Monday, July 23, 2012

The deceptively easy read

Reading Krystal’s subtle and savvy piece, it struck me that our talk of guilty pleasures involves two controversial assumptions: that some books (and perhaps some genres) are objectively inferior to others and that “better” books are generally not very enjoyable.  Combined, the two assumptions lead to a view under which, to pick up Krystal’s metaphor, we think of books the way we often think of foods: there those that are “good for you” and those that merely “taste good.” 

Just as I'm posting a comment (admittedly a self-justifying one) below which tries to make the case for books that are enjoyable, entertaining and easy, I happen upon this piece on the NYT blog. I don't agree with the author's contention that we prejudice physical work over intellectual work ie. Running marathons, climbing mountains and competing at high levels in tennis or basketball are very difficult things to do, but people get immense enjoyment from them.  Why should the intellectual work of reading “The Sound and the Fury” or “Pale Fire” be any less enjoyable? The  intellectual equivalent of recreational sports are puzzles and games; crosswords, Sudoku, and the ultimate calisthenics of the mind chess etc. which are very popular and can be difficult. I think people get as much pleasure (maybe even more) from an intellectual challenge as a physical one. My contention about the value of a so-called 'difficult' read versus an 'easy' one would be that it's essentially a false dichotomy. Very often books initially dismissed as 'easy' eventually, over time, turn out to be, sophisticated and influential eg. Raymond Chandler, while books respected for their so-called complexity and influence end up being unreadable and more talked about than actually read eg. Joyce's Ulysses. Books considered masterpieces in one era end up forgotten, just as others are re-discovered as long-forgotten masterpieces. Wasn't Shakespeare once considered popular theatre, the soap opera of his day? It seems to me that there is a difference between suffering through a book and enjoying the challenge of one (as one might do with a good crossword). Even so-called complex novels have a responsibility to the reader, and that is never to bore him. Admission: I couldn't finish \The Sound and the Fury. It bored me to tears.

Well, they can't all be positive reviews

Rotchin is great at evoking the deep sense of ambivalence we all feel for some of our family members; those towards whom we feel a duty, rather than a genuine bond.

Which goes to show that even from a pretty negative review you can glean something blurbable.

Of course, the reviewer misses the mark in a half dozen ways; for one, the protagonist is not middle-age (unless you consider 65 middle-age). She criticizes the book for being from his "warped and bitter" point of view, writing that the omission of other family perspectives as "relief" were a "missed opportunity." This is meant to be Mort's side of the story, period. It's meant to be unrelenting. Nevermind that other reviewers found the narrative charming, to criticize a book for what it should have been instead of for what it is or tries to be, is like saying Szechuan doesn't taste enough like pizza. Clearly, satire is not to this reviewer's taste. Read more.

And one comment which has been common to almost every review, which I find very interesting. They've all said that the book was "entertaining" or "enjoyable," even the negative ones, also that it's a "quick" or "easy" read. For me, an enjoyable, entertaining and easy read are enough, and exactly what I was after in writing the novel. In terms of my objectives, I'd add "funny," which thankfully, many reviewers have perceived. Much of the critical comment on the book stems from whether the reviewer thinks this is enough. It's certainly not if you come to a novel with preconceived notions about what a novel should do, which, in the case of this reviewer is to offer "deep insights into human nature," and explore "ethnic segregation and tension." This was never my goal or intention. I'm at the stage in life where a thimble of laughs is more valuable than a vat of "deep insights." I wanted to write a novel for readers not reviewers. Comparing the reception of my two novels, reviewers were generally very positive while readers tended to be mystified by my first. With the second, the reverse seems often the case. It makes me wonder about the difference, and the challenge of writing something that bridges the gap, or even if that's necessary. Maybe the reviewers will eventually catch up to the general readers.