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a curious paradox
or, why a literature major is the last person to ask about books.
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)
3.4.05
writing


Having spent almost two years in graduate school, I feel pretty competent most of the time. But there are some questions that, as a Literature major, I'm just not equipped to handle. And one of those is: "So, tell me, what should I read?"

Let's get one thing straight. I am the last person you want to ask for a reading recommendation. Why? Because my idea of light reading is Jane Austen. Oh, sure, the occasional modern like Nick Hornby or Tom Robbins drifts across my radar screen, but once those blips have passed, I'll be back to suggesting that you read The Brothers Karamazov because it's the best book ever, and even though it sounds like terrible Russian literature, it's really a mystery novel, kind of like Dan Brown but with a lot more religious philosophy and no hot female detectives... what? You're not convinced?

To be sure, sometimes there's a cross-over between my work and today's scene. Mostly in the form of movies like Sense and Sensibility and The Importance of Being Earnest. Of course, movies won't always promote a resurgence of interest in the book. I somehow doubt the people who loved the new Vanity Fair would consider reading the 689 page book (its length in the Norton Edition). Not even with pictures (which it has). But, thanks to the "period" film renaissance, I can sometimes pass off a movie night as work time, and maybe, just maybe, find a couple more people interested in discussing the finer points of Jane Austen, even if the only edition they're familiar with is Ang Lee's.

However, most of my time is spent pondering the pop culture of ages past. Things that have gone from popular to "canonized". Or things that should be canonized, because, honestly, isn't it time we left the white male upper-class bias behind and...

... never mind. I'll save that one for the MLA.

My point is that even Aurora Floyd by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (a Victorian cross between Amanda Quick and Stephen King) is probably too old-school for bedtime reading, unless you have a thing for mid-Victorian sentence construction.

It's not only that I read old books, though. It's also that most of what interests me about them falls under the popular radar (hence the academic degree). Sure, Feminism was big enough to make it to the everyday vocabulary. And Post-Colonialism sneaks through now and then, although not under its formal name. But few people care about a Deconstructive reading of Dickens. Is literature a prison or an escape? Was Dickens a tool of the system? Didn't he write that cute book with the singing orphans?

Anyway, the (possibly unfortunate) truth is that only a few authors that are alive and still producing work are acknowledged in the field of "literature", and I'll venture to guess that 90% of those were born before 1940. Even the Sci-Fi writers that are taught in the more avant-garde classes tend to be ageing or dead.

Part of this is necessity. Thousands of books are produced every year. And evaluation, especially if they deal with contemporary topics, is difficult, at least for us literature types (those crazy motherfuckers in cultural studies seem to do it all the time). Distance, of some kind, seems necessary to figure out the difference between a bit of temporary static and a real, life-changing movement in literature. (All of you Hunter S. Thompson fans can stop holding your breath; I'm pretty sure he's made it in under the banner of "counterculture.")

After all, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, Thackeray, were all popular in their lifetimes. And not just in their lifetimes, but in their heydays. Charles Dickens was like Nora Roberts, consistently at the top of the bestseller lists. Except that he wrote something that we still read. Which begs the question: Is time the only thing necessary to allow the popular to become the profound?

Who today is writing those books that will be considered necessary reading tomorrow? Is it really Nick Hornby? And who is reading them? Not me. I spend my time (with the occasional African American exception, and I'm not being flippant, that's actually true) with the dead and past: those who have already made the grade, or those that didn't but should have. I spend my time considering Virginia Woolf, not who the next Virginia Woolf will be.

That is why you don't ask the Lit. major for reading recommendations. You turn to people like our own Jael McHenry, Joe Procopio, Michelle Von Euw, or Mike Julianelle, (if your tastes lean that way). And chances are, they will be able to tell you before I can what the new great movement is. Is it the alienated, technological, bar-code world? An endless cycle of terrorist threat thrillers? The disconnected dot-com novel?

All I can tell you that it's not The Da Vinci Code. Definitely not The Da Vinci Code.


