Sunday, February 22, 2015

Literary Fiction Is Mostly Horrible

Studying literature for decades teaches a person two things:

1. REAL literature is often tragically depressing, sick with perversion and psychoses, and/or artistically bizarre. This is because REAL literature is written by authors who might possibly be depressed, mentally ill, and/or criminally quirky. You Edgar Allan Poe.

2. FUN literature never, ever makes it onto comprehensive-exam book lists or standardized tests unless it is comedy written by Shakespeare or Aristophanes.

Thank you, God, for Shakespeare and Aristophanes.

I've already confessed on this blog that I got hooked on literature because of Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Her irreverence gave me the courage to read whatever I want to read...which might be literary fiction or pure pabulum depending on what my hormones tell me to read on any given day. Having liberated myself from the morose snobbery of literary pretentiousness, I read what I want to read and apologize to no one for doing so.

That's why I picked Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore for our book club. The review blurbs on the back cover include this gem from NPR: "One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you're likely to have this year.... There's so much largehearted magic in this book."

Fun? Largehearted? Largehearted isn't even a word. This book makes NPR spout warm, fuzzy, unnecessary neologisms. Or perhaps whoever proofread the cover simply forgot the hyphen. Who cares? I loved this book. It's funny in a laugh-out-loud way (proper hyphens!) and (spoiler alert) everything wraