10.28.2011

Readable Literature?

I depart from my regularly scheduled “Friday’s Catch” to throw my two cents into the ring about the Booker-literature-readability debate that has been raging this week. The Booker judges’ choice to select books that are fast paced with the “ability to zip along” has prompted a furious response from literary critics. There seem to be two points at issue: 1. Literature does not “zip along” and 2. The ability of a novel to “zip-along” and be “readable” should be the sole criteria for determining quality reading material. These two points are ridiculous. Literature can, and often does, “zip along,” and the notion of “readability” as the sole determining factor for a good book is severely, painfully, limiting.

The efforts of the past years to elide literature with genre fiction or popular fiction have grated on me, but the Booker committee's slump towards mediocrity has made me see red. Primarily, because I always held that Booker selections were literary novels that were highly-readable, intensely satisfying, “books that have it all.” I found Possession and Atonement to be two of the most delightful literary novels in the past twenty years, and The White Tiger was a hilarious romp through modern India that I found myself “zipping” through. Perhaps my tastes are not the norm (though book sales would argue with me on the above mentioned selections), but there are certain standards of excellence that should not be diminished, and the Booker Prize is one. Literature can, and should, stand on its own, and be respected as its own genre, without pressure to conform to lesser standards of reading quality.

But what are lesser standards of reading quality and what is literature? The notion of literature or literary novels can be elusive. Some people cite examples of literature – Emma, The Divine Comedy – without giving a definition of what the term is. In my opinion, literary novels are novels in which language is finely tuned to evoke strong emotions from the reader, characters are complex and elucidate truths about the human condition, and the themes with which the novel grapples are large and purposeful. On top of that, it would be great, in my humble opinion – because I like stories – that the novel have a riveting plot, but this is not necessary. Literature is a mirror for the world and isn’t obliged to double as story time around the campfire, though, many of the best novels have all four criteria. (Imagine Gatsby without the car chase, for example. Right, neither can I.) Jeannette Winterson’s attempt to define literature as being solely language based – “If the language has no power, forget it.” – is too limiting for me. Perhaps she would argue that if the language is working, the other elements will fall into place, but this strikes me as another way to describe poetry. Poetry is dependent on language; the novel has other tricks up its sleeves. She cites Jane Austen as an example of a writer who is read today for her language. Yes, her language is brilliant, and I wish I had her wit, but who among us would have warmed as much to Pride and Prejudice without Elizabeth Bennett?

Literature can be narrowly or broadly defined depending on how political you want to be, but what it is not is merely a story. There are many books out there that are merely stories, and they are lovely. I read them all the time, but they do not make me sit back and reflect on my life as a great novel does. Reading Emily Giffin will never prompt me to assess my peers like reading Jane Austen. Nothing against Giffin, she is beloved by many, but let us not confuse our categories. As readable as Giffin is, she will never be Jane Austen. We do ourselves few favors by trying to conflate the two.

The previous comparison seems obvious – clearly Giffin is not Austen - yet this is what we are trying to do to literature on a grand scale – pare it down, make it more readable, more accessible, more like genre novels – and we appear fine with this. The calls from major American critics to write more genre novels or put a zombie in your literary novel is taken with a laugh, but are we aware of what we’re saying? Once again, the pull is downward, and writers who could turn out beautiful, complex novels that inspire us are turning towards the grocery-store line and writing about vampires. Don’t get me wrong, I love a vampire novel as much as the average tween, but I emphatically do not love them in the place of something smart. (And, yes, I will say it: the last smart vampire novel was Dracula.)

If the critics – and specifically for this conversation, the Booker judges - do not continue to make us aspire to read great novels, then where will we be? It would be a dull world with only the Twilight series and James Patterson, especially if those novels are only available on a contraption, but I digress into another gripe. The waters have not been completely diluted, there are still remarkable literary novels coming out every day, but a troubling trend has emerged, one that we should heed.

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