Saturday, July 27, 2013

Former Bestsellers

Hey hey! There actually will be a post today! (Ugh, accidental rhymes, gah...)

The other day, I was at the Mall of America with my friend Sarah, looking around the Barnes and Noble there when we saw this sign:

I couldn't help it; I cracked up. Far be it for me to impugn the work of my fellow writers (not that it's ever stopped me or will ever stop me) I found this particular sign incredibly funny. Basically this seems to state, "Hey, these were once a really big deal but not anymore and...well, won't you buy them to make the authors feel better and so that they'll read them anyway? Because you should all read bestsellers because... reasons."

I have ambivalent feelings about the idea of bestsellers. Part of me longs to write one while also being critical of the idea of being a worthy book to read just because it sells in vast quantities. But I read bestsellers all the time - it's hard not to, they're more or less the only books places like Barnes and Noble sells and acclaimed and talked about and (very often) made into films and so I like to read them. Very often they are good books. But every once in a while I read a book that I cannot understand why it becomes a bestseller and the entire idea of such things becomes very confusing to me. And they aren't books like Twilight or Fifty Shades where it's some sort of mass sexy appeal. No, the two that come to mind are Life of Pi and Room.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel is an award-winning book that has been recently adapted into film and has been widely praised. I never got around to reading it before because someone once told me that it was incredibly boring and, back when I was worried about taking such a risk with a book, I avoided it. However, I grew older and the idea of it intrigued me - the story of a young man dealing with religion who is stranded at sea after a shipwreck with no one but a tiger for company. After the movie was made, I finally got around to reading it. And I was sorely disappointed. Perhaps I spent too much of my time reminiscing about Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, my absolute favorite book between the grades of fifth and sixth, and using unfair comparisons to how a narrative about a person stranded alone in a strange wilderness should progress and be told. But it was early in the book I found myself irreconcilably distanced from Pi, the narrator, in a way that I struggled to work through while reading. It came at the end of chapter seven, in Pi's discussion of religion and atheism:
I'll be honest about it. It is not atheist who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation (Martel 28).
I'll be as honest as Pi was - this end to the chapter infuriated me. As a person who tends to describe herself as an agnostic depending on her audience, generally just to save time (because really delving into what I believe religiously is actually a two hour discussion at best) I was kind of offended that being agnostic is akin to immobility. If anything, I find embracing doubt very powerful, not as a final resting place, but as an acceptance, an inclusion, perhaps, that we may never know certain facets of... well, anything. Something in the character's tone here seemed very preachy to me and less like narration and more like a very strong statement from the author - not that it is a bad thing. It just rubbed me the wrong way and made it very difficult for me to continue on with the book, finding the story almost too obviously constructed to me as a tale about finding God in the worst of places. I should have been able to disagree with Pi but still connect with his character, but that didn't happen - and I don't entirely know why. Also, given the ending (which I'll try not to spoil) I wondered why the author chose to tell the story in this way, using animals and anthropomorphic themes (which are really interestingly engaged with throughout the book) rather than engaging more with the memory of a narrator who may not be entirely reliable. After seeing a very unique Tennessee Williams play last weekend called Camino Real, my friend Sarah pondered (something along the lines of this; sorry as I can't remember exactly how it was phrased!) if plays were more about expressing social issues or themes while books seem to explore more character psychological development. While obviously not all plays and books follow these differentiations (and the two can certainly overlap), I think it is a really interesting way to look at how plays function versus books. Thinking on this, I can't help but wonder if perhaps Life of Pi would have made for a better play than a book and thus might have seemed less preachy to me. Maybe I should see the film and compare.

