Novels by Poets

UnknownImage courtesy

It appears that I had a lot of mean backed up in me, for which I apologize. But…this has been gnawing at me a long time, so here it is: I have a problem with novels by poets.

There are about one million caveats I should make here, which I will skip. I will, however, try to make clear what I mean. I'm talking about Ben Lerner and Valeria Luiselli and Michael Ondaatje, thoughtful, intelligent novels. So it's probably obvious that the problem lies with me—all of these are clearly brilliant and talented etc etc.

I have thought about WHY this particular version of book bothers me so much. One of the warning signs is when the flap copy mentions "lapidary prose." Beware! And then I think: what's the problem with lapidary prose? I like excellent words as much as the next reader on the couch (I think I do?) but I feel I have finally located the source of my trouble, the pine needle in my sock: It bugs me to read a novel in which the writer cares more about the words than the story.

I feel this is probably a weakness in me. After all, it's not one or the other, right? And yet…the feeling comes to me strongly when I read them. It makes me (unreasonably, I know) angry that the story, which is just as much of a magical unreasoning mystery as the perfect words are, doesn't get its proper respect (and love).

There, I've said it. All ye who go the other way, be warned.

Cup of Tea

There are some books I like that are not good. For instance, Rich Men, Single Women. This is not, by almost any measure, a good book. And yet, I am there for its sordid charms.

The thing that is harder for me to grapple with is the (equally large?) number of books that I don't like that are good. Case in point:


I might as well get out of the way my first (and probably lamest) complaint: The cover. Come on now! Only put a tornado on the cover if you have a tornado in the book. Tornados are terrifying and fascinating, and I am a sucker for them, so don't just tease me.

Beyond that, this book more or less endlessly pissed me off with its intelligent, thoughtful, deeply considered prose. I'd read and fume, read and grumble: Oh come on, no one is this committed to conversation. Or, Not everything has to be endlessly considered! Except then something would shift to address my concern, and I would be left with the same irritable sense until it dawned on me: I do believe this book is not my cup of tea.

I love this idea. But—is it even a thing? Really? I fear saying that is much like, "Well, it was very well done" type of remarks: saying basically that you didn't like it but don't want to own up to it. And anyway (full, damning disclosure): I don't even like tea.

I suspect that in my heart I don't really think this is a good book at all, I'm just loathe to disagree with the world when I can see perfectly well that the world will definitely think this is a very good book.

But—do I really believe that my not liking something means it's not good? That can't be true, can it? Ugh, I am sure there was a class at some point when I should have been paying attention and I would have learned the true answers to all these questions. At any rate: I didn't like this book, I can say that for sure, and even admit that this decision felt almost personal and grudge-filled. I found the book chilly and stiff, prone to examining its motives to a tiring degree, though there were moments of tension and interest. Is the fault in me or in the book? Apparently, I have no idea.


The Horror, the Horror…or, an Idiosyncratic Guide to What to Read (or Possibly Watch) as Your Country Disintegrates

Waves, I tell you. These things go in waves: sometimes I sit down to breakfast, (dead tree) newspaper in hand, prepared to face everything it brings, and I go ahead and read that thing, taking in information like a champ. Other times, especially lately, it's more like driving by a bloody accident, where I allow myself to catch one headline from the corner of my eye, then quickly look away, or turn the page—and keep turning—until I have gotten to the arts section and the crossword puzzle (and the kenken!).

So what to read in these uncertain times? When the world is a mess (is the world always a mess? probably), I go with a "like dissolves like" approach. Which seems off: I know that in the 1930s, silly happy musicals really worked for people wanting to forget the Depression, for instance. For me? Now? Reading scary books is just the thing.

I have always, sometimes unwillingly, been a Stephen King fan, but right now I'm reading The Outsider (I know, I know, the show is supposed to be great, I can't quite go there), and…it helps. I have a bunch of half-assed theories as to why this should be so—you look at terrible things that you can say aren't real! Some people in the book aren't terrible! A book offers hope for resolution! Fear makes you focus, so you don't think about…other stuff.

But the main thing is that these books are working, and I'm leaning into them.

My old way was to have people write in here to We Recommend, and I would give them the perfect* book for the person they wanted a book for. But now, in this new foray into the blogosphere, I'm thinking: I should ask you. What comforting horror can you offer me? What will simultaneously scare the crap out of me and also reassure me that there is good in the world?

*No book is perfect. But if you know of one, write it in the comments! If comments are still a thing!


What Is the Opposite of Mean?

Yeah, the title here is sort of ridiculous, especially because mean means (sorry!) so many different things. Luckily the way I'm using it—as a synonym for nasty—makes it easier, because it helps me to think through how to talk about books. So: mean is the opposite of nice (right?), as nasty is also the opposite of nice.

