The Problem with Hype; Or, I refuse to take your word for it

After many years, I think I’ve finally tuned into the right trade publications and book blogs to keep myself supplied with reviews and recommendations for books I will genuinely enjoy. And yet, I still shy away from personally reading books that get a lot of buzz. I’ve had this curious aversion for a while. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out that I started reading the series. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that I read a buzzy book that turned out to be so awful I’ve blocked it from my memory.

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Mosè Bianchi

I suspect that the problem (apart from my book trauma theory) is that expectations play a huge part in how I approach books. I expect books to follow or creatively break genre barriers. I expect literary books to devote a lot of time and beautiful language to exploring emotions we don’t have words for in English. And if I learn that there’s a twist, there better damn well be a great twist. When a book fails to live up to expectations, I end up disliking the book even more than I might have without all the hype in the first place. Being a book reviewer, I strive to judge books on their own merits and not my inflated expectations.

I clearly don’t worry about fear of missing out, but I am competitive about discovering books. This is as big a problem for hype-avoidance as managing my expectations. If I wait long enough, I feel like I’m discovering a book on my own instead of following the buzz.

The only thing that gets me over my avoidance of hyped books is time, lots of time. It took me thirteen years to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I might be making progress; I got around to Homegoing after only a year. I have no problem being behind the curve. Once enough time has elapsed and I’m no longer surrounded by people talking about how great the book is, only then do I feel like I can give the book a fair shake.

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Damn all cliffhangers

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Waiting for another volume in a series*.

It feels like a personal insult to read 400 pages only to find a cliffhanger. So much so, that I would like to propose a constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of cliffhangers at the end of a book. (Cliffhangers at the end of every chapter except the last would be allowed, because who needs sleep?) Jeff O’Neal of Book Riot has a rule about not reading series until all of the volumes are published. I may have to adopt this rule before I chuck my iPad across the room.

Anything I try to write past this point just turns into a rant, so I will close with my reaction to the end of Three Dark Crowns: Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh


Young Woman Reading at the Window, by Marius Borgeaud

Book Pairings; Or, I play book sommelier

This post is inspired by Laura Sackton, who wrote about “When the Books You’re Reading Start Talking to Each Other.” In the last two years, I’ve read three serendipitous book pairings that I’d like to share with the group:

8bceddffe3953d07731a586987554c90On Refugees: The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, and Live from Cairo, by Ian Bassingthwaighte

Both of these books feature desperate people who are trying to leave Egypt (or a place like Egypt). The Queue gives us a Kafka-esque battle by locals against a determinedly ineffective government. Live from Cairo also features a frustrating bureaucracy, but from the perspective of outsiders who want to help but can’t. The inside/outside perspectives on refugees casts a critical light on a broken, inhumane system.

On Reincarnations: Reincarnation Bluesby Michael Poore, and The Trials of Solomon Parkerby Eric Scott Fischl

Both of these books feature two men who get the chance to remedy their mistakes. The idea is that they are supposed to learn from those mistakes and become better men, but they go in completely different directions. Reading them close together set me to thinking about questions of human nature, whether we really can learn from our mistakes, and what it means to be good.

On HungerA Square Mealby Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe, and Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

These two books cover contemporaneous periods of time, during extreme deprivation, yet show two extremely different government responses to hardship. In the United States, unregulated speculation caused a economic collapse. So many people were out of work that existing charity was swamped and (albeit reluctantly) the government finally stepped in to help. Meanwhile, in Soviet Ukraine, impossible grain policies lead to a man-made famine that killed millions. Aid was deliberately refused. These two books are stark, fascinating contrasts.

Does anyone else have any recommended book pairs?

Bookish denial; Or, I will go down reading with this ship

Most articles about the “death of the novel” focus on declining book sales and reading rates*. A few address shortened attention spans. But Damien Walter, in this blog spot, points the finger at lack of innovation in writing. So many people prefer television, he writes, because the storytelling is better. Walter writes:

The novel has fallen behind as a storytelling medium. Not so long ago, novels were the most reliable fix of story you could find. Now they have heavy competition from box sets, video games, comics, movies and more. And here’s the really crucial issue…that contest has RAISED OUR EXPECTATIONS of what storytelling can and should.

It’s hard to argue with this. But I’m going to do it anyway.

