Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It just got too boring

In fact the true postmodern novel is here, hiding in plain sight. We just haven't noticed it because we're looking in the wrong aisle. We were trained—by the Modernists, who else—to expect a literary revolution to be a revolution of the avant-garde: typographically altered, grammatically shattered, rhetorically obscure. Difficult, in a word. This is different. It's a revolution from below, up from the supermarket racks.
From the Wall Street Journal

I just read this very entertaining post from the Wall Street Journal. Basically, it discusses how more and more people are looking for novels with plot. I have nothing against Ulysses, or Lolita, or The Sound and the Fury. I've read them and, frankly, I didn't understand what was happening half the time. All those literary allusions and devices get in the way of the story. I know that these literary pyrotechnics are what make these novels great, but the fact that these novels are difficult to read are precisely the things that people don't read them in the first place.

I had a stage when I read only these "difficult" novels, thinking that they'd make me a better reader and earn bragging rights to my fellow bibliophiles. I was wrong, of course. If anything, reading these novels only made me realize how little I know of literature. (They just made me feel ignorant and stupid.) If you have severe masochistic tendencies like I do, then go ahead and read them.

Lately, I've been veering toward novels that are heavy on the plot. The argument that a novel possessing of a very engaging may not be at all well-written is laughable. Just look at the mysteries of Kate Atkinson and the police procedurals of Ian Rankin. Once you've sampled these, I doubt if you'll get the same satisfaction as when you read Grisham or Patterson. I guess having a good story and a tight narrative are the primary appeal of young adult novels. (Kids can't be bothered to read 700 pages about an Irishman who wanders through the streets of Dublin in a single day. They're smart enough to know that nothing exciting is ever going to happen.)

Perhaps the way we live now has changed our reading habits. Our hectic schedules have made us favor novels that can provide instant gratification. We no longer have the patience to go through Thomas Pynchon's labyrinthine novel that is Gravity's Rainbow or Marcel Proust's terribly slow and melodramatic novels that make up In Search of Lost Time (or Memories of Things Past). But our hunger for good writing will never go away. So now we're raving about the adventure stories of Michael Chabon and the hard-edged themes of Jonathan Lethem.

So how about you, dear reader? Are there any of these difficult novels that you've read? How has finishing them changed the way you feel about books and your reading habits?


Patrick said...

I don't think I've read any novel you would classify as "difficult". Like I always say, I read books mainly for pleasure. I don't read a book for its highfalutin ideas and words. That's why the YA genre is what mostly appeals to me. I'm into these books for the story. And I'm glad to hear more and more readers are getting into YA stuff because of this.

Peter S. said...

Hi Patrick! You really should read The Hunger Games. It has one of the most inventive storylines that I've come across.

Anonymous said...

I admit that I do get a sense of satisfaction when I finish a classic book that was difficult for me, but I don't get enough satisfaction that do it often! I do see the value in reading the difficult ones, but since I often read for pure pleasure I tend to reads those books that are fun and interesting.

lilly said...

Honestly, I have read The Sound and the Fury and enjoyed it. Not enough though to hurry into re-reading it.
I also read Ulysses because I had to write my final paper about Joyce as my Bachelor's thesis and I can safely say I will not read it or Proust or Pynchon again/at all.

Peter S. said...

@Stacy: Apparently, that's the trend nowadays. Just look at the bestseller lists!

@Lilly: Hahaha. I've read Ulysses, and I have to agree with you that it takes stamina to reread it.

Ryan G said...

I couldn't even finish Ulysses. I was so bored with it halfway through I put it down and never picked it back up again. I'm ashamed to say I felt the same way towards Moby Dick.

mel u said...

I love Gravity's rainbow-I first read it when it was initially published. I kept studying and reading the book until I came to at least in Part understand it. Even though I have not read it in the last five years it is an important part of my interior landscaping. One reason to read hard books is to build up your inner resources. Yes I agree on Ulysses. It seems to be an attempt on the part of the author to create a great puzzle. I do not see Moby Dick as a difficult book-for sure best 19th century American novel. I will read Hunger Games for sure once it is out in paperback- I also like young adult books and often found them better written than adult novels. I will say in 50 plus years of near compulsive reading I tend to read 3 or for contemporary work to one classic and I nearly always see the classic as better, but not always. Just my thoughts-

Peter S. said...

Hello, Ryan! Moby Dick! I think I've a copy here somewhere. I haven't seen it in more than 10 years I think.

Hi, Mel! I can see that when I went to your place for the book swap. I noticed that you read a lot of classics.

Thomas said...

I like Nabakov, but I refuse to waste anymore time with Joyce or Faulkner. Life is way too short.