Another One Down; or, How Fiction Betrays the Hopeful Heart

Regular readers of this blog, all three of you, will recall that I have freely admitted to being an impatient reader, quick to judge, quick to become crabby. I rarely read fiction anymore, as it so frequently incites my worst selves. I ghostdrift the aisles of the library, lifting them up to read the back blurb — “ugh, who cares,” I think of one, “ugh, I don’t want to read that,” I think of another. So when I, with fear and trembling, finally check out a volume of fiction in an attempt to be at one with the world, who seems to greedily consume fiction and laud the praises of books hither and yon with “best books of the year” designation, national and international awards, interviews on public radio, etcetera, I yearn to be satisfied. My latest pursuit: a “comic” “genius” at the “top of his game” in a book that was just given a Very Important Prize. As you can tell from my tone…ugh, the disappointment.

When a book disappoints me, I feel it personally, viscerally, deeply. I love books. I read, therefore I am. I forced myself to plod through this thing, through all the author’s jiving and winking, his self-satisfied jocularity, but by page 70 with no discernible plot in sight, I closed it for good. I had been betrayed. How am I so out of step with literary opinion? What does this say about me? Surely something is wrong with me.

On the radio I just heard about a bright new talent in singer/songwriting. “I had never heard anything like this before,” said the Famous Person who discovered this New Talent who sounded EXACTLY LIKE ALL THE OTHER “NEW” POP TALENT I’VE BEEN HEARING FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS. No, for longer than that, as I have a CD from 15 years ago that sounds exactly like this “new sound” — the thin voice that peters out toward the end of notes, the near-glottal stops, the discernible leap between chest and head voice. Heard it. All. Before. What is wrong with me? Surely the emperor can’t be walking around with no clothes to the extent that I seem to perceive.

I’ve counseled myself in the past to read more slowly, be more forgiving, open my mind to the new. All that is true. But certainly taste is real and not every single person can be expected to like the same things as every other person. I read a book of poems recently and thought, “yes, I can see why the editor chose this, I can see the editor being attracted by this,” even though it was not my taste. I was able to move on without feeling grief and ire. So I am capable of some rational maturity when it comes to reading and taste. But then there’s all the other times.

I do worry about my own discernment, that I’m hopelessly limited. I’m not a music aficionado. Perhaps there is something this woman is doing that I’m not picking up on. Maybe this novelist is doing something very important with all his jazzing around. (Or maybe the emperor ought to at least put some underwear on, for crying out loud.)

And maybe it’s just that I owe so much to fiction — I grew up with it, in it, formed by it. It saved me, succored me, awakened me, instructed me. It was a parent to me, and thus prey to all the expectations a child has for a parent. I guess I’m not a grown-up when it comes to reading fiction; I’m a needy child. But just as a parent is only a flawed human being, a novel is too only what it is — a message in a bottle thrown out from one flawed human being into the sea in hopes of finding a sympathetic, nay empathetic reader. And maybe I’ll go back to nonfiction for a while until I grow up a little more.

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