Hi friends and readers,
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to describe the books I love. Mostly because of a recent chat I had at AWP, but also because it seems like an important thing to be able to do. The kind of books I like to read are pretty broad in terms of style and genre (and their impact on what I write is very roundabout and wonky), so it’s taken me a while to figure this out. What NEEDS to be there in order for me to really enjoy a book?
There’s been a lot of talk on the twitter and such about what books people shouldn’t enjoy and what it says about them if they do enjoy them, or even if they enjoy decent books for the “wrong” reasons (e.g., liking Lolita b/c Humbert Humbert is an “antihero,” liking Holden Caulfield b/c he’s “relatable”). It’s starting to rub me the wrong way to talk about books like that, not because I’m concerned about the reputation of the guy for whom Chuck Palanhiuk is still super edgy (b/c really, f that guy), but because it develops a habit of defining the positive via the negative. This is a broader trend in the fiction workshop as well. My class typically spends more time talking about how a student’s story fails as opposed to how it succeeds — which is legit, first drafts need work. But when students are talking about why they liked a story, they tend to fall back on personal taste: “I happen to like stories about [x]”; “I have occasionally thought what [x] character has thought”; “I like descriptive writing / fast-paced plots / female protagonists”; etc. In the end, everyone seems to develop an extensive objective vocabulary to talk about all the ways they don’t like a story and maintain a limited and subjective vocabulary to talk about what they do like.
And maybe this is because what someone likes or enjoys reading is perceived as so subjective. I frequently assign students stories and novels I love and it takes them no time at all to come up with reasons why they didn’t like them / were bored by them, and how this or that literary giant failed to produce characters that they, personally, could connect or empathize with. I have been there. I have failed to connect with great writing, have pigeonholed what I love to read into superficial categories, have failed to realize that some of the stuff I thought I was indifferent to did in fact contain the essence of what I love to read, just in a form I didn’t expect and couldn’t see.
For me, what I look for is strangeness. That’s what I really want in what I read, the pleasure and tension in feeling like I’m on unsteady ground, that the world I’m seeing on the page is only a piece of it, that just off the page, hidden from view, is something frightening or sublime or uncanny or revolutionary. There are endless ways writers can do this. In my literature class, we’ve been reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is about the interior lives of clones. Clones don’t die; they “complete,” and the enjoyment there is in the chill of that word…a seemingly small but precise neologism that carries with it a massive psychological shift. I love that.
This might explain why I enjoy non-realist narratives so much, though it’s more than a genre thing. I see strangeness as any profound shift in perception, the gap between a character’s consciousness and their reality, the capability of language and the acknowledgement of its failures, the unsaid thing. It’s in the chilly prose of Alice Munro, the surreality of Toni Morrison, the unsettling, co-dependent character dynamics of Katherine Mansfield and Ford Maddox Ford, and all the other authors I enjoy reading, some of whom I learned to enjoy only once I identified the strangeness in their stories. I learned to enjoy poetry by identifying its strangeness, and it’s why poetry that makes any move at all toward platitudes (which are fundamentally un-strange things) loses my interest almost instantly.
And that’s why I go looking for strangeness now. That’s why I’m tempted to critique students stories by saying, “I wish you’d just go back in and make all of this weirder.” I’m at the point where I feel that a story doesn’t work unless it has this quality, or is working toward it in some way. I’m starting to think you can’t reach toward profundity without also reaching toward strangeness.
I’ll leave y’all with a list of some of my favorites. This doesn’t include books that I love for nostalgic reasons (the Harry Potter series, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens) because I think that’s a different category to be talked about at a later date. There’s also no poetry on here because I’m still looking to expand my poetry repertoire and develop my tastes there. Message me if you have suggestions.
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake | Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others | Lydia Davis, Varieties of Disturbance | Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier | Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God | Kazuo Ishiguro, Remains of the Day, Pale View of Hills | Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle |Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis | Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom | Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, The Left Hand of Darkness | Kelly Link, Magic for Beginners | Katherine Mansfield, Stories | Lydia Millet, O Pure and Radiant Heart | David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (currently reading Cloud Atlas, which I’m also loving) | Tony Morrison, Beloved | Alice Munro, Open Secrets, Runaway | Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty, Jane: A Murder | Alissa Nutting, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls | Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories | Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being | Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, Contact | Colson Whitehead, Zone One | Virgina Woolf, Orlando
Stay weird, you weirdos,