Over at Dear Author today, Janet writes about how the specialness of books should be determined by readers:
If anyone should be deciding whether books are special, it should be readers. No, let me correct that. Anyone can believe that books are special. Authors, publishers, editors, cover artists, marketing advocates – whoever. But the only people who should be deciding for readers if and when and which books are special, are readers.
I agree with this whole-heartedly, as I do with most of the piece. Books are consumer goods whose use value is determined by the reader. Their worth isn’t intrinsic. While gatekeepers like marketers, reviewers, booksellers, teachers, academics, and other readers influence these determinations–insofar they shape our taste and teach us how to read/make meaning from texts at all–it is ultimately the individual with the book on her couch or on the subway who decides if Moby-Dick was worth the slog.
To the extent that anything separates books from other consumer goods, it is that books in their physical or digital form are unfinished. We must decode them. And I do think that the reading experience provides a more intimate communion with books than consumption does with many other consumers goods. When I read, I have a reading voice in my head that repeats every word (or every few words if I’m skimming). I literally re-articulate everything the writer transcribed (and which editors, formatters, etc. shaped) and then filter it through my education, my past reading experiences, my mood, and so on in order to decide what it means. This is a somewhat different experience than eating an apple, wearing a shirt, or even looking at a picture.
I don’t think that my Moby-Dick is necessarily your Moby-Dick. And my Moby-Dick isn’t the same as when I first read the novel seven years ago. Today’s would be shaped by the first and the subsequent reading experiences. A rose is a rose is a rose: the first rose isn’t the last.
We must “finish” other consumer goods, of course, either by assembling them (e.g., Ikea furniture), making things out of them (e.g., groceries), etc., and we do have to decode other cultural goods, like film, music, and television, but books have always seemed different to me both because I value them more but also because the process takes longer. I’m a fast reader, but it still takes me four to eight hours to read a 70,000-100,000 word novel. I’m going to spend a lot of time with the writer (and the editor, etc.) in my head. And the form in which I’m going to experience a book is closely aligned with the form in which it was produced. A writer wrote on a page and I’m looking at a page, or a screen as the case may be. This may give books a sort of…liveness that other cultural productions don’t have. (I’m not sure what to call this quality.)
So books aren’t special but they are participatory in a way that marks them among consumer goods.
When reading Janet’s piece, I thought also about Elyse’s essay from last week at Smart Bitches Trashy Books in defense of romance novels. In the piece, she talks about studying classical literature at school and disliking, among others, Virginia Woolf.
I agree with the main thrust of her argument: we should read what we want, we shouldn’t let gatekeepers make us feel ashamed about our reading, and the classic literary canon has a set of values that ignore certain narrators and actors. I’ve written before in defense of romance (here and here) and these ideas were all present in those posts.
But I’ve also had powerful experiences with classic literature.
So in thinking about both pieces and myself as reader, I wanted to lay down the steps I go through in evaluating books. What makes a book special to me? What makes a book good to me? How would I explain the merits both of literary fiction and of romance?
For what it’s worth, here’s how I evaluate texts in five easy questions:
1) How is the text written?
Is it a sonnet? A fairy tale? A prose oscillation between discussions of whale anatomy and a ponderous narrative about the workings of a whaling ship? A breezy historical romance? A dense, dark contemporary novel? A lyric meditation on redemption, punishment, and convention?
I want to know what a text is up to formally and thematically because genre defines my expectations. The text can either give me what I expect or flip me the literary middle finger. Either choice can be good.
2) What’s the relationship between the form and the content?
Good texts show mastery of form–either because I can’t imagine the story being told any other way or because there’s wonderful tension between the form and the story. A novel I think is a perfect marriage of form and content is Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea. It’s not the first divided timeline novel I’ve read; it’s not even the first divided timeline romance. Instead, it’s a hybrid of romance and historical fiction with gothic elements. It’s formally and thematically complex. But the way the pieces comment so perfectly on each other and the way genre both defines what the piece will do but keeps me guessing are terrifc.
One short example the latter approach is W.B. Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan.” It’s a sonnet, a personal form often associated with romantic love, used to here to tell a story about violence and rape. For me, the tension between the two works. Pop Sonnets are other, more fun, examples.
3) Is the text reproducing the form or making it fresh?
