In which a bunch of things I’ve been reading come together in my mind; or, in which I go off from nowhere in particular on a variety of tangents.
A lot of my time (though predictably, never enough!) in the past week or so has been given to re-reading books for my fall class and thinking about the structure of the class and the kinds of assignments I want to create. How do I want my students to think about (children’s) literature and what it can be and do? What are the big questions this class is going to explore?
In this state of mind, I discovered Remittance Girl’s great response to a Chuck Palahniuk essay urging writers to cut all the “thought” verbs out of their fiction. I don’t think Palahniuk’s advice is useless; exposition (i.e. telling) badly done is painful to read, and I don’t want an author to spell so much out for me that there’s nothing left to interpret. On the other hand, as Remittance Girl points out, the abstract and internal are as much a part of life as the concrete and external. One thing prose story-telling has over film is that it’s easier to represent those parts. (I find Palahniuk’s claim that movies have made audiences more sophisticated about storytelling ridiculous. Human beings have been telling stories since . . . well, at least since the dawn of language, I expect, and we suddenly figured out how to do it right in the last 100 years or so because we developed a new medium to do it in? Readers and listeners were/are less sophisticated consumers of stories than viewers? Why?)
I know I’m biased (or informed) by years of studying Victorian novels, but I believe one “purpose” of the novel is to represent psychic interiority, or subjectivity. If I want to interpret what people are thinking and feeling from external cues, I have movies and real life. One reason I love reading fiction is to spend time with and in other minds, to be reminded that other people have an interior life as real to them as mine is to me. I suspect one reason I like reading romance is its emphasis on deep point of view and states of mind and heart.
My real problem with Palahniuk’s advice is the same one I have with any writing advice of the always/never variety: why would we want all books to be alike? There are many different readers, and every reader has many moods. I want different stories, told in different ways. A chorus of voices has been making this point in one way or another lately:
I loved this post by Daniel Kenney on how sometimes maybe you shouldn’t kill your darlings, because we need the quirky books that attract a small but passionate readership. (via Cecilia Grant, to whose books I am passionately devoted).
Meoskop wrote about “Reading Asexually,” and how her own reading interests have changed (this post is really great and honest).
Willaful skimmed a TBR challenge read that didn’t work for her, but commented that “I might have loved it a few years ago, when intensity was everything to me.”
And a few weeks in the Vorkosiverse prompted these thoughts from Ruthie Knox:
I’ve been thinking, vis-à-vis Bujold’s work, that it’s hard to know sometimes why books grab us and refuse to let go. But that there is a way in which we take from fiction what we need, when we need it, and I’m so grateful for the variety of genres and options out there, because I’m always looking for something, but I don’t always know what it is.
In fact, I’m interested lately in all the different needs and wants we fulfill in reading romance, and how our reading changes depending on what’s happening in our lives. This inherent heterogeneity in reading makes it silly to say “Romance readers want X,” because the truth is that some readers want X and others want Y — I mean, of course — but also sometimes I want X and other times I want Y or even Z. And sometimes I loved X when I was younger but then wasn’t interested in X anymore, and all of this is completely legitimate.
Knox’s comments resonated particularly with me, because I’ve been spending some time in the Vorkosiverse myself. I’d been hoarding Bujold audiobooks in my TBR (TBL?), doling them out slowly. And then suddenly I thought, why? For one thing, I have at least a dozen left. For another, my pleasure in these books doesn’t depend on not knowing what’s going to happen.
In fact, I can’t wait to be re-reading them, to see how my response to the earlier books I’m on now (I just finished Cetaganda) will change when I come back to them–as I know I will–having read/listened to later books in the series. And I wish my middle-aged reading could be informed by having started to read them first 20 years ago, both because they would have spoken to me then and because I wonder how my perspective would have changed with age. (The joke in all this is that Bujold linked one of my reviews of her as an example of a young person’s perspective, so I guess I somehow did read them as a 20-something?)
Here are some of the reasons I’m loving these books: they are about some of the big questions about what it means to be a grown-up, questions that would have mattered to me at 20 and that I’m still (re)figuring out at 45. Miles is caught in a complex web of relationships–to his parents, his mentors, his superior officers, his childhood friends (one of whom is now his emperor), his dependents and followers. How does he balance these competing responsibilities? Ambition and duty? His obligations to others and his need to be (and prove) himself? What other people want him to be and what he desires? Is a Barrayaran military career really the best role for him, much as he wants it? Who and what should he be? These are all questions I’ve negotiated and renegotiated for myself over the years, if not so dramatically.
I guess what I’m really saying is that these are books that would work for me in many moods and at many ages, because they’re so rich. I loved Shelley Ann Clark’s post on the way her reading of Elizabeth Marie Pope’s The Perilous Gard (another book I discovered in adulthood but would also have loved earlier in my life) changed over many years. I would have liked to grow up with Miles in this way. I’ve always loved books with romance in them, but the books that I’ve read and re-read over the years because they speak to me deeply aren’t about romantic love. I think of them, grandiosely, as soul-making books, books that help me think about who I am and want to be (although who I want to be as a romantic partner is part of that, the books that spoke to me about that came later in my life). For me, that’s books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light
or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. I think, really, these are books about love of all kinds, and about courage, something I’ve always felt I lack. It’s a quality Miles, and others of Bujold’s heroes and heroines, has in spades, but sometimes in surprising forms. No wonder I love them so.