ABOUT SARAH FICKE

Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke

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COMMENTS

matt ficke
3.4.05 @ 3:01a

In my mind, all literature is (or at least should strive to be) popular literature when it is written. Good writing is aimed at the contemporary audience. If the writer is talented enough, the words will resonate with the audience of the day. If the writer has hit on a truly transcendent theme the message will carry across the generations. My measure of greatness is not how well any particular work of literature explains human nature to me; I get just as much from Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen as I do from Shakespeare or Dostoyevsky. Greatness to me is being able to continue to reach an audience long after the society in which you are writing is gone. A single generation can have any number of Voices; it is the timeless Voice that is a rare gem.

sarah ficke
3.4.05 @ 9:43a

Hi Matt!

Good point. And then I wonder, what makes a voice timeless?

I also think that, since I tend to be interested in the time periods of the books, I'm not always good at picking out which will have a timeless appeal and which won't.

Also, after rereading this column, I think I pose way more questions than I answer.

brian anderson
3.4.05 @ 10:23a

Anyway, the (possibly unfortunate) truth is that only a few authors that are alive and still producing work are acknowledged in the field of "literature"

You've hit upon what's normally called "Sturgeon's Law" (or Sturgeon's Revelation). When asked about the sheer amount of garbage in science fiction, Theodore Sturgeon replied, "Of course 90% of science fiction is crud. 90% of everything is crud." It usually takes a few decades or centuries of separation before we can pull the wheat from the chaff. Bulwer-Lytton is best-known today for being awful, though he was amazingly successful in his time. The same sort of thing happens in visual arts as well.

There's a distinction, as well, that has to be made, between those authors still read who wrote for a small, self-contained community (does anyone know where to find literacy rates from different centuries?) and those who -- especially in the 19th century -- were, as you say, "best-sellers." One thing that changed is the process of publishing: Dickens and his cohorts would publish serially in magazines to build up interest and then sell the completed work (similar to DVD sales of story-arc television series now). Twain sold by subscription, door to door. Most of the older SF authors would publish short stories and serial novels in magazines. What's happened now is that major magazines no longer are in the business of publishing fiction: that built a market, allowed the best authors to rise to the top, and gave them a reason to polish their craft over time.

mike julianelle
3.4.05 @ 10:39a

Karamazov IS fantastic. I LOVE Dostoevsky...his books seem daunting, and they are, but they are a LOT more entertaining and readable than they seem. Crime and Punishment is the most difficult I think, it's so internalized. I am reading The Idiot now after a break from him for a few years, and I LOVE it. SCREW DAN BROWN!

sarah ficke
3.4.05 @ 11:00a

Somehow, I knew you'd back me up on that one. But really, of contemporary books, what should we be reading? Is there something comperable to Dostoevsky?

[edited]

mike julianelle
3.4.05 @ 1:12p

Like you said, it's nearly impossible to know what's gonna end up as a classic at this point. It seems hard to believe that someone like Dosto was received as a popular writer back then, but kind of easy to believe that he was considered brilliant. His stuff reads like literature, but that just might be hindsight. This might sound absurd, especially because it's crime stuff, but I think James Ellroy has a style and take that are unique and rosy-free that could be considered lit later on. He's certainnly more substantial than Grisham and that pulpy beach reading stuff.

russ carr
3.4.05 @ 2:16p

As Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, I will say of literature: “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

I read a fair amount of crap. Let me qualify that: I read books which are well-written, but have little staying power or resonance. I believe it's because I've been in a modern fiction groove for at least the last five or six years. I want to be a writer, so I want to understand my contemporaries. I want to be a successful writer, so I want to understand what sells. And who am I kidding -- I'm usually so burned out at the end of the day that I'm not interested in trying to slog through Eco.

