Book-Ends

(This is the latest in a series I’ve been writing about how we read, why we read, and what we read. It’s, um, a bit ponderous. These things happen.)

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.

SPOILERS

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.

END SPOILERS

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.)

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8 thoughts on “Book-Ends

  1. I loved A Lady Awakened, probably for the same reasons you did. For me, it all comes down to the writing. I’ll forgive any plot issues, even a retread of the same old formula, if the writing itself rises above the dreck. One of my favorite historical writers is no longer writing–Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory. Her writing was lush and beautiful, and her characters were fascinating–one of the early ones had a drug addict hero. Her name (names!) always come to mind when I think of a book that particularly moves me.

    • A Lady Awakened is just such a good book. It (along with The Winter Sea) is what I give people when I’m trying to explain to them why I think romance is awesome. I haven’t read Judith Ivory, but Black Silk is on my TBR. Is that a good place to start with her or is there something else you’d recommend?

      I agree with you about writing, but one thing I didn’t grapple with in this post is how I would categorize a book in which I like the writing but can’t connect with the text or in which I don’t like the writing but like the text–in which my carefully delineated criteria here tell me that the book is “good” or “bad” but my emotional response to the text doesn’t fit.

      • Black Silk is a great book. It’s “denser” than some of her later books, but I like that about it. Her Judy Cuevas books are hard to find; I have both of them, somewhere on a ship crossing the Atlantic right now–in a box with a couple dozen “keepers” which I pared down severely before moving :)

        I probably don’t finish about 90% of the books I start, because the writing just doesn’t grab me. It’s too dull, too run of the mill, for lack of a better description. I find myself mostly reading historicals, though I can’t seem to write them, because the writing is typically so much better–and of course there are MANY exceptions to that, but in general, I find fewer DNF books among my historical pile.

        This summer, I went on a re-reading kick, probably because I was extremely stressed and needed “comfort” reads, so I reread some Susan E Phillips and Judith McNaught books. (And talk about a book that I connect with on an emotional level, but now can recognize many of the writing flaws–it was interesting to re-read those older books and wonder what I saw in them, even as I laughed and cried my way through them!)

  2. I think I’ll start with Black Silk then!

    While I do read a lot of contemporary, there are more historical books on my keeper shelf. And when I start to recommend romances to non-romance readers, my recommendations include more historicals. I think it’s because I think setting is really important in historical romance. I want the place where the events take place to be sort of thick and textured and to shape the plot. In contemporary, writers tend to use a lot of short-hand: it’s a small town, pretty much like any other. Or it’s a small southern town, pretty much like any other. The end.

    But this isn’t the case with historical, in which the setting plays more of a role.

    (Here for the record is the list of romances I recommend most frequently:

    The Forbidden Rose, Joanna Bourne, historical
    The Iron Duke, Meljean Brook, steampunk
    Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase, historical
    Welcome to Temptation, Jennifer Cruise, contemporary
    Written on Your Skin, Meredith Duran, historical
    A Lady Awakened, Cecilia Grant, historical
    The Chocolate Kiss, Laura Florand, contemporary
    Glitterland, Alexis Hall, contemporary/GLBT
    Something About You, Julie James, contemporary
    The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley, strong romantic elements
    The Lotus Palace, Jeannie Lin, historical
    The Siren, Tiffany Reisz, contemporary/erotica
    Snowfall, Mary Ann Rivers, contemporary
    The Sleeping Night, Barbara Samuels, historical
    Private Arrangements, Sherry Thomas, historical)

    • Oh, glad I remembered to check back here; some of those I have not read. I found it difficult to get into Loretta Chase way back when, but recently I started reading her books and liked them. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right place when I first read her? I do know that I started really enjoying historicals much more after I moved to England–maybe because I could really visualize the setting, although when they got it wrong…ouch. Barbara Samuels is one of my favorites; I met her in Albuquerque a while ago, via a mutual friend. Her contemporaries are just wonderful.

      Incidentally, now that I’ve finished reading my crit partner’s manuscript, your book is next in the queue! I can’t wait to read it. I worked in politics myself, and there’s a weird affinity you have for other campaign workers, even those from the other party, which explains the Carville/Matalin marriage. They have a lot more in common than you’d think.

      • I love Loretta Chase’s historicals. Lord of Scoundrels is my favorite, but Lord Perfect, Mr. Impossible, and Last Night’s Scandal are all terrific.

        Ack! I don’t like knowing when people are reading my books. It stresses me out.

        The Carville/Matalin book is really the third one, which will be out in January. It’s cross-party and set during a presidential campaign. The first book is about negotiation and the second about influence.

        But yes, I hope you like it.

    • Thank you!

      I’m really interested in intellectual history and it seems to me that there’s more circulation of ideas between “high” and “low” brow texts (distinctions that I have a problem with) than with middle brow. At some point, I’ll try to parse it more, but I’m glad to know someone agrees.

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