Saturday, December 11, 2010

I'm a Bigot.

I'll admit it. I am a fiction bigot. I am prejudiced when it comes to what I read. I am on a quest to read the best fiction I can find. So in my prejudice I scour the book reviews and the fiction awards. I'm one of those annoying people at the writers conference standing in the corner with the group leaders arguing the merits or lack thereof of this year's Pulitzer or Man Booker winner. In short, I'm a snot.

I fear I'm prejudiced against books that are— I confess it here— fun to read. The kind of book you can blast through on one rainy day. Granted, some of these books— some of them bestsellers— are, well, rather poorly written. But certainly not all are. There are certainly sufficient books out there that are both well-written and fun. Dare I say— exciting. But when I read them why do I turn into a Puritan trapped in the appurtenances of sin?


The confession is prompted by a quote I read today:

There's a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we're even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won't supply them. - Phillip Pullman.

Have I been fleeing from good stories for fear of reading bad books? My mother never allows my father to tell dirty jokes in her presence, saying she doesn't want that sort of thing in her head. Am I doing the same, with a self-installed warning system that goes off if I'm enjoying myself too much? How did story become the enemy of good writing?

I've mentioned a friend who forgave and enjoyed some truly bad movies (trust me) by saying "it's just a good yarn!" Well, I was looking at the stack of books I read last month that have not yet made it upstairs to the fiction shelves. There are a couple in there that were both literary fiction, both well-written, critically well-received and, well, high-concept. They have a central plot idea that can be stated in a short sentence. They are Emma Donoghue's Room and Ali Shaw's The Girl with Glass Feet. I enjoyed both. And felt guilty.

But turn this on its head. Let us consider Tana French. Wonderful writer of mysteries. Fantastic way with the English language. And her books are as packed with high-concept story as anyone could want. And I feel no guilt reading her books. Is it because they are firmly planted in a genre?

Much as I hate to do it, let me paraphrase George Bush. Or rather, one of his speechwriters, who was writing about the school system with the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Maybe that's what I have. I pick up the occasional genre novel and am so delighted if the writing is good that it becomes a memorable book. While waves of literary novels pass through to my "already read" pile with little notice and I applaud myself for getting through another award winner.

The entire fault, then, is not in genre. It's perfectly possible to find good and even great writing in genres. What is letting me down is literary fiction. Because in that same stack of books that I finished last month are a couple of books I either shut early or wish I had. They were— I admit it here— boring. One was a recent Pulitzer winner. And the writing— my reason for buying it in the first place— was all very nice and clean, but you know what it wasn't? Good. Great. It was all perfectly functional, but it was bland. Another book I just finished on audio read like a 600-page excuse to insert a couple of dozen of the author's most closely held political views. Views I agreed with and enjoyed and found very clever and worthy, but the other 575 pages? Oy. Stick a fork in it, already.

So I'm sorry, award committees out there in the Land of the Literary, you fail. You are failing miserably. Not just the Nobel committee that says it will never again hand the literary prize to an American, but all y'all. You are suffering from the same narrow-minded bigotry I am. You're awarding too many boring books. Story is not the enemy!

I shall take baby steps to recover. I shall not buy award winners by reflex. I shall trust reviews more than awards, and seek out more reviews from more sources. I shall eagerly await Tana French and Ali Shaw and Emma Donoghue's next books. Heck, I was going to do that anyway.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

p.s. I have the latest Man Booker winner here in my to-read piles: Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question. It is supposed to be *gasp* funny. Heaven forfend! Man Booker committee, I hereby issue you a temporary reprieve.

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