be scary – even horrifying. A ghost story. Halloween, the Ring, the Shining, whatever. But a lot of what is horrifying isn’t real…on a human scale you know it’s going to hurt you. Michael Meyers might be a sociopathic psychokiller… but the idea that you can’t kill him? It’s not real, and on a human level you know that.
Kevin is the type of person you hope that you never have to meet in life. I’ve seen pieces of him in others before, but this full-on sociopath who is so bored with life that the only things that they find interesting are things that hurt other people. And they just don’t give a shit.
In my mind, I’m comparing this to the villains in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…they were very real – their crimes were human. And they were sociopaths. But the horror is different than in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Where Dragon Tattoo’s villains too one dimensional? Is it that they were seeking out victims in a relatively random way? Kevin is targeted: he will tell you the thing that will make you want to kill yourself. He will do to you what will damage you most, and then let you live. Or, maybe, he’ll just kill you himself. He’s terrifying on a primal level: as a homo sapien, I think we have evolved to be horrified and repulsed to the gut by people like this…who don’t get that we are supposed to work together as a society, who just say fuck you to the social contract.
But while it’s Kevin that I am scared of, it’s his father – Franklin – that I was angry at. Franklin is so completely in his world of Andie Griffith, Oh gee pop that sounds great - that he completely misses his son. He is not seeing Kevin, he is seeing his dream child. And anyone who dare suggest that the dream child isn't the dream child, there is something wrong with their assessment. I know people like this. I know people who have almost gotten people fired from their jobs because their kid is a hellion and they refuse to see it. Even when it's on video. I understand loving and being awed by your kid. What I do not understand is being so utterly blinded by it, or by your own weirdness that you don't see your child at all.
Children don’t come with a manual. And the best advice is conflicting at best. Every child is different, and the trick of parenting seems to be figuring out your own kid – what they need, when, how, by whom. The trick is, though, that this isn’t something you simply light on when your child is 3 months old, and it serves you the rest of your life. It’s not that simple. This story of watching Eva struggle as a mother to find how to interact with and control her son is unsettling, and I found myself measuring Brendan's quirks and outbursts with Kevin's...this book will not allow you to escape the idea that you too may have raised a murderer.
Monday, January 9, 2012
This is a bit late but oh well.
The last few years, I have been caught up in lists. This year, I gave up. Well maybe not gave up, but went on a list hiatus. And it has been very, very freeing. Suddenly, I’m able to pull a book off a shelf and just read it. Because I wanted to. And not have a list to cross it off at the end. Wow.
The year started out with a whiz bang from Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Shipping News was something of a disappointment. The Piano Teacher shocked me, but the questions about power play still remains. New York Trilogy left me cold and wondering. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a comfort and along with Noel Coward’s play Still Life got me through a rough time. Anagrams – what a beautiful, beautiful piece. Naïve.Super made me want to buy a wooden peg board and set it on my desk. Enduring Love started out fabulous, but ended like a deflated balloon. The Hound of the Baskervilles reminded me what good writing could achieve. The Shining reminded me what bad writing can’t achieve. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded that bad writing isn’t always a death knell.