Sunday, June 08, 2014

Our Times and Contemporary Literature

   Being an academic has made me less inclined to read serious literary fiction. After hours of poring through microfilm reels in search of the occasional relevant fact, stumbling through a work of difficult theory with pen in hand, or doing a mandatory 6 hour stint in a library with two recent books in my field fact-checking over and over again, it's hard to want to come home, as I tried to do my first year in graduate school to Fielding's Tom Jones. In the age of VHS, I followed the advice of one dear friend and finished off each day of prelim-exam reading by watching a movie and drinking a glass of wine.  I did something similar when revising my book on a tight deadline one summer, knocking off at the end of the day with DVDs of Homicide.
  Before that, I was what was recently called a book girl. I always read promiscuously:  conspicuously carrying Kafka's essays with me to punk rock shows at fifteen but delighting equally in Agatha Christie mysteries read one after another during winter and summer vacations. I also recall the greatly satisfying experiences of reading what I knew was serious literature:  Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye both read during the summer in Texas; one summer in college, working in a university library and dragging home piles of things from the PQ section...Latin American and French literature in translation by the backpack load.  One year in college, when the wealthier students took off from the private New England school I went to for their expensive spring-break holidays, I decided to stay on campus reading novels (A Hundred Years of Solitude at the time)  rather than going home or to New York to visit family. "Novels?" an ex-boyfriend said, "YOU read novels?" Not a pleasure-reader, he thought I meant Jackie Collins, which is what his mother and her friends read. (No, I have never enjoyed that particular swath of bad books)
    Now, I feel very nostalgic about my pre-professional days, in high school, before graduate school, and some points in my adjunct days of riding trains between Brighton Beach and NYU, before I was working on a book and could read without being strategic about the use of my time. I often think back fondly to that 6 month period when I worked in the Hamptons, made regular trips to Canio's bookstore and read Toni Morrison, Phillip Roth, Herman Melville, and Umberto Eco either before or after going off to work in a restaurant, and those months after finishing my dissertation involving weeks spent with Heinrich Boll, Katherine Anne Porter,  Robert Graves, and William Faulkner. If I were to read this way today, however, I would need an excuse of "reading it for my book" or I would always feel like I should be using that valuable time to read some half-baked Deluezian meditation or a highly specialized book about this topic of mine. My anxiety mounts with each inch added to the "to-read" pile. By contrast, there is always time to read a detective novel, especially if it's an audiobook that can be listened to on an elliptical trainer, while driving, or doing chores around the house. These novels are absorbing and can be settled into, some deliberately cozy, but all like a familiar favorite meal, and they are not without insight into human character or social problems, and are not always so inattentive to language as you might expect.
     I'm thinking about this now having just finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and then reading some of the good and bad reviews. I could not deny that I liked it. I read it quickly and enjoyed it, but it didn't seem to me as weighty or deeply insightful or as linguistically delightful as what I think of when I say something is "great literature."  But what is that quality?  Is it just about the use of language?  That's what Francine Prose's negative review suggests. She attacks the prose at the sentence level and faults the sentimental ending, generalizes it to the larger problem, "Doesn't anyone care how something is written anymore?"  Similarly, Jonah Seigel wonders, if the cliche-ridden but gripping Goldfinch is a literary novel, then what makes any novel literary?  Has this category become just another genre, he wonders - "quality fiction?"  I agree that there is a problem for serious literature. I know this from friends who are writers - it's difficult to sell difficult books and find readers unless you are a star. Will Self 's  recent essay bemoaning the hostility to difficult novels and complacent philistinism traces the problem to the distracted minds called away from reading by the internet.  But before highspeed internet, changes in publishing and bookselling, as well as the middle-brow reviewing industries (Oprah, NPR) were problems as well. Too many of the criticisms of this middlebrow reading, which often come from rightly frustrated writers, attack the good-book-starved readers who have eschewed difficult literature for the ease and entertainment of the high-middle brow or the unapologetically "low" zones of commercial fiction.
     Judging from my own limited experience - of mostly American academics, who read difficult and serious work constantly, but unless they are literature professors, rarely read serious fiction - the problem is that the members of the social class for whom such difficult novels are generally written no longer feel that they have the time  to invest in reading them.


Iris said...

Really interesting. Need to think about it. I hope you keep blogging on the subject of reading . . .

reb said...

thanks for posting!