And they're both pretty much the wrong directions to go in when talking about books. Perhaps that's because—and I'm trying to figure this out even as I'm writing about it, when probably I should have figured all of this out many years ago—a review should try to be about the reader, both future and present, while being either mean or nice seem more about the writer. Who maybe is best left out of the conversation?

I fear I'm not thinking quite hard enough about this, but I just read a gleeful piece about how hatchet jobs are back, and I thought…that's not what I am looking for right now, either to create or consume. So instead I am going to tell you about a book that I thought was so, so wonderful, and I'll do my best to be neither nice nor mean but only honest. 


I was rifling through the "newly published" section of the library, and I saw it, and fell for the blurbs (I know you're not supposed to do that), like so:

“Jo Baker’s The Body Lies is gripping and strange in the best possible way: the perfect marriage of risky literary fiction and full-on thriller.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette

The first page filled me with doubt, but from then on—oh, what a wonderful thing it is to be pulled into a story so thoroughly you're always marking time until you can get back to it. Smart, present, immediate, wry, angry, thoughtful, and beautiful. I finished it quickly, then requested every other book she'd written from the library. Each has something to recommend it, but this was my favorite. It felt the most grown-up to me, somehow.

One tricky thing about genre marrying literary fiction is how these books end. And I think this one doesn't fully sidestep that fate.  To my mind, one of the greatest things about the best literary work is a powerful ending, something that brings together all the pieces and more besides into a resonating chord (I fear I'm stealing this metaphor from John Gardner). But a thriller that means to be a thriller has the added weight of needing to tie together ends in a different way, which makes it harder to end well. It's all more expected, I guess. (Though I never mind when everyone gets married at the end of a Jane Austen novel so why is it an issue for me here? I don't know.) At any rate, the ending didn't sweep through me with quite the same power as the rest of it did, but that could be different for you.

But it's a terrific book—such a wonderful surprise, and it's given me more hope on all subsequent visits to both library and bookstore. (And if you happen to be in a fiction workshop, all the more reason to seek it out, for reasons that will become clear.)

Happy reading!

Why Fiction Is So Much Better Than Real Life

This morning I was listening to a recording of Adam Schiff's closing arguments from 1/23, about right and wrong and trust and destruction, after which a small cluster of intelligent people assembled on the Rachel Maddow show analyzed it, all doing what they do, that is: trying to be smart about what was and is happening.

And I was reminded (painfully) of why I am so drawn to fiction. Some context: I was listening to all this on my way back from the gym, where I had sweated away to the middle 2/5 (approximately) of Snowpiercer, a crazy, beautiful, heavy-handed movie that is, among other things, about class inequity. (We'd watched the first part of the movie at home, but because I am something of a coward about violence, turned it off before the end.) I was rooting for a side, but aware that in this metaphorical world, I am if not one of the actively bad guys, one of the ones in the first class cars, benefitting from the destruction of the world all the time.

When I write fiction, I am always trying to show the weird, painful complexity of human beings. And of course, always failing to do so. I mean, if we can't bear to look with clear eyes at our own souls, how can we ever see another person, real or fictional, clearly? And I've always thought that nonetheless I should try, because even if I couldn't get there, that was the goal of fiction, that Tolstoy-like ability to show people as they are and (somehow) to love them anyway.

But when I was listening to the Schiff speech (which boils down to, essentially: You know what is right and wrong, and it's important to try to do the right thing) and the people analyzing it, I was struck by that inclination to "be realistic." As in, "Well, Schiff can say whatever he wants but you know at the end of the day they're not going to vote against…." And, "Well, what he's doing here is strategic…." And, as a devoted fiction reader, I can tell you: this is all so much worse than fiction. In fiction you are allowed—encouraged!—to believe in something may not be possible. In real life, it is naive to do so.

I know this is not news to anyone. After all, this is how we talk about naïveté, "You think life is some fairytale," etc etc. But I guess the thing is: I don't think life is a fairy tale, I wish life were a fairy tale. I understand that cynicism is almost required in the present moment. And I guess I always thought that fiction was trying to get close enough to real life to punch a hole in your heart. But instead now I want fiction to run the other way to put more and more distance between it and real life. It's too painful for us, or for me anyway, to see us as we are right now.

I think about Obama's speech at the memorial for the victims of the person who attacked Gabrielle Giffords, when he talked about the youngest victim: Christina Taylor, who was 9.

She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us — we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

In a book this would have happened. In a movie, too. Sort of anyway. But we all know: this is not what happened. 

I am sorry to be such a colossal bummer. And I know that there is (allegedly) some distance between cynicism and realism. I know, too, (somewhere) that this painful lurching towards trying to be good is probably as much as we can hope for. And that we humans were ever thus. 

I will try to shake this off. And I will tell you that a really smart take on the Meanness (and a cheerful, smart, humane look at books) is to be found by subscribing to Ron Charles's newsletter. See? Something sort of positive. I'll work on bringing joy next time. There must be some somewhere.