I didn't dislike the book, exactly - I just found it distancing and hard of me to read, not because I disliked the narrator (I've read many books where I've disliked the narrator but appreciated the book) but because I felt that I wasn't being affected by it the same way all those who acclaimed it had. It didn't seem entirely impactful for its story (though its after-effects and my experience reading it has been very impactful) and I felt like I was back in English class when I found a story I didn't particularly like but the teacher loved and I had the sinking feeling that I was reading it wrong. I also found myself realizing that, if I had written the book, I would have done it much differently. Which is always a difficult thing to deal with as a reader and a writer. It's not your story, you're not telling it, but there are some choices that the author makes that causes some significant tribulation to you while reading it that you have a hard time putting out of mind.
I began reading Emma Donoghue's Room yesterday and had much of the same reaction. I admit, I didn't make it much farther than the first one hundred pages of the book before shamefully giving up. I had been recommended the book by a girl I met with when I first received information about Teach for America (way back when that was under consideration) and was intrigued by it, especially as I had heard a selection performed in a Drama category of a high school speech tournament. So, I decided to read it, especially as it seemed very popular. My first attempt to read it, only a few days before I actually started it again, were bumpy - I'd been struggling to find a book to settle on and read and I was utterly distracted by the grammar usage of the narrator in the book, a five-year old named Jack. When I did read it yesterday, I felt much the same about it. While I'm all for experimental narrating, I had a really hard time dealing with the intentionally bad grammar especially given the dark nature of the story. I know it's meant to give that edge of innocence and show how Jack's view of the world is so different from only knowing an 11x11 foot room and only having his mother and the creepy Old Nick as human contacts in his life, but the story felt very slow going and I felt irritated with Jack's naivety instead of understanding that he's five-years old and of course he doesn't have perfect grammar (I'm twenty-two and don't have perfect grammar so the fact that this is even an issue for me is kind of embarrassing). I don't know why this is. Maybe it's because it seemed like he had a large vocabulary for his age but seemed incapable of understanding other things.

I feel really bad about not being able to finish Room. Really really bad. I always feel guilty for not being able to finish a book - it makes me feel like I'm weak or have lost some bet or don't appreciate literature enough or something - but I couldn't engage the story. It seemed to unintentionally trivialize what had happened to Jack's mother by having the story from Jack's perspective and make the plot slow-going (which is odd for me, usually I don't mind if a book is slower paced). But there were also moments when I was reading and thinking, "God, no, this story is far too dark, I can't deal with it." Especially in the instance when Jack's mom feels the need to tell Jack what happened to her and why the man called Old Nick is keeping her captive. I found myself wondering if I could read the book just to say that I'd read it, which is a terrible sign when reading fiction for me. While books are never just about entertainment, I often struggle when it comes to fiction if I'm not enjoying the process of reading it. Then again, I've read Lolita and thought the book was good and there is NOTHING enjoyable about reading that book.

So why am I having these reactions to these two particular books, especially ones that are critically acclaimed best-sellers? I know many people who have enjoyed them and I can't figure out what separates their reading experience from mine, especially if we have a lot in common. Is it my expectations for the book that are ruining it for me? Is it my INFJ judgmental personality? Is it my inability to deal with feeling distanced by a book? I understand that I'm not going to be able to relate with every narrator or character, but I'm so used to slipping easily into a narrator's or character's mindset that I find it really jarring when I can't. I believe in some ways it has to be a "it's not you, it's me" argument - while being a bestseller doesn't instantly mean a book is phenomenal, it does mean a lot of people have read it and some of them at least had to have been affected by it in some ways. It doesn't mean I have to read bestsellers because of this but it also means that I don't have to have the same reaction to the book. Because people are different and we all have different experiences and mindsets to draw from. We can't all react to books the same way. But I still find it frustrating when I can't see what others appreciate in something. I feel the need to draw in this Hufflepuff-attributed quote:
I think what I'm struggling with is I can't see why this "view" (or book) has been accepted (or "appreciated"). Not to say it's wrong; that part of the quote is irrelevant here. But I can't see what others see in this book. And I find it a failure on my part. Then again, I am not an omniscient being. I should really cut myself some slack.

I also find it all tied up in another debate. During the graphic novels course I took last spring, a student in class said that he absolutely believed that all art should be judged on the merits of bad and good. I wanted to leap out of my seat and argue with him but restrained myself. However, the pressure at how upset I was at this claim has never really been released and I still find myself irate about the whole thing. Art is art and judging it as bad or good is such a distraction from really discussing what's going on in a work. However, when I talk about books as I have here, I find it hard not to get wrapped up in the good versus bad debate because that's what our culture is so accustomed to in reviews. That's how we tell people what books to read or what movies to see. And while it does have its merits, I also find it kind of difficult to deal with. I love some really, really bad music (bad = cheesy, not exciting, overplayed, repetitive, annoying, etc). I dislike some really good things (certain kinds of meat, rum, the operas that I've seen) but I can still see how other people enjoy them. With Room and Life of Pi, I am blocked.

I am also blocked as to why people dislike some books I am fanatical over. Jane Eyre I understand (St. John needs to go. Really, his character drives me bonkers). But a while back I saw a review posted by someone on Facebook linking to their GoodReads account talking about how much they disliked The Elegance of the Hedgehog because it went on about philosophical things for too long. "It's fine if you enjoy that sort of thing," the reviewer essentially said, and I just found it strange that the person didn't like it. Have I ever mentioned that I make terrible assumptions at times?

