Friday, February 16, 2007

Smart Thoughts on Book Clubs

Tip of the hat to CB for pointing me in the direction of this piece by novelist Rachel Cusk in The Guardian about joining a book club. CB also rightly marveled at the fact that something of this length and intelligence ran in a newspaper. Ladies and gentlemen, the United Kingdom.

One of my favorite parts:
It seemed that next time we were to do Chekhov. William Boyd had written an article in this newspaper on the history of the short-story form and made the stunning claim that Chekhov was the best. It was all slightly implausible. There he was, dead, Russian, and yet, apparently, the best. I was curious to see what the book group would make of Chekhov. I believed he would transform them. I believed in his power of verisimilitude, of true emotion, of human understanding. I believed in his art. I imagined the serious book group convening in a new and luminous spirit, reborn, having felt the incomparable benediction of recognition, of the vanquishing of time by truth. I imagined them becoming ... serious.

At the next meeting the mood was glum. The ladies filed in despondently, holding their grim copies of Chekhov as people hold unsavoury things when they can't find anywhere to dispose of them. There were nuts and crisps and chilly little glasses of red wine, which people sampled erratically, undecidedly, as though, now the solace of reading had been contaminated, their generalised need for consolation had itself become strange and unfamiliar. So, someone said. So. There was a great sighing, a great wearied exhalation.

After a silence someone else finally blurted out that she couldn't get on with Chekhov - was that his name? - at all. Not at all. Sombrely everyone else owned up. It was just awful. They could hardly get beyond the first page. It wasn't that it was difficult, just that it was so - unenjoyable. Depressing. Boring. This Chekhov, whom everyone made such a fuss about. I just think he's not a very nice person, one lady said. Silence. Much staring at the carpet and shaking of heads. Oh, for heaven's sake, I said. What do you want? Lies? More books about time-travel, or some past that never existed, or people who grow wings and fly around the place? Or happy endings, or characters the like of which you'll never meet in your life, or books about things that never actually happen to people? The point about Chekhov, I said, to the blank circle of their faces; the point about Chekhov ... For 10 minutes or more I descanted on the point about Chekhov. No one interrupted me. No one said anything at all. At the end they understood that I liked Chekhov rather a lot. My claim that he was the father of modern fiction raised a few suspicious eyebrows. Then someone brought up the subject of Christmas, which was a few weeks away.



Blogger Fox said...

Keep a count of how many Brits walk away with Oscars next Sunday. You may be right, the Brits may be (gulp) better.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or happy endings, or characters the like of which you'll never meet in your life, or books about things that never actually happen to people?

Isn't this the point, though? I think most people don't want to read about their daily lives. People spend the vast majority of their lives doing the things they do every day.

They read to escape their lives. They want to read stories where incredible things happen because it makes them think they can become part of something bigger and more wonderful.

And they don't want to have to labor through it. For most people, the point of reading is to entertain and decompress for a few hours before going to bed.

Obviously, many writers want more. But expecting the casual reader to actively want to read Chekov when they've been eating a steady diet of Toni Morrison is like asking someone who just watches the Super Bowl to enjoy a Thursday night football game between two 6-8 teams. It's like pulling an audience from The Anchorman and expecting them to enjoy a Fellini movie. That's not what they're there for.

-- Comish

12:00 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

I think she's just asking more of people, Comish. Of course reading can be about escapism -- I'm sure she has some favorites in that genre. Same with movies. But just because I enjoy Anchorman, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy You Can Count On Me, which feels a lot more like real life. But, and here's the key, it's still escapist to watch You Can Count On Me. It's NOT my life. It doesn't really feel like my life. But it feels like SOMEONE'S life, and that kind of art is important, I think, if we're going to retain our humanity. A steady diet of Spider-Man flicks wouldn't accomplish the same, I'm afraid. I don't think she's limiting her argument to the really observant realism of a Chekhov. You could include bigger stories that still try to paint flesh-and-blood characters. The movie equivalent would be, say, Doctor Zhivago, not Fellini.

But if you read regularly, as you do, I think, then Chekhov shouldn't feel like labor. I don't think it would. That's a leftover assumption you have from school, probably. Good writing, I think, is inherently accessible.

9:14 AM  
Blogger JMW said...

And I don't like your Super Bowl analogy, but I have to run, so I'll let you off the hook... (ha!)

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do read quite a bit. But to my undying shame, I think I've only read one short story by Chekhov.

Still, you don't have to sell me on the value of great literature. I'm sold.

An old roommate and I used to have a debate on whether art needed to be accessible to be great. I took the position that art can be great even if it's beyond the understanding of 99% of the people. Artists shouldn't be forced to dumb down their works to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or dumb down their work to have broad appeal. Great art can be great even if it has to be explained.

"The Sound and the Fury" is still one of the greatest American novels, even though the Quentin section probably would have been too much for me to handle outside of a college course.

And I realize that great writing is supposed to be inherently accessible. But it's not the writing that makes great novels difficult to read. It's the subject matter, the themes, and the fact that you've got to be actively engaged with the book. You've got to think about what's going on, and that's pretty different than the latest da Vinci Code knock-off.

And if you've let me off the hook, then I probably shouldn't pick at it, but here's my point with the Super Bowl analogy. The point I was making is: of course the writer loves Chekhov. She notices and appreciates the nuance, the structure, and the language in a way that most readers cannot. In fact, she's enchanted by them. Heck, she makes her living with them.

The writer is the equivalent of someone who's made a career in football. Maybe a coach at a division 1-AA college or something. But certainly someone that notices and appreciates blocking schemes and blitz packages.

So it's unfair for the writer to expect everyone to look at books the same way she does. It would be nice if everyone did, but most people just haven't invested the time and effort (and talent) she has.

-- c

2:00 PM  

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