There are innovative writers working now. In no particular order, writers like David Mitchell, the Oulipians, N.K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, and countless others have written stunningly creative books in recent years. I concede that these writers are only responsible for a small number of the total outpouring of new books in a year. Most books published these days are retreads of successful formula or, in some cases, continuations of popular series from dead authors. But the fact that there are diamonds in all that dross gives me hope that the novel is not dead. Authors are still finding ways to reinvent the form and tell brilliant stories. A reader simply has to dig to find them.

935ba1f0b76c2f619a53418022fe2a9fI blame risk-averse publishers for all that dross. (I have similar complaints about Hollywood and all the remakes.) From a cost perspective, it makes sense that publishers would spend their money on books that they know will make at least some money. It’s short-sighted, sure, but it makes sense. I resent their timidity—and not just because I frequently get déjà vu when I read book reviews in the industry magazines. I resent their timidity because the sure-bets make it harder for readers to find the good stuff.

I have hope for the future of novels, unlike Walter. I have hope because there are imprints and independent publishers who will take risks. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books have paid dividends in getting more books by and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Now, more than ever, I think more people are seeing themselves in fiction.

Another thing that gives me hope is the vibrancy of the bookish internet. Readers can help keep literature alive by swapping recommendations and geeking out about authors, and make it easier to sift through the dross. I’m happily doing my bit to spread the word about good and great books with this blog and by sending readers home from my library with stacks of books. Readers, let’s spite naysayers like Walter by talking about books and sharing our bookish joy. The novel won’t die as long as readers keep reading.


* There is some good news about this. Pew Research recently reported that more younger people are using libraries.

Cultivating My Bookish Garden; Or, Is My Library Woke Yet?

Every couple of weeks, I run a report in my library’s integrated library system* that shows me how many times books in the browsing collection have been checked out. This collection, which I am in charge of buying books for, is the home of current fiction and popular non-fiction. Reading the report has become a curiously emotional experience. On the one hand, I get a thrill when I see books that I liked get checked out. On the other, I am saddened by good books that languish on the shelf for months, waiting for their readers to come along.

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Silvana Cimieri

My library’s browsing collection has duelling goals. First, it’s supposed to encourage our students to read for fun. Second, it’s supposed to supplement my budget for literature** so that I don’t have to buy just to usual suspects***. This leaves me with a very small path to tread because people (including me) like to read crap. We need our brain candy every now and then. The brain candy doesn’t have a lot of staying power, literature-wise. In a public library, fiction moves in and out of the collection as its popularity waxes and wanes. This is kind of a problem in my library, an academic library, because we are supposed to be building a collection for the long haul. Personally, I err on the side of purchasing books that I’m fairly certain people will read.

Even though I push toward the popular end of things and buy the odd volume of brain candy, I also stock my collection with books that critics (and I) think are important. I buy books about immigrants. I buy books about racial and sexual issues. I buy books set in other countries and times to try and broaden the horizons of our somewhat homogenous student population. The problem with doing this is that I start to fall into the mindset of buying more books that people should read instead of books people will want to pick up and read. Consequently, there many books I end up putting on my own to-read shelf rather than on my to-buy-for-the-library list.

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Carl Christian Constantin Hansen

I am fully aware that my tastes in books are much darker than most people’s. Part of the reason I read so widely because I want to be able to recommend books no matter what a person’s taste in books is, even if a reader isn’t up for something like Preparation for the Next Life, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Kindred, or Americanah. My hope is that someone will come along and challenge themselves (or I can talk them into a challenge) every now and then. Until then, I can give them something a little lighter to keep them coming back.

I push so hard for challenging books is because I genuinely believe that well told stories can wake people up to the experiences of others, people they might never meet. A well told story can take a reader inside the head of someone who lives a completely different life. Seeing through someone else’s eyes is more effective, in terms of gaining empathy, than a mountain of statistics. I want my collection to be, at least, a little bit woke, as well as entertaining.

 


* An integrated library system stores all of the information about a library’s collection and patrons so that we can keep track of where things are.
** I am incredibly lucky to be in charge of buying all of my library’s fiction. This is very rare. Usually, you have to wait for an elderly librarian to die at their desk before literature becomes someone else’s responsibility.
*** Damn you, Joyce Carol Oates, for sucking up so much of my budget!

 

Jane and I

jane_austen_coloured_versionIt’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and the bookish internet has exploded in a frenzy of Austeniana. (See Book Riot for an example.) It cheers me to see how many other readers love Jane and her books. Usually, I let bookish anniversaries pass because I don’t feel the need to mark them—except for taking potshots at James Joyce and Marcel Proust when their dates come up. But when Austen comes up, I special place in my bookish heart starts to glow.

