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Mar 05 2009

Why I am not a good judge of novels

I serve on a committee to select the common book reading for Case Western Reserve University. This is a book that is sent out to all the new incoming students each year in the summer prior to their admission and forms the basis for some programs during their first year on campus. In 2008, for example, the book selected was The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, in honor of 2009 being the Year of Darwin, since it is the anniversary of the 200th year of his birth and the 150th year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. (Shameless plug: I have a book GOD v. DARWIN: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom coming out later this year to also commemorate the event.)

In the seven years that this program has been held, two of the selected books were memoirs, two were biographies, and the other three were books about brain-damaged people, the working poor in America, and what it takes to be a great chef.

Despite the diversity of topics, it is notable that not a single novel has been selected so far. While many novels have been nominated and some have made it to the final short list, they have never been chosen. Although I would like to have a novel added to the list, I have not been able to wholeheartedly support any of the nominees and I am beginning to think that my problem is that I am not a good judge of novels, although I enjoy reading them.

With non-fiction, and especially advocacy books, the author’s purpose is obvious and what constitutes good writing is also fairly unambiguous. The author is trying, or should be trying, to make his or her case as clearly as possible. So I can judge a non-fiction book on whether it was easily apparent to me what the author was trying to say and whether they said it as clearly and as entertainingly as possible. In non-fiction, while a good writing style definitely helps, there is usually little merit to burying the main point in metaphor and imagery. The reader is not expected to dig deeper than the content requires, to struggle to find out what the hidden meaning is.

Bu with fiction, I run into problems. In addition to the surface story of the book, there is also a subtext, where the author may be trying to convey something deeper. And this is where they sometimes lose me.

I am much more comfortable with the novelists of an earlier era, like Dickens or Tolstoy. Their novels had a clear surface story that could read and enjoyed merely at that level. The novels had deeper levels of meaning but these were not hard to discern. In many of his books, Dickens was trying to lay bare the appalling conditions under which children of his time suffered, and Tolstoy was making many points about the nature of personal and political relationships

But with more modern writers like William Faulkner, for example, even the surface story is hard to figure out. The story switches without warning between multiple narrators and out of chronological order, leaving the reader to often wonder, during the first reading, what the hell is going on. The novel is constructed like a jig saw puzzle in which the author gives the pieces to the reader to piece together to see the picture.

Even to understand Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Miss Emily, after reading it I had to create a spreadsheet in which I inserted all major events mentioned in the text and used the allusions and historical references to try and order them so that I could at least decipher the chronological sequence of events as a prelude to making sense of the story. While that was kind of fun once I got into it, somewhat like solving the murder mysteries that I was addicted to in my youth, it is not something I want to routinely do when reading fiction.

I get the sense that Faulkner deliberately wrote in an obscure fashion for its own sake, simply to make the books difficult to understand. Consider The Sound and the Fury, which has multiple narrators and every narrator refers by name to a particular key character. The story makes no sense until one finds out at the very end that two different characters of different genders had that same name. There seemed to be no reason for the author doing this other than to confuse the reader. I found Faulkner infuriating because of this and he makes me resentful for having to work so hard just to understand even the surface story.

I have also tried several times and given up on reading James Joyce. I feel that Joyce, like Faulkner, deliberately obscures the message.

A novel should not require footnotes, or the reading of another book explaining it, or attending a college class, to explain its surface meaning. I definitely do value the scholarly insight that literary critics provide about deeper meanings but feel that the surface level should not need it.

I have heard it suggested that the reason English professors and literary critics like difficult authors like Faulkner or Joyce is because then readers need these same experts to explain to them what the novel is about. That may be too cynical. I am sure these books are the works of genius they are claimed to be. It is just that I don’t want to work that hard to understand them. I think that I am just too low-brow to appreciate these works.

One can encounter the same surface-deep meanings problem with films. The difference with films is the time invested. Films too can have many layers of meaning with the surface one being obscure, but can get away with this because watching a film only takes a couple of hours and people are willing to invest the time to watch it again if the surface story intrigues them. For example Mulholland Drive or Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind can, on the first viewing, leave the viewer baffled as to what is going on but if the surface story is told in an entertaining way, the viewer is willing to take the time and effort to try and figure things out, and to see it again with even greater pleasure. But there are very few novels that I will re-read.