Like Mike, I'm a big Dosto fan. I started reading him out of necessity, and continued reading him for pleasure. I can cite several other mid-20th c. authors who do it for me; Koestler, Orwell and Huxley spring to mind immediately. But what I picked up with good ol' Fyodor & c. was an underlying current of Meaning that I have yet to find in modern fiction...at least not anything published after 1980. I enjoy reading Hornby or Stephenson or Barry or Palahniuk. They're exceptionally talented. But I confess that they fade almost as soon as I close the cover.

[edited]

mike julianelle
3.4.05 @ 2:33p

Right. Lots of good writers but not much depth. Some great style but no lasting substance. No one SAYS anything anymore, they just turn interesting phrases and construct enjoyable stories. But it's hard to set out to write LITERATURE and end up with anything readable. It just has to evolve and age.

brian anderson
3.4.05 @ 2:48p

Every now and then, Rushdie gets something to say, and when it syncs up with phrase-turning ability, it's great. Unfortunately, too often he churns out books which have very pretty writing and nothing substantial holding it up. Most of the names that pop to mind, like Rushdie and Winterson and DFW, are like that: they talk more than they say, so there's a low signal to noise ratio. I was tempted to mention Umberto Eco, who can be found in any airport, but most would agree he peaked with his first or second novel. (And Italo Calvino was wonderful, but not as widespread.)

Too often I'll read a book and feel that it doesn't justify a full novel; but unfortunately, they don't sell short stories in O'Hare.

sarah ficke
3.4.05 @ 4:13p

In an effort to diversify my bookshelf today (and because there was a sale) , I picked up The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (dead) and Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton (regional).

[edited]

michelle von euw
3.7.05 @ 8:42a

Great column, Sarah. And it makes a very strong point about the difference between college reading lists and what the rest of the world reads. My MFA has required 5 literature-based courses (plus we usually read a book or two together each semester in workshop), and even though I've considered myself a voracious reader, the majority of books I've read have been brand new to me. And while my horizons has been inexplicably broadened through introductions to Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Alicia Ostriker, Alexander Hemon, Jose Saramago, and Salmon Rushdie, I'm not exactly recommending Midnight's Children to my friends. (Though maybe I should.)

sarah ficke
3.7.05 @ 9:42a

No. Not Midnight's Children. I enjoyed Satanic Verses much more, although I read it long enough ago so that I don't remember why that's true. Midnight's Children lost itself about half-way through.


tracey kelley
3.7.05 @ 10:13a

I'm a fan of Haroun and the Sea of Stories myself.

It would seem that much of classic literature was not designed to entertain, but to educate and promote social change and awareness. Whereas today, most of us just want to be entertained. So defining "literature" today is exceedingly more difficult. Example: while Franzen's Corrections very well may have been a snapshot of the breakdown of American society through one family, did it make us laugh? No? Well then, pass along the Grisham.

I've got to hand it to my book club - having an economist in the group forces us to think differently about what we read. Currently, it's Bellamy's Looking Backwards. Would I have picked it up otherwise? Probably not.

brian anderson
3.7.05 @ 3:42p

Haroun and Midnight's Children are the two Rushdies I was thinking of. (I'm told that Fury is one of his better ones as well.) Unlike Sarah, I thought MC was better than Satanic Verses: SV has one of the strongest beginnings I've ever seen, and it ends well, but the middle dragged for me.

jason gilmore
3.8.05 @ 6:11p

Good article Sarah. I do believe that surviving the test of time is often a major indicator of whether or not something, as you said, passes from popular to profound. The truth is, we really don't know how well Hornby's work will age. I'm about to read About A Boy (whenever I finish David Sedaris' Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim -- it's hard to read others' books in a timely fashion when you're revising one of your own) but I'm familiar enough with his work to know that I have no idea as to whether his work will be as renowned fifty years from now.

I've found that it helps, sometimes, to deal with a TOPIC that's not going to change, which is why I never get tired of James Baldwin, because the race thing is not leaving, just mutating, and its amazing to see how the racial and religious issues in Go Tell It On the Mountain or Going to Meet the Man mirror what goes on today, some 40 or 50 years later.



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