Austen’s novels were the first classics (books published before 1900 that we still read—as I define it) that I genuinely loved and enjoyed reading. With other classics, I would have issues with the language or want to grab a red pencil to edit the book down (I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens). While Austen uses language that strikes us as a little antique, her writing is clear, lively, and funny even after two hundred years of slang and mass communication. The plots hum along at just the right pace. There are never any extraneous details that distract from the tangle of personalities and schemes.

It doesn’t matter that I’ve been reading her books over and over for twenty years; I still find joy in them. Aside from the snark, what I love most about Austen’s novels are the characters. They’re so full of personality and are so well drawn that they feel real from the first page. Their problems are so universal—especially for those of us who are shy and a bit awkward about our feelings—that I always get sucked into the plots and worry even though I know everything will turn out alright in the end.

I suspect that, in addition to the humor and great characters, Austen’s novels are so good is because she was writing for herself (especially with Persuasion). Other books that are held up as Great Literature so often come along with morals or tragedy or with some kind of message written all over the plots, characters, and settings. There are depths in Austen’s novels, but they’re the kind of depths that you explore after the initial reading. We get to have our dessert first, with Austen.

Here’s to another 200 years of reading joy, Jane!

No Backstage Pass for Me, Thanks

When I was in junior high, I took a typing class (yes I am that old) for reasons I don’t really remember. I’m a fast typer now but, back then, I was hampered by my inability to leave typos and mistakes behind. I would un-type three times as much as I actually submitted later. And I still do this. The reason I bring this up is because the memory of my terribly finicky typing was the first thing that popped into my head when I read that Quarterly was offering bookish folk the opportunity to get an author-annotated hardback every month by subscribing to PageHabit.

I want no part of this.

This might sound unreasonable—and I’m willing to admit that I am being a titch bit unreasonable—but this kind of behind-the-scenes look into authorial intent and the writerly process is something I’ve been avoiding for years. (Ever since I graduated with my BA in Literature, to be honest.) I prefer to form my own opinions about what a book is trying to tell me without the author jumping in to tell me what they meant when they wrote it. And I love to argue with other readers about what a book’s meaning. Having the author’s definitive answer would settle the question too quickly for most readers.

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Richard van Mensvoort

The other reason I don’t want an author-annotated copy of a book is because it strikes me as seeing how the sausage is made. I just want to enjoy the finished product and I learned when I was an English major that analyzing the text or having someone tell you what a book mean took a lot of the magic out of it. Knowing that an author struggled with a particular stretch of dialog or that they moved scenes around would serve as a constant reminder to me that I was reading a bunch of squiggles on paper. The illusion of story is fragile enough; there are too few books that can completely transport me. When I read, I want to ride around on the narrator’s shoulders and forget about work, my illness, the cats getting up to who know’s what in the kitchen, etc. Seeing an author’s notes about how they arranged the squiggles on the page in front of me would throw off my reading groove.

What about you, gentle readers? Would you subscribe to PageHabit?

Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

Normally, I don’t think too hard about why I read what I do because I enjoy non-cozy murder mysteries, stories about restarting civilizations after plagues, and similar depressing fare. Oh I can point to my enjoyment of intellectual and ethical puzzles, but it doesn’t quite absolve me of my love of dark novels*. But a recent essay by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” got me to wondering about why readers—not just me—have made dystopian novels bestsellers for decades.

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Der alte Bücherkasten, by Friedrich Frotzel

Lepore begins with a series of plot synopses that made me realize just how dark authors have gotten in catering to our tastes for fucked up societies. Then she introduces one of her theories about why dystopias have proliferated, writing “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve turned to Wodehouse and Ben Aaronovitch to cheer myself up since the inauguration because so many things have gone awry in my country. (But that’s another blog entirely.) If I could find a utopian novel to read (they’re increasingly rare, as Lepore points out), I know that reading it would make me more depressed about politics than the actual news. Reading a utopian novel now would probably just highlight how far things have gone astray from how I had hoped. Reading dystopias is depressing, sure, but they perversely cheer me up because at least things aren’t that bad.

