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.
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 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 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.
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.