8.26.2009

I have seen my folly, and have paid dearly for it

One thing I love about reading is when authors are in command of the language enough to communicate their story in a way that makes me appreciate the manner in which the story is told, regardless of what the story is about. But . . . . Literary fiction - meaning writing that is well-crafted, regardless of the subject - is so often used to tell stories about suicidal suburbanites, about drug abuse and every other abuse you can think of, about infidelity, and disease and divorce and death. I get kind of tired of it. And the reason I get tired of it is because the protagonists (and most of the secondary characters as well) in some of those books are so stupid that the problems they face are usually their own fault. As an associate of mine once said, "I just can't enjoy a book where everyone behaves as badly as possible. Just because a book is well written doesn't mean it has to be depressing and obnoxious."

Do I have little patience for the persistent follies of humanity? When they show up in fiction, yes, because I get quite enough of such folly in real life and I don't want to spend my leisure time reading about it. I have no sympathy for a fictional protagonist who is a dolt.

I remember starting a novel and being impressed by the really lovely and skilled writing. "How nice for a change to read something so well written," I said to myself. "This is gonna be fun!" But within a couple of chapters, and almost before I knew it, here I was introduced to the woman's cheating husband and their really annoying teenage daughter, and the woman was contemplating an affair. Ugh. So much for literary fiction.

On the other hand, genre literature like science fiction and fantasy, mystery, western, romance, etc, is generally dismissed as substandard simply because it is genre literature. I freely admit that there is a lot of rotten, sloppy, lazy, unskilled writing in those genres, but I've found it in literary fiction as well. So, is it fair to dismiss a book that is classified as, say, fantasy because it contains other-worldly elements, even if the writing is so excellent that it surpasses the latest book club fodder? I don't think so.

I'm reminded of something I once read about the author Charles Baxter (it impressed me so I wrote it down). It's from the Sep/Oct 1994 issue of Poets & Writers: "When asked why fiction is so important, Baxter gives a long, articulate answer. . . . He says fiction can allow us to see clearly into other people's lives. It can help us to better understand our own lives, and even to make our lives easier. Sometimes, he says, it can make people more bewildered, which is beneficial for people who have too much certainty. He says that 'good fiction gives you the clarity of truth, a feeling of recognition, a feeling of something important becoming visible'."

With a handful or two of exceptions, I pretty much gave up reading mainstream literary fiction about 20 years ago because I no longer got that clarity of truth or feeling of recognition from it. It seemed more foreign and outlandish to me than fantasy. I contented myself for a while with reading old favorite authors and discovering some new ones, but they were all pretty much published before 1960. Consequently, it got harder and harder to find something new to be excited about. So I started trying out the genres. I've always like mystery, and I did find a few new interesting books, but much of the new stuff seems either stupidly written (thus giving force to the argument that genre writing is substandard) and it is not for me, or exceedingly grim and I am not for it.

I even tried some of the newer romance authors. But let us pull a curtain over that revelation and quietly tiptoe away.

I was reluctant at first to try speculative fiction because I've always found science fiction to be boring and fantasy to be cheap Tolkienoid clones, and because a lot of the earlier stuff in both categories is either misogynistic or just lacking a competent and believable female character. Some of it still has those flaws, but somehow I was fortunate enough to discover a handful of authors that have restored my faith in the existence of literary writing combined with great storytelling.

There really shouldn't be any of this snobbish attitude about genres, except for maybe romance. Skilled writing and skilled story-telling are not the exclusive province of the literary fiction market. As a matter of fact, I think literary fiction is a misnomer and can be applied to any well-written book, regardless of the category it is assigned to.

The reason I'm saying all this is because I recently finished reading The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

cover #1

I've been meaning to write a review of this book for the last three or four weeks, but I wanted to do it justice and I couldn't think of anything but vague clich├ęs. Wow, I really liked it! It was such a good book! And it was so exciting! And it was so interesting! And I can't wait to find out what happens next!

Actually, after I finished the book, I found my thoughts going back to it again and again in the ensuing days. That's how I knew it had had a profound effect on me, but I couldn't quite figure out why. It is stylistically well written (and it's written in first person, a limited point of view unusual for a fantasy novel, but for me it was a plus), and it is one of the books that helped me decide that people who don't read speculative fiction should really stop wasting their time with all the mass-produced noise and rhetoric coming from certain top-selling or critically esteemed authors and open their eyes to new possibilities in literary writing. But aside from that, there was something else.

There was initially enough stuff to make me think I wouldn't like it:

1. It's partly a boy's coming of age story, which I pretty much stopped being interested in once I was in my mid-teens, but Rothfuss kept me intrigued, and therein does he show his skill.

2. It has annoying copy on the flap, saying, "I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep." The first time I picked up the book, which was about a year ago, I read that copy and decided here was a book to avoid. I figured it was just another tale of a conceited whoremongering joker with too much talent and not enough soul. And that is absolutely not what the main character turned out to be like. Fortunately, I heard good things about the book from other sources (one of them being Brandon Sanderson's blog, if I'm not mistaken).

3. It's long. That can be a bad thing if a book is only so-so. It's not bad enough to chuck aside, but finishing it becomes a real chore. But if a book is good, then great length is a plus. In this case it is indeed a plus, and it didn't even take that long to read because I was reluctant to put it down.

I guess I'd say that the author succeeded in allowing me to see into the characters' lives (the main character, Kvothe, is very smart, mostly likable, sometimes wise enough to learn from his mistakes, and altogether believably imperfect), and although it didn't help me understand my life any better, it did reaffirm some understandings that I haven't always had. Clarity of truth . . . check. Feeling of recognition . . . double check. Feeling of something important becoming visible . . . not completely sure what Baxter meant by that, but it sounds profound, so . . . sure, why not? Check.

So I think you should check it out.

Incidentally, The Name of the Wind is the first book in a series. I think I heard that it was a trilogy, but I'm not sure about that. The whole thing is called The Kingkiller Chronicle, which doesn't really impress me, but book two is called The Wise Man's Fear, which does. Publication is forthcoming, probably 2010, but there is no fixed date yet. I look forward to it.

Also incidentally, the first US printing of The Name of the Wind was apparently published with two different dust jackets.

cover #2
(I think I prefer #1)

3 comments:

Gary said...

You make me want to read it!

Jared said...

me too! (you kind of already did, but I thought I'd mention that here)

oh... and I'm finally reading the third book of the Mistborn trilogy. the end of the 2nd blew my mind! I was so not expecting that. I'm nervous, but hopeful, for how this one ends.

Again, not Jared.

Shannon said...

well i was already going to read it, so there. i kid i kid. well i was, but anyway.
i think i like the paperback cover better than the other two covers.
i'm on chapter 2. thanks for not giving anything away :)