About four weeks ago, I took a book out of the library that I was supposed to love. A good friend of mine recommended it to me about a year and a half ago and it had been on my to-read list since then. Looking for one last ‘literary’ read before harvest sets in and my life becomes consumed by physical work and I’m too drained to read anything other than quick, fun books, I checked it out.
The book was called Ironweed by William Kennedy. A quick Wikipedia search told me that I was SURE to, at the very least, WANT to love this book. In fact, my literary credentials were at stake if I DIDN’T love this book: It was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1984, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it was the BEST BOOK IN AMERICA for a single year. THE BEST BOOK. Who the hell am I to tell the Pulitzer judges that their choice of book wasn’t quite up to snuff for me, and that they had better go back and pick a different one because I couldn’t get through it?
And yet, sadly but surely, I couldn’t get through it. I read the first twenty pages, laughing out loud. They were funny. Then the next twenty pages, which were a bit more somber. Then the next fifty pages, which frankly made me want to die. The subject matter – homeless bums on the vagrant path, sick, hungry, and drunk, lost in dreams from their past lives – was depressing enough that I was seriously worried about falling back into the weeks of blackness I’d so recently pulled myself out of.
I put the book down, feeling somewhat guilty. Just finish it, I reprimanded myself. Maybe that last page is fucking glorious. Maybe the last chapter makes the whole thing worth it. Maybe the second half brings the whole thing together and you’ll think it’s the best goddamn book you’ve ever read.
But, I reminded myself, suffering through page after page of misery just to get to a last page that may or may not deliver some moment of poignancy isn’t necessarily worth it. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything, unless you really really want to. And in poor Mr. Kennedy’s case, I really just didn’t want to.
I’ve had people tell me they thought Tolstoy was trash. That they hate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was the dullest read they’d ever choked down. And yet, for some reason, we come back to these classics, over and over again, simply because we’ve been told they’re classic, that we OUGHT to read them, that we MUST love them, that they have some sort of literary credential that has STOOD THE TEST OF TIME. And that frankly, if you don’t love them, there’s something wrong with YOU, the reader, not with the book or the author.
This is a huge stigma in the world of literature, publishing, writing. There is an idea that, once a book or an author has been thoroughly vetted and approved by the mass of critics in the New York Times and the New Yorker, he or she becomes sacrosanct, untouchable, uncriticizable. Once you have attained that status, you’re a literary god. And if by chance some plebeian reader happens to dislike your work, well, that’s the reader’s problem.
Of note, too, is that the books that achieve this status are almost always in the genre known as literary fiction – contemporary, real world, adorned with golden phrases or “muscular” prose. Rare is it when a science fiction, fantasy, or (God forbid!) romance novel achieve this untouchable status. No, only literary fiction authors can achieve these heights, and once attained, it is the reader’s, not the writer’s, fault if he or she doesn’t like the book.
Maybe that’s true and maybe that isn’t. But I come back to my previous statement: You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything. If you’re enjoying it, continue. If not, put the damn book down and find something you will.
There are some books, of course, that almost demand a bit of sacrifice before you get to the good parts. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace requires that you struggle through the length of an entire normally-sized book, about two hundred pages, before you finally get to the real story, when the book becomes a page turner and you simply can’t put it down. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky requires about seventy pages of penance before the action picks up. And pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to says that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – by all accounts an action-packed, dark, gritty story – is boring as hell before you get to the meat.
But if you’re half-way through the book and the only thing urging you on is a sense that you haven’t quite lived up to your own literary standards, that you aren’t enjoying a book you’re supposed to enjoy – “it was a goddamn Pulitzer prize winner!” – that some agent or professor or editor will one day find out that you thought Ironweed was shit and look down upon you for it, then for God’s sakes, put aside your pretensions, put down the book, and go read something else.
We only have so much time in this world, and there are hundreds of thousands of books to be read. Don’t waste your time reading something you’re not enjoying, no matter how much anyone else insists you’re missing out. No matter how much the New York Times Book Review insists you’re putting down the best book of the decade. No matter how much the New Yorker insults your intelligence for not being able to keep up with the literary masters. Read what you love. Not what you’re supposed to love. The end.
I’m totally with you, Amira. You can’t and shouldn’t fake love of a book any more than any other kind of love.
Right? I think people get caught up in the accolades and the critical reviews and forget to just read what interests them and what they love. I know I’m guilty!
I read Ironweed and several of William Kennedy’s other books. He was a literary “rock star” in the 1980s, but appears to have burned out. I remember liking his work (I finished too) but wondering what all the hoopla was about. Writing about smaller dying industrial towns in the Northeast especially, and the economically disadvantaged, was “in” (Richard Russo is in this movement too) and very PC with the “Reagan revolution” taking hold. But I am glad someone of your generation read this and commented as I had wondered whether Kennedy’s relevance would squeeze by the next generation and now there’s at least one data point. Similar works are Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm and John Dos Passos work (USA for one) from one or generations preceding Kennedy’s. It would be interesting to see what you think of those but Ironweed is mercifully short compared to the others, just a warning.
I totally think you are right, Amira. I remember goinh through the same with yet another ‘classic’ – Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Yup, that.
Honesty with your books is necessary!
Amen! Hallelujah and yes! I have Captain Corelli’s Mandolin on my shelf which has been gathering dust for about a million years since someone bought it for me. I started it. It bored me senseless. I put it down but I still look at it there, on the shelf and feel guilt. I *should like it, shouldn’t I? Weirdly no one expects me to like 50 Shades of Grey, despite its popularity. How strange and how snobbish. That doesn’t appeal to me either in subject matter, regardless if it was well written. it took me months to get through The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling). Reviews were good, people said I should. I felt obliged. I didn’t rate it. I wish I hadn’t bothered struggling through. As for Jane Austen? Pah! Give me the Brontes or Hardy or Eliot over her any day. But isn’t this just it. Art, literature being one type, is always subjective. Floury, purple prose does little for me. Tell me a story. Then I’ll listen. Great post, all well said as always. Thanks 🙂
If you stick your hand into a bonfire, it will eventually stop hurting when your flesh has fallen off the bone and your nerve endings have been incinerated. I agree that books (and music and art) can have multiple meanings and may require repeated incursions to fully digest… but there has to be a hook.
Also, there is no place in creativity for sacred cows. If we could all agree that there is One Book which is amazing, and is the very pinnacle of fiction all-things-to-all-kinds, every other author may as well down tools and not bother.
Totally agree too!
It’s taken me a good couple of years, but I’m finally realising everything you have said in this post. I like my sci-fi/fantasy, and I don’t enjoy things like Catch-22 (which comes to mind because I tried reading it this year, and by about 30 pages in, had a headache). Like you said, life’s too short to be reading books you don’t enjoy.
While I rely on others’ recommendations to populate my TBR, I generally ignore what other people have to say specifically about a book until after I’ve read it.
The last book I was “supposed” to like that I didn’t was Confederacy of Dunces.