POST SCRIPT: What happened with AIG

The US treasury has been pouring money into AIG (American International Group), the company taken over last year as part of government efforts to stop the downward spiral of the financial sector.

In September of last year I explained the major role that AIG played in the collapse of the housing market and the resulting spread of financial disaster. Now Joe Nocera (New York Times, February 27, 2009) explains in more detail the whole sordid story.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Jared

    Mano,

    I wonder if a novel written by Faulkner or Joyce would be an inappropriate choice for the summer reading selection for the same reason that a non-fiction work such as Einstein’s “On a Heuristic Viewpoint Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light” would be inappropriate.

    Either is worth studying for someone who has the requisite time and prior knowledge. But for anyone else they are too inaccessible.

    A good summer reading for the freshman class is accessible to anyone with a high school education and is blatant enough that it does not need to be studied to be understood (i.e. reading it is enough). I can see a lot of reasons why this makes non-fiction texts more convenient. Publishers put out a vast array of non-fiction books with what I exactly those criteria.

    On the other hand, a novel that fits those requirements is likely to not be a generally considered a “masterpiece”. It might even be categorizable under some genre or another, which has the danger of turning some students off. For example, I have seen similar programs at other universities use novels like “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. LeGuin, which, while it fits the requirements well, can be categorized as “fantasy” and therefore turn off students who “don’t like that genre”.

    So I think that is why you have found fiction underrepresented in CWRU’s reading program.

    Jared

  2. 2
    Anonymous

    Dr. Singham,

    I’ve always wondered why novels weren’t ever selected as the freshman reading, and reading this entry, I’m still quite confused. You mention being comfortable with novelists of an earlier era, so why not simply select one of their works? Why not go with Charles Dickens or Mark Twain? I can’t seem to find the specific selection criteria online, but the orientation website doesn’t seem to rule it out.

    And if the selection criteria do rule it out, why?

    -HRK

  3. 3
    Mano

    Jared,

    With non-fiction, it is generally easier to agree on whether the subject is important/interesting and the writing accessible, which are the main criteria. With fiction, many more factors come into play, and that makes getting consensus that much harder.

    You are right that novels tend to be categorized under genres and some genres are dismissed out of hand as not having broad enough appeal.

  4. 4
    Mano

    HRK,

    The criteria are not many. Some of the less tangible criteria are that the book be appealing to graduating high school seniors and not be something that is likely to have been part of their high school reading. We also hope that the book deals with something important or significant or that will provoke thought and discussion.

    But there are some very concrete requirements as well:

    1. The book has to be available in paperback.
    2. It should not be more than 400 pages, and preferably less than 300.
    3. The author has to be alive and also must agree to be the fall convocation speaker. This last one rules out the classics.

  5. 5
    Erin

    I went into my field (English literature) for the same reason, I imagine, that you went into yours: because the subject manner fascinated you and you wanted to learn as much about it as you could.

    I am a big reader of Faulkner and I just tackled The Sound and the Fury this year. While I agree that a novel which does not require footnotes to be understood has more pure entertainment value (and I read plenty of those novels in my own time), a novel with multiple layers of meaning to be explored–the meaning of which is enhanced by a greater understanding of its context–is a rewarding challenge. Bearing witness to what authors can do with narrative and language if they’re not constrained to stay accessible is what makes literature worth studying. Certainly the most innovative and exciting ideas in any field are too complex for broad appeal.

    Based on the criteria you’ve given for the freshman reading, it seems to me that requiring that the author be able to speak at convocation is the biggest obstacle to choosing a quality piece of work. Sometimes it takes us a few generations to even determine that it is a quality work.

  6. 6
    Mano

    Erin,

    It is true that it is easier to agree on what is a great novel after a lot of time has passed whereas living authors are more likely to be criticized.

    The question of why we should limit ourselves to living authors who also agree to come to our convocation keeps resurfacing. Our committee has no say on this. The people who supply the money for the program (and it costs a lot to give out over 1000 copies of a book) are insistent that they want it that way.

    The novels that came closest to being selected so far were The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.

  7. 7
    Joshua Terchek

    Mano,

    One book meeting all the criteria is “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. With recent historic events, it might be nice for students to gain insight into how far we have come as a country.

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