So far, I can agree with Lepore that we’ve lost something by not encouraging more authors to write about how the future can be something wonderful to look forward to. But then she makes this statement in the last paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

I can’t agree with this. In addition to reassuring me that at least things are that bad, dystopias remind me of the power of human endurance and that the bad times don’t last forever (though they can last an awfully long time). It’s possible that she’s reading even darker dystopias than I have, but Lepore cites The Hunger Games—which I really enjoyed because the protagonist Katniss Everdeen embodied the virtues of endurance and justice. The message I got from Katniss’ story was not that life is suffering and government is cruel and oppressive. The message I got was that, when things are not right, you fight back as hard as you can while keeping your eyes open for cynical manipulation or destructive vengeance.

Utopias make for hopeful reading, but I notice that most (if not all) of them skip over the struggles it would take to arrive in the promised land of post-scarcity and equality. Dystopias are all about struggle and sorrow and suffering and, right now, I think we need to be reminded that the fight for a future utopia is always hard but worthwhile and absolutely necessary.

But if you need a break from the struggle, it’s totally okay to go read Wodehouse** for a bit.


* This makes recommending books to people at my library tricky because so many of them tell me they’re looking for something light and fun.
** Or your favorite comfort read. I’ll even help you find something to read.

You Can’t Write Literature

In his Nobel acceptance speech (which he did not deliver in person), Bob Dylan compared himself to Shakespeare. This was not an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Rather, Dylan was pointing out that neither of them set out to write Literature. Literature happened while they were thinking about other things:

When [Shakespeare] was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” (Source)

Literature, I think, is something that exists because we all think it does. A work only becomes literature by acclaim because it captures something about the human experience in a unique and arresting manner. After all, there’s a reason why no one can agree on what belongs in the canon: we all value different subjects and styles.

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Robert James Gordon

There’s a long-standing stereotype about American writers on a quest to write “the great American novel.” I imagine that if a writer actually set out write Literature, they would either give themselves a terminal case of writers’ block or end up with a pastiche of all the great works…and it would be unreadable. It would have no soul.

While I still have a beef with the Nobel Literature Prize committee, I completely recognize how difficult it is to select one writer (of whatever genre, even song apparently) from the entire world to recognize. They are a relatively small group of humans trying to affix the Literature label to a living writer’s work. They don’t have a hundred years of hindsight to support their decision.

I hate you (in fiction)

There have been a lot of interruptions in my reading lately. First, there was the sinusitis. Then, there was the election. Now, there’s Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and a library conference. Until I finish that almost 900 page honker, I won’t be able to post reviews. In the meantime, though, I have bookish thoughts for you all. This little rant is inspired by the behemoth I am currently reading.

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Joan Llimona i Bruguera

The Crimson Petal and the White begins with a literary device that I loathe: the second person perspective. The narrator plays at being Virgil, guiding “You” through the dank, insalubrious streets of 1870s London. This device is supposed to provide immediacy by trying to get readers to imagine themselves inside the story as observers, even actors in some stories. This has never worked for me. Instead of immersing me in the story, all the second person does is constantly remind me that I’m looking at letters on a page and, in the words of Katie Oldham, “vividly hallucinate” for “hours on end.”

Once I got through the first few chapters of The Crimson Petal and the White, the Virgilian narrator cooled it with the second person and I was finally able to sink into the novel. (The fact that I was on a plane for three hours also turned out to be wonderful for my concentration.) When I had some time yesterday to reflect on my dislike-then-actually-quite-enjoy reaction to this book so far, I realized that I much prefer it when I get to recreate the setting in my own head, choosing what to pay attention to or ignore myself rather than being told by a narrator. The narrator does pop up later in the book but only to deliver snarky asides that had me snorting at inappropriate moments.

The other issue I have with the second person is that, with a few exceptions like The Crimson Petal and the White, the only time I see this device cropping up is in literary fiction or in stories written by immature authors. (By immature I mean they haven’t really grown into their craft.) Second person is tough to pull off, I’m told, though I’ve yet to see it used successfully. Like purple prose, second person perspective makes me think a writer is more interested in literary pyrotechnics than in telling a good story.

Am I being too hard on second person? It’s possible I’m judging it too harshly because I much prefer to learn about a character’s psychology or a setting than be an actor in a story myself. I really don’t like literary techniques that remind me I’m reading. It always feels like I’m being evicted from a book when I run across something like the second person, narrators breaking the fourth wall (unless it’s metafiction, but then I’m prepared), or clumsy world-building. I like to be immersed in a fictional world, but only if I do the heavy mental lifting myself. That way, the story becomes uniquely mine. The second person just screws that up for me.