What do we look for in a novel?

Ruined by ReadingI’ve always believed that appreciating good art in any medium requires our effort. Good art doesn’t come to us–we go to it. The more we extend ourselves to understand what the writer (or artist or composer) intends, the more we can learn from it and the more it will enrich our lives. Of course, that begs the question–what is good writing? How do we know what writing is worth our close attention? Not all writing is good and, of course, “good” is a subjective term. There were even times when Shakespeare was considered just a middling playwright. And maybe, for practical purposes, “good” writing is just what we enjoy whether it’s critically acclaimed or not.

And speaking of critics, I like what Vivian Gornick said in a recent interview with Hannah Gold from The Nation: “I think it was Baudelaire who was the first literary person that I know of to describe criticism as autobiography. The first time I ever saw that sentence I understood how true it was. In other words, what any writer does is essentially give the reader a view of how the writer sees the world…the idea that the critic is omniscient, is committing in ironclad terms the right and the wrong, the good and the bad, as if coming from above, is ridiculous. It’s just not true.” Gornick always has interesting things to say about literature and I’ve read many of her books, mostly essays about literature, life (hers), and feminism.

I recently came across an article on this topic in The Guardian titled Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work…better? Why we need difficult books by Lara Feigel. You may enjoy reading it and thinking about the issues it raises in terms of your own reading. I’ve loved reading the challenging novels that reward close attention, like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, but like a dieter, I enjoy cheating with a thriller, fantasy epic, or mystery. In the same way, I love going to the Frick Museum to feed my soul with those remarkable works of art, but I also enjoy the costume exhibits at the Metropolitan. The pleasures of reading are many and can be found in many places and many genres. Librarians have a saying, “Never apologize for your reading tastes.” My goal with this blog is to provide variety so everyone finds something they enjoy, but it’s also to write about the harder stuff, the stuff that makes great art. I recently spent two years reading Proust with a group in New York. Did I love every word? No, but it was a rewarding experience to spend time with a writer who understands the human heart so thoroughly and with other people who appreciated exactly this quality in his writing. 

The book cover at the top of this post is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s short memoir Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books , a delightful book about the power of reading in her life. It turns out many readers have the same kinds of experiences with books; Schwartz just knows how to put those experiences into words. 

 

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