Reading has been a bit sketchy lately for me. For the first time in a very long time, I abandoned three books in a row only 30 pages in. The books seemed somehow less than… More
Full disclosure here: I am querying agents for a novel I am writing, and overall, I feel the less said about this the better. It only makes me alternately hyped up or sad, and neither feeling is really a pond I’m up for swimming in right now. The process is complex and requires attention to tiny details (first 5 pages? 10? 20? 2 Chapters? Three? Does that include the prologue?). It does helpfully remind me though that the best part of writing is … writing. That’s where the joy, though sometimes hard to find, invariably comes.
At any rate, on one of many online forms that asked for length, bio, genre etc, this question jumped out and mugged me:
Who is your favorite fictional character from a book or a movie?
No wrong answers, it promised.
And I mean…yikes. I was flummoxed, fully and completely. First thought: Max, from Where the Wild Things Are.
Except I recognized this more as an aspirational thing, that is, I would like to be more like Max (or, please God, Lynda Barry’s Poodle With a Mohawk), but does that mean favorite?
I tried again. But somehow, when I read a book, I don’t come away with “Oh, how I loved that character!” but more like “Oh, how I loved that book.” It’s the whole world they live in, the transportation to another realm.
Not to mention, of course, that I am putting this onto a form in which I am asking someone, essentially: Please love me and my work. Which is a special and weird kind of pressure.
Jane Austen characters come to mind, because they are so wonderful, but also…I don’t know, that seems crazy? Ditto Levin from Anna Karenina (too show-offy, but I do love him, as I do Pierre). Also: previous centuries seem like they might send, er, the wrong message. And I truly love Karenin as well, one of the painful great characters of literature. Except is he really my favorite? Cue concerns again about wrong century, book, person, life.
I promise I read a lot of contemporary fiction too, but…what am I to say? I loved Gabe in Lucky Us by Joan Silber (read it! It’s so good!) but that felt too inside baseball, and…ugh. Saying anything at all began to feel more and more fraught.
We are such a strange and confusing culture, so focused on trying to know one another and expose ourselves, when trying to do so ends up feeling, inevitably, partial and false. Anyway, I ended up, in a spasm of confused anxiety, saying Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden. Whom I love, truly. And I forgot to add her last name. And I am, as ever, suffused with regrets and confusion.
As is the way with weird and terrible experiences, I will now try to share this question with you guys: Do you, any of you, have a favorite character in fiction? No wrong answers, I promise (ha ha ha sob).
I am, in some ways, a persnickety reader. Not in matters of “taste,” exactly. I like high, low, and in-between. But there are certain things that I take irritable, irrational umbrage at, and in particular: when the narrator is a reader. And not just a reader but a loudly proclaimed lover of Books and Reading and Literature. The descriptive phrase, “She always had her nose in a book,” type of thing.
I am annoyed by my own annoyance in this. Of course the narrator is a reader; we are all readers here, in all likelihood: the writer, the reader, the characters. Even so, there is something about a writer writing rhapsodically and approvingly about a character’s curling up with a book, or the close and personal relationship a character has with other fictional characters. It just makes me say, “No!” Not that I stop reading exactly. I very rarely stop reading altogether, which is a post for another time. But I rebel, secretly, and feel pandered to, and just generally pissed off.
The writer is instantaneously transformed into Mary Bennet for me, like so (this is stolen from here, as for inexplicable reasons all Jane Austen has fled my room): “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures. They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds. But I confess they would have no charms for me. I should infinitely prefer a book.“
That self-congratulatory air of pleasure with oneself. How did Jane Austen get it so exactly and painfully? But that’s it, that is the person who appears before me.
But—and here’s (part of) the problem: having this bias is definitely as annoying, at least, as self-satisfiedly writing a character with the problem. My only apology/defense is that at least I am not fictional, and have a degree of self-awareness about it all.
The real question I have is: does this bug anyone else?
Let’s say you finish a book. Maybe it’s a book you loved and flew through. Or it was a tough slog, but darn it you made it through! In either case, though, you’re probably heading toward another book. But…do you start it right away?
This is a tricky situation, for me. Especially if it happens at night (can’t start a new book at night, because…well, you just can’t). But you also can’t just go to bed without reading at all, because how can you fall asleep then?
So what works? I lean towards the New Yorker. But I’ve heard other opinions: short stories. Cookbooks (!). Poetry?
The whole problem of it makes me think of Trollope, who apparently finished one novel, then turned the page of his notebook and began the next. Which is…not how I am.
I feel like somewhere out there is the perfect (metaphorical) grapefruit ice that does the thing you need between books: marks a sharp clear end to one, and puts you into a state of washed and receptive openness for your next one.
If you know what this would be, let us know in the comments. I’m having trouble getting from my most recently read book (Heft, very good) to my next one (The Milkman or Amnesty, I can’t decide). (Hey, if you know which one I should read, let me know!)
A friend wrote on Twitter asking where the books with the middle-aged American woman protagonists were, and it, you know, got me to thinking. I mean, first there’s the whole: what about books that move through a person’s life? In Life After Life (admittedly not American), she is 1 then 20 then 40 and so on. The whole shifting reality of age. And also: what is middle aged? If we’re thinking “I was half-way through the journey of my life” type situation, I think life expectancy puts middle aged at 41. Gulp.
But that’s also me being a bit of a jerk (imagine!), because I know what she’s getting at. A lot of novels center on women in the throes of raising (and often losing) children, or in the run-up to all that, and so the part of life when it’s not about…someone/something else seems to slip away.
There is, of course, Sue Miller, whose recent book, Monogamy, feels like it “fits the bill” exactly, except I was so looking forward to reading it, and then it left me cold.
Or maybe, Rage Against the Dying, by Becky Masterman, about an older woman detective, with lots of thrills and chases and all the things I love about detective fiction. This is the first book in a series (I love a series!), and I liked the first one. But there was (to me) something forced about the toughness, and it put me off. (I’m sounding very hard to please here.)
Besides, my guess is that the search is for a “literary” novel, though I am not fond of that term and all its unflattering implications. And of course, of course, the whole thing about literature is that you can read about anyone, any type of person, and connect.
But, too, it is a weird feeling to vanish from a culture. Do any of you know of any American novels centering on middle-aged or (gasp!) older protagonists? If you don’t, why do you think that is?
Recently I wrote about various books that I’d found comforting, and one of these was Long Bright River, part police procedural, part sister pain, with a healthy dollop of drugs and murder and family dysfunction. Not too challenging, I said, which I meant as high praise (and self-castigation—my concentration muscles are shot after a year of pandemic and political horror). But mere weeks later, I see this comment also as blithely condescending. Because, spurred by how good that books was, I asked my library what else they had, and they offered up The Unseen World. And I realized this writer, while being a joy to read, has majorly bigger fish to fry than just that.
This book is so…lovely. And strange. And sad. But no matter how sad (and I have been struggling with sad this year), it is also engaging and compelling and alive.
The liveliness comes because of all the love—not so much directly, but as though the whole novel is built over a huge underground store of love, like a hidden spring that keeps welling up. Does that sound sappy? It’s not sappy, the writing is loath to touch the love directly, but it suffuses everything, making it possible, for me at least, to read without falling apart.
Remember how everyone was flipping out about trigger warnings? (Maybe they still are?) A few of those are wanted for all of us who are more fragile now than we might “normally” be (which makes me think they are always wanted), but not for self-destructive behavior exactly, more for heartbreak, which we’re not all able to stand right now: book covers the pain of dementia, misfits, loneliness.
The very end is…not what I needed. But maybe we can talk about that when/if you read the book.