Monday, August 29, 2016

What am I looking for (fiction edition)?

I've been struggling with my reading choices for a while.  Quite a few of them seem to end up as books that I should be reading (or I tell myself that I should be reading) rather than books I enjoy.  I think I am getting a bit more out of the non-fiction books, or at least the proportion of books that I feel actually merited my time is higher, and maybe I will just continue along that track.  Still, I have piles of unread books in the basement, and I would like to get through most of them by 2020...  I guess the one positive is that I am much less likely to hold onto marginal books than I used to be.  If I know I am not going to reread it and it isn't a stone-cold classic that the kids might need, then I have been donating the books as I go through them.  Six of the last 10 books I read have been donated.

In general, I am also trying to convince myself to give up on books sooner.  It is still a bit of a challenge for me, since I would rather read through to the end and then never bother with the book again, especially if the critical consensus is generally positive, than to wonder if I should give the book another go somewhere down the line.  However, for Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival and Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, the impressions I had of each book by about the 1/3 mark never changed by the end, and in both cases, I probably would have been better off just stopping midstream and turn to something that I enjoyed more.  (I actually do have some thoughts on the Roth book, but I'll blog about that later in the week.)

I have taken that to heart with Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go.  It was certainly blown up in certain quarters, but in my opinion, it doesn't live up to the hype.  I thought pretty seriously about pushing on, but two things happened to change my mind.  First, she just started piling one thing after another onto this family (and she kind of over-egged the pudding with how the father lost his job to the point I found it unbelievable).  I get really weary of this sort of thing (and I probably should just discard my copy of Mistry's A Fine Balance, since I remember even at the time thinking when will this misery end, though it is a brilliantly-written book...).  Second, the folks at Goodreads have hinted that there is sort of a happy ending in sight but only when this non-traditional family bonds back in Africa, which feels both unbelievable given the circumstances and too much like a Lifetime special.  Maybe more to the point, I am just so sick of Ivy league MFA-types getting so much hype for these under-baked first novels.  (I found the exact same thing with Iman Verjee's In Between Dreams, which I also didn't finish.)  One minor advantage of the Toronto Star over the NY Times is that the focus of the book section is on Canadian authors and not these not quite ready for prime time Ivy league authors.

Anyway, it is probably not possible to completely distill what I am looking for in a novel or novella, but I am starting to come up with some main themes.  I want interesting characters, not ciphers.  I am willing to make some exceptions for very short stories or extremely clever postmodern fiction.  In particular, I want characters who are at least of average intelligence rather than silly moppets who make bad choices purely out of ignorance.  I prefer characters who have some common sense, though they can certainly be led astray (by their emotions typically) or can be placed in very unusual situations (Malamud's God's Grace or the Scorsese movie After Hours).  There are some rare cases where strong secondary characters can make up for dull or insipid or silly or simply unbelievable main characters.  The secondary characters are the only reason I have hung onto Bowen's The Death of the Heart and Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek.

Most of all, I am one of those boring throwback readers who still wants plot.  Bad things can happen to the characters, but just piling on one thing after another is alienating and eventually boring. Maybe the single most important criterion is whether the characters have internal integrity.  If we think we know a character, then they can't all of a sudden act in a completely contrary manner, just to serve the plot.  That doesn't mean that they can't have hidden depths, but if they have these multiple layers, then they have to be earned, rather than just sprung on the reader.  It doesn't really seem that much to ask, does it?  But quite a few books I've read have not really passed this test, or I just wasn't interested for some other reason.  Perhaps I'll come back around to this at a later date.

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