The problem with books is that's its so easy to classify someone as a certain sort of person based on what they read. "Ooh, you like murder mysteries? Clearly you read Sherlock Holmes. Got a thing for fantasy? You must have read all of the Game of Throne books. Poetry? What kind of poetry? Because if you read all that emo stuff about death, then we can't be friends." Do you see what I mean? Books are a way to classify people. And when I find a book that I don't like and can't reconcile it at all but it fits the sort of classification of things I do like, I feel like I've failed myself or had some kind of identity crisis. My God, do I take book reading too seriously.

And so, I have some trepidation when reaching for bestsellers, or scooping up a new fantasy novel, or even reading additional books in a favorite series. I am terrified of finding books that I hate because books are the one thing that used to be so easy for me to enjoy. Now with every book I read, I expect it to influence me in some way and if it doesn't, I feel as if I have missed something. Where did this come from? Since when did I start to expect so much? I think it was when I seriously started writing and found what I wanted to put on the page. I am driven by certain goals in my writing, goals that border between those message of social themes and character psychology that I mentioned earlier. And once again I find myself writing between borderlands.
Which brings me to my final point: authors that I adore too much. Michael Chabon. Margaret Atwood. Neil Gaiman. J.K. Rowling (because I so terribly wish I had written The Casual Vacancy). Just to name a few. Now that I have found authors that want to read, regardless of what they write, I find it difficult to accept when others fail to meet what sort of boundary I've created in my mind. I judge art without intending too and privileged bestsellers over former bestsellers. And yet... I'm discovering writers who are not bestsellers but are absolutely marvelous. I like the idea of indie books (can you call them that?) from smaller book companies and less popular writers and unique and self-published books. There's so much to read out there, it's hard to know how to find things you're interested in. Sometimes the internet wins, as is the case with a book I won in a giveaway from the author's blog (I won something! I never win anything!). The book is Shakespeare's Lady by Alexa Schnee which I found out about because of her blog, but am so grateful to have won and read. It was really, really marvelous and I enjoyed it entirely. However, it was different from others books that I like - here recently I'm very picky about romance, especially historical romances - but I adored the book and thought it was wonderfully written.

And so, I find myself realizing that I have absolutely no idea what sort of books I like to read. I'll read anything, but what makes them a favorite of mine is a sort of grey area. It's a large part writing style, voice, characterization (for fiction, at least), methods of storytelling, and purpose. But why I can appreciate some books while others like Room and Life of Pi that so clearly have this are disliked by me, I can't really explain. Probably because people are complicated, I'm complicated, we all have complicated tastes, and if I liked all the stuff I thought I'd like, I'd really have stuck with piano and ballet. So there you are - book reading is complicated. For rambling rabbits, at least.


  1. I think I enjoyed Life of Pi when I read it, but I don't remember a great deal about the experience. I read it a year or two after it came out, so I was in my early teens, and it was back when I read a lot of things quickly and thought about them less. Your discussion of religion etc completely passed me by (or at least, I presume it did). I read it back when I wasn't too critical about what was happening in a story, I just consumed the words. As a result I often don't remember anything about most of the books I read more than a couple of years ago (or even some of the books I've read more recently), which is annoying. I don't think I'll re-read it though, it just doesn't appeal to me any more. The Room has always been on my "maybe one day if I've got nothing else to read" list after a family friend read it in her book club. I don't usually pay much attention to what the best-sellers are, because often here the best-sellers are on the list because they've been recommended by a TV personality as the "summer read" etc, and the books tend to not be my cup of tea at all.

    "But I can't see what others see in this book. And I find it a failure on my part." - I have this issue with Possession by A S Byatt. Goodreads calls it "Winner of England’s Booker Prize and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story." but I've given up on it twice, as has my mother. I just cannot get through it, and I do not see what the hype is at all. I do see it as a failure on my part in some respects - I've been thinking of giving it another go soon to see if my view has changed now it's been several years since my last try.

    In regards to your "art is good or bad" "art is art" thing (I'm feeling so eloquent today, can't you tell? >_>'), I have to add to the debate a question I have spent many hours over this year debating with my flatmate about: "Before you judge it either way, what IS art?"

    1. I wish I had Life of Pi in the same state - I think I would have enjoyed it more. I used to read books far less critically, but I think reading about writing, focusing on writing, and going to college changed that for me. For better or for worse, I'm not sure. And what is art? Such a relevant question - thank you for bringing this up! I think that's all the more the important to ask - and all the harder to answer!