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
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.