Saturday, February 11, 2012

Every book its reader

The conventional wisdom about an exercise program goes: if you miss a day or two, don't dwell on it - just start again. Substitute "blog" for "exercise program" and "six months" for "a day or two," and here I am. I cleaned up the blog roll a little, and now I'm just going to jump back in. And let me tell you: this entry is about a lot of really big ideas that greater minds than mine have considered. So, caveat: I know that I'm just a person who likes to read, and read some articles and books, and has opinions. I'm not claiming to be an expert of any kind. Oh, and one more caveat: this is gonna be long.

Okay, caveats gone. Here's the sequence of events that led to what I wanted to write about:

1. I read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and loved it.
2. I read about the comments made by writers Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the New York Times Book Review's bias toward white male readers. Some firsthand stuff, some secondhand. My initial reaction, to be honest, was defensive annoyance. (Keep reading; stay with me.)
3. Over a year passed, during which I heard a couple of friends say they hadn't enjoyed Freedom, one of the main reasons cited being the way Jonathan Franzen wrote the female characters in it, particularly Patty.
4. I read this article in the Phoenix about NPR's own lopsided ratio of male-to-female author coverage.
5. I decided that before I made any more judgments about this whole thing, I should read one of Jennifer Weiner's books, so I checked out Good in Bed from the library.
6. After I finished it and I was thinking about this entry, I caught up with an episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, an NPR podcast you should be listening to, where they were talking about some of these very issues. Namely, they discussed fiction and the ways it can be enjoyable and difficult, and what constitutes "literary" fiction.

I've been thinking a lot about all this, and let's just get a few, perhaps contradictory statements out of the way first: I enjoyed parts of Good in Bed, but ultimately did not like it very much. I consider myself a feminist. While I love Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" and believe in its pragmatic message of "just try harder," I also don't think that's the only piece of the moving-toward-equality puzzle. And (this may be the most revealing of all, but not a surprise to those who know me), yes: I was an English major.

Because I was an English major, and taught by faculty who focused heavily on language, I came out of college thinking that in literature, the style of a novel or story or poem should support the substance. Words should do the double duty of conveying literal meaning, but also characterizing a person, or creating a mood, or pulling a thematic thread throughout the work. I think the best books do that. But even writing that phrase "best books" feels reductive. Maybe great books is a better phrase. Even by saying "great books," I realize I'm making a personal judgment sound like an abstract one. It's still personal. The books I personally love best do this: Mrs. Dalloway. The Poisonwood Bible. A Visit from the Goon Squad. Possession. And yes, The Corrections. (All, with one glaring exception, by female authors.)

I think it was Glen Weldon on the episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour that described Isaac Asimov's prose as "workmanlike." That's how I felt about Good in Bed. When describing a character, Weiner sometimes (not always) gave a list of physical characteristics or clothing that (I felt) were meant to help me visualize the person rather than help to characterize the person. Early in the book, the main character literally looks in the mirror and describes herself. That's all fine; it's just not what I enjoy reading.

I also feel that great books should be, in some way, challenging. Take A Visit from the Goon Squad. Did the chapter told in PowerPoint slides put me off? Yeah. But the rest of the book was so creative and good, and gave me so much to think about, that I accepted it. I guess I can let slide a lot of other things if I feel like either a) the prose is beautiful enough to carry me through, b) I feel like I can trust the author when things get a little screwy, or c) both. Sometimes there are things I might not get; sometimes there are insights a reader might have that the author never thought about. No two people will ever really read the same book.

Also, one of the reasons I read is to learn about, or live for a little while with, ideas or people I didn't know anything about before - to have new experiences. I don't always want to read about people like me, though I have, and that's fine too. I guess I could contrast that with the fact that I don't necessarily want to read a kind of fantasy fulfillment plot, which is how I felt about Good in Bed. I was totally on board with a book about a woman I didn't have too much in common with, until unlikely coincidences and great fortune steered the book into romantic-comedy territory. I am not knocking romantic comedy - I guess I just prefer it in film.

Coming back to the gender question, I didn't feel one way or the other about how either Franzen or Weiner wrote their female characters. I didn't particularly recognize myself or any of the women I know in either Cannie Shapiro or Patty Berglund, but that wasn't central to my enjoyment of either book. (I will say, though, that I wish the daughter Jessica in Freedom had either gotten more attention or been left out entirely.) I don't think that either was a "truer" representation of women. I also know several intelligent people who would probably disagree with me there.

I have no doubt that there is male bias at both NPR and the New York Times Book Review, because there's male bias in every part of our society. Both men and women are guilty of it, and women should demand equal coverage in these outlets. Equal coverage, but honest reviewing. And this is where it gets tricky. Because what gets a good review? Are reviewers privileging male voices by reviewing male authors' books well? Maybe there is some of that going on, but I think the problem is that there's an idea of abstract goodness or badness.

I read book reviews in a professional capacity - I have to decide what to buy for the library. That's why I appreciate review publications like Library Journal, that identify books as "for fans of X author" or "readers of Y type of fiction" rather than ranking them in some kind of literary hierarchy. They're subscribing to two of S.R. Ranganathan's five laws of library science: Every book its reader; Every reader his [or her] book. There are readers who like Good in Bed; I don't happen to be one of them. There are readers who like Freedom; I happen to be one of them. I don't think anyone should be forced to read something they don't enjoy just because some outside person or publication says it's the best book ever.

I'll leave it there. I could go on even longer (!) about several ideas in this post, and I probably will in the future. If you're still reading, thanks for indulging my desire to write about things I think about. That's what I really love. A Room Full of Books: back with a vengeance!