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two things


Thing One

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard critics give praise for a novel that “punctuates the narration with moments of great lyricism”, or is “highlighted by moments of pure poetry,” or some such phrase. These and like statements are all over positive reviews of fiction these days. Giving a bit for style—the DFWs, celebrating the boredom of modern life; the Kobo Abe’s, weaving monotony to break it—why would we want our books filled with tedium? Only to have them “occasionally punctuated” by actual, good writing? If not specifically for formal artifice, why are we holding back? Because today’s woefully distracted readers can’t handle it? But that is a much bigger problem, as we’ve seen, and one that will not be solved by giving them fluff to read (albeit with feathers pierced through once in a while with some decent writing).

Our literary critics have long ago given up their historic role as harbingers, as interpreters and historians and analyzers. Presently, they are cheap commentators. They do nothing but babble, thumbs up-or-down, point fingers and give ridiculously shallow opinions of taste. I do not expect them to know better than to support dumbed-down fiction. Their careers are tied to book sales. They are book-club runners, no longer critics in any historical sense of the word. No wonder they are so surprised when they come upon intense, indeed poetic, writing in the midst of their stroll through the park.

Thing Two

“Only the common run of novels expects the one-night stand.”  -William Gass

Another word I hate in conjunction with literary novels: ‘page-turner’. My god! It was such a page-turner! What a fascinating page-turner, perfectly punctuated at just the right moments with poetry!

Here’s the thing: for mysteries and romance and action-packed historical fiction, this is great. In these books, we want to know things, we want to know what happened and how it happened. This is the part of our lives we can call entertaining. To want to know what happened is a desire to be told.

On the other hand is the desire to think, to figure out for oneself. Literary fiction causes us to think. It does not tell us things, it only posits, relates, queries, describes. It requires of us not only interaction with a text but time. Lots of it. It takes time to work through a series of philosophical, moral, ethical, existential questions. The value, and pleasure, of thought comes in the mulling over, the time spent thinking. It is not something you wish to rush through.

I recall giving a friend a collection of Amy Hempel short stories. She came back the following day with mediocre reviews. ‘It was alright.’ She had read them all in one night! I said, ‘No! You must restrict yourself. One a day is plenty, nothing more, so that you might think about, mull over, each one.’ With Raymond Carver it is the same. Italo Calvino, the same. And many others.

Think about painting. You walk into a room full of Cezanne’s and what do you do? You run along the walls! You sprint, excitedly, merely glancing at each one. A room-runner: the page-turners of the painting world. Would you expect this of anyone trying to appreciate what Cezanne was doing? Or O’Keeffe? Or Hopper? Or Klimt?

So why are we obsessed with ‘page-turner’ novels? It is a genre form, not a literary one. The desire to keep reading has nothing to do with good fiction. Good fiction is about the desire to think, to communicateto ponder, to figure out, which as often as not involves putting a book down, not tearing through it. The desire to finish a book is a perverse one, driven by curiosity and a cruel pleasure: beginning-and-ending love, the shallowest kind there is. To live with a book, to build it, to experience it. Whether or not it takes you hours or weeks or years is up to you, and up to the writer to skillfully question it to you. A book is not a roller-coaster ride, it is a conversation.

Take your time.


From → Readings

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