Friday, April 22, 2005

Reading Literary Fiction

I just read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I even finished it, which makes me far superior to the rest of you fucking illiterates. Let me start by saying that I liked it very much. And if you think that I'm leading to a big "but," you're right. So I liked it, BUT...

It's probably the most hoity-toity book I've read since college, you know, Literary, with that capital L. Reading has been a challenge for me for as long as I can remember. As a kid, it was an issue of not wanting to sit still that long. I much preferred going outside and playing baseball, often by myself, which is probably a post for another time. My sister read book after book, and I just couldn't get interested. Then, in high school, it seemed like we read short stories rather than longer fiction. I mean, sure, I read a couple of the classics - Scarlet Letter, Grapes of Wrath, Farewell to Arms - but I don't really remember them, and I never had a teacher that got me excited about reading.

In college, I had some great teachers - teachers excited about their subjects - and I finally began to enjoy reading for real. And good thing. It was a school that required hundreds of pages of reading a week, followed by writing between five and thirty of your own. Even through my enjoyment, however, reading had a strange effect on me. It made me sleepy. I would combat this by keeping myself as uncomfortable as possible, often standing in the middle of my dorm room with the windows wide open in the middle of winter.

After college I discovered something significant. There are books out there that actually keep you awake. These books are generally not high-brow. But they can be. There were exceptions to the reading-making-me-tired rule in college - Richard Wright's Native Son, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Stendahl's The Red and the Black, anything by James Baldwin, and even Dickens' Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Those are generally considered high-brow or Literary (with that capital L).

On top of the symbolism and image systems, authors' large vocabularies, and brilliant socio-political commentary, those books have page-turning plots. Great stories, well told. The contemporary literary fiction I've read (yes, including Gilead) has almost no plot. I'm rarely asking, "What's going to happen next?" So there's no dramatic tension between the reader and the material. It's all about being appreciated on some objective, intellectual level. I want some damned suspense. I want to be on the edge of my seat. I want all the crap that makes a book Literary to be working on a subconscious level while I enjoy being surprised by the twists and turns of a good story. Isn't fiction, after all, a storytelling medium? Nothing seems to happen in the Literary Fiction I've read.

And yes, of course, there are exceptions. Ian McEwan, for example, has mastered the art of great plot within the realm of the Literary. But then, there are those who don't consider him Literary.

Gilead should be commended in its ability to hold my attention without a plot to speak of. It probably demonstrates that Marilynne Robinson has more skill as a writer than just about anyone else I've read. And she's smart and philosophical and observant and complicated. But, dammit, what I really enjoy is a good story with, like, a real plot and shit.



At 12:48 PM , Anonymous Marilynne Robinson said...

Plot THIS, motherfucker.


At 10:06 AM , Blogger Ali said...

Have you read any Jonathan Safron Froer (or however you spell that Literary - with a capital L - name)? I haven't but I love the smackdown going on in critical circles over whether or not the man has talent.

My latest good reads are THE LOVELY BONES (although they're talking to the Haley Joel Osmont-esque Dakota Fanning to play the lead. She makes me nervous.), MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (so good. so very good.), and the LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE SERIES (Just as good as you remember them!)

At 12:21 PM , Anonymous Cody said...

I couldn't agree more. And so does Mr. Michael Chabon, especially in the area of short fiction. Here's a little something he wrote on the subject:


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