Unreliable Narrator: Lit Syndrome

July 12, 2008 at 7:10 am | Posted in Book Blather | Leave a comment

(December 16, 2007)

I’ve been noticing a trend when I talk about books with other people:  I always seem to have liked the book, and the other person never does.  My attempts to convince the other person to give the book another chance, to look at it in a different way, or to appreciate what I consider subtle points are inevitably unsuccessful.  The other person, on the other hand, often has reasons to dislike the book that make me wonder if I am somehow lacking in critical faculties.  I have a theory about this.

See, I studied history in college, while many of my friends studied English.  Herein lies the secret.  Historians are taught to link bits of information, to look for unifying elements, and to try to make sense of a wide array of disparate facts and events.  We’re clue-hunters, and as we dig up evidence in our research we can’t help but feel excited.  We are learning to feel closer to the long-dead residents of the past.  Lit majors, on the other hand, are taught to reduce literature to its characters, themes, and segments of language.  The prize is to find an inconsistency or a thin plot point.  It is not enough, if one wants to earn a degree in English, to say, “Wow!  What a great book!” and stop there.  Criticism of the text proves understanding.

It’s true that most literature is redundant if seen only from the perspective of character or plot.  Take genre fiction.  All romance novels have people who fall in and out of love.  Westerns tend to have cowboys, horses, guns, land disputes, and bad guys.  War novels have, well, wars.  Sift the characters of literature, and out will come:  a hero, a detective, a soldier, a lovelorn lass, a smart dog or horse, a child, a doctor, etc.  I read somewhere that there are really only seven stories, and the number of characters can’t be that much higher.  So what else is there?  Obviously we don’t keep reading science fiction just because we want to read about another make-believe planet.  We’re looking for that vague je ne sais quoi quality known as “good writing.”

What happens, though, when we learn to define “good writing” precisely?  We start to recognize when it is lacking.  As our tastes become more refined, we see that good writing is lacking more and more of the time.  Our enjoyment of novels must, perforce, decline.  We’ve broken our ‘appreciation’ faculty and are forced to limp along on our critical faculty instead.

I’m an anomaly.  I read very little fiction.  I started dabbling in non-fiction in high school, sensing that it would broaden my tastes.  Little did I realize I would start spending most of my time in “the other half” of the library from then on.  When I consider a novel, what I see on the jacket often makes me put it back.  So much of fiction is disappointing to me, just because it seems so much larger than life.  The dialogue is always interesting.  Nobody ever stammers or says stupid things.  In a given period of time, all sorts of unusual and highly-charged events occur.  The improbable is commonplace.  It all starts to seem like one big soap opera.  In non-fiction, on the other hand, the stories are of real people, and they are tangential to some larger purpose.  I might be reading about archaeology or virus-hunting or abnormal psychology, and in all cases the personal stories are background information.  If something happens that seems improbable, well, it really happened, so how about that?

When I read fiction, then, and it seems believable to me, I am totally swept away.  I want to tell everyone all about it.  “Drop everything and read The Lovely Bones right now!”  I’m not very good at recommending books to people, though.  For one thing, I tend not to remember whether something has graphic language or violence.  For another, I’m a disciplined reader, and I’m willing to wade through 300 pages of heavy vocabulary to get to the good part of the story.  I don’t always realize that this will prove frightfully dull to my friends.  When I have to return a library book before I’ve finished it, it’s because I was reading too many other things at once and I couldn’t keep up, not because I decided to reject the book.  That’s the other problem:  I read constantly, so it’s possible my expectations aren’t as high if a particular book represents less than one percent of what I’ll be reading that year.

Regardless, I’m comfortable with my situation.  I could no sooner stop enjoying a book that I liked than stop enjoying eating garlic.  There is truly no accounting for taste.  Yet I will still wistfully keep trying to convince my friends to enjoy books they didn’t much care for, in the same way I wistfully wish people would be more eager to try to eat tempeh.


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