Here's a question for you: Do you think that a consensus of opinion has any role in assessing the quality or effectiveness of a work of fiction?
I would argue that consensus is virtually meaningless whether the work is consigned to literary or genre (and both cross over, as the centuries have taught us). Perhaps the idea is not to agree on a book's merits but to discuss them.
If there is no absolute taste, then perhaps the point of talking about books is to become more conscious of their complexities, more awake to the levels of awareness, style, characterization and sense of form they offer.
The point, I think, is to sharpen one's own tool set and avoid being told how to feel or think, avoid being conditioned to react to the attempt.
I've read stunningly well-argued essays on the worthlessness of novels I absolutely love, and walked away feeling even greater certainty, greater clarity of mind, about my conclusions precisely because the opposition laid theirs out so carefully.
I've read quite often on these forums that some people feel Flaubert is boring. No offense to them, but I find him to be exciting: He's a male writer who made a concerted effort to understand what it was like to be each of his main characters, most notably women, and his success absolutely floors me in an age when you're only supposed to write from your own experience.
and A Simple Heart
, as boring as they might be to some, taught me more about becoming
one's female characters than a stack of fast-paced adventure novels ever did. And I don't find those stories boring at all: I can see the research Flaubert must have had to absorb to write from the points of view of his characters.
In order to write Bouvard and Pecuchet
-- which he didn't even finish -- he read something like two hundred books so that he could write precisely about every wrong turn into ignorance his characters happened to take. Same with Huysmans and A Rebour
. Same with George Eliot, master of the mercurial point of view. She can become absolutely anyone, it seems.
Why do I care about this? Because my mother taught Shakespeare, and his ability to become his characters meant tons to me. Because I admired John Keats beyond reason and was altered permanently by his letter to a friend, in which he outlined his idea of Negative Capability
: The ability to step outside oneself and become the people in the forest, the forest itself, the day moth fluttering downward to its death, the soldiers rallying to die, the gods and angels mating among tangles of cloud-rags overhead.
It's not boring, friends. It's absolutely thrilling.
I lost track of the name of the MR member above who said he found Ulysses
slightly boring. I don't share that opinion, but I think it's an interesting one. Here's the question I'd like to ask of that member (and I mean it in the friendliest way possible): If you'd had the power to tell Joyce how to revise Ulysses
, what would you have told him to do to make the book less boring?
is a book that has to fascinate the reader in terms of associations, wordplay, puns in several languages, allusion, music and linguistics -- all interlock, interweave, move independently, like counterpoint that bristles and climbs into lyricism en masse, but also like a complex overlay that becomes the focus even more than the narrative. The framework is there -- classical allusion and its mock-epic translation into a day in the life -- but like story in an Argento flick, it is not the artist's main concern. If you like Joyce's mix, then I say enjoy it without feeling like a snob. If not, then read something else without feeling like a leper.
A lighter and wittier writer with Joycean moments might be Flann O'Brien (a/k/a Brian O'Nolan). See if you like or prefer his At Swim-Two Birds
Things I've been reading lately: Virginia Woolf in MR member Pynch's gorgeous new epub version; James's The Bostonian
; Raymond Roussel's New Adventures of Africa
(doesn't quite work as an e-book yet -- too complicated typographically!); Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star
; Gissing's New Grub Street
(reputed to be the truest novel ever written about the life of an author).
This along with the less-literary: Thomas Ligotti's Teatro Grottesco
, Bertrand Russell's Mysticism and Logic
, Samuel Delany's new novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders
(which I'm reading because our magazine is publishing its missing chapter in our next issue).