I used to think that the difference between literary and genre fiction was that literary fiction was more concerned with form and genre fiction was more concerned with content. But I realized that was wrong because genre fiction is very, very much concerned with how it’s written. Indeed formal questions might be more important in genre fiction than in literary fiction. A romance isn’t a romance without a happy ending, a mystery that doesn’t reveal the killer will likely be controversial, etc.
And literary fiction–which I’d thought of as formally experimental–doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t engage with long-standing thematic debates. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons might be impossible to categorize, but its endurance speaks not only to the text’s refusal to do what we expect it to but also to its commentary on gender and sexuality.
So what I really mean here is whether the text transcribes the genre or explodes it.
I’ve read many, many historical romances set in the Regency and early Victorian periods. There’s typically a debauched or experienced hero with a title who has set about seducing or pursuing an innocent heroine for some reason. Along the way, he’s going to discover he’s been seduced into love. There is a set of standard settings (e.g., White’s, Almack’s, balls, morning visits, house parties, etc.) and a general practice for pacing. The couple will kiss for the first time between the 30% and 50% mark. They will sleep together around 70%. The sex will be revelatory and amazing. It will be followed closely by a black moment and then a gesture of love or groveling that will bring about the happy ending.
To be clear: I enjoy this even when it is reproduced fairly closely. Even within this frame, writers can do interesting things with characters and voice. But I think the best historical romances take this and turn it into something new. For example, A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant subverts at almost every turn my historical romance expectations. A mildly spoiler-y discussion follows.
If you squint, A Lady Awakened looks a bit like what I’ve laid out. No one has a title, but the main characters are landed gentry of the sort Jane Austen wrote about. Theo is rakish. Martha, while a widow and not a virgin, is comparatively innocent. But neither is what the other assumes. They are textured and complex and over the course of the novel, they become more so.
When they commence their physical relationship, it’s almost immediately because she’s paying him in order to perpetrate a fraud (albeit for moral reasons). And the sex is delightfully, amazingly awful. The willingness of the text to represent sex that’s not sexy or revelatory is genre-changing. It’s honest and brave and unexpected. As is that Theo and Martha don’t fall in love immediately. It’s a delicate shuffling marked by their conversations and their physical relationship. They change in subtle, diffuse ways over the course of the book. And the black moment isn’t solved through an attitude change, as is often the case. They must sacrifice and damage other relationships to be together.
So A Lady Awakened is identifiably a participant in a genre while simultaneously either taking pieces of the expected narrative arc and subverting them (i.e., the representation of sex) or rejecting them (i.e., titles). This kind of book is going to be more interesting to me than one in which the translation of generic pieces is more straight-forward.
(Digression: in this way, I suspect that there’s a stronger relationship between “literary” and “genre” fiction than there is between either literary or genre fiction and middle-brow or general fiction. Literary fiction is necessarily interested in experimentation and genre fiction in a meta-discussion of tropes; it’s texts in the middle that don’t do either. I further suspect that most of the dissing of genre fiction that occurs comes from the middle.)
4) Does the text tell me something new?
This might be something new about the form. It might be something new about human psychology. It might be something new in terms of voice or characterization. But I’m going to ask myself whether I’ve seen the text and the people in it before.
And if I have, I’m going to be less interested it in.
I don’t necessarily have a ratio of newness I require. How much will satisfy me is largely related to my last question…
5) Is there some sort of gravity pulling me through the text?
It might be the plot. Do I want to know what’s going to happen?
It might be the characters. Am I enjoying the voice and am I invested in finding out what happens to them? Not do I like them, which is an unrelated question, but do I care about them achieving their goals?
It might the writing. Is the text beautiful and different and surprising and do I want to read more of it?
It might be my emotional connection with the text. Is it surprising and delighting me? Is it horrifying me?
It might be didactic. Is the text teaching me something I want to know or think I should know?
So I’d call a text good and special if it shows a mastery of its chosen form, if there’s a productive relationship between the form and the content, if the formal choices are fresh, if it tells me something new, and if I feel compelled to finish it.
And I’ve read high, middle, and low brow lit (or literary and genre lit) that makes my cut.
What are your criteria for specialness or literary merit?
(ETA: I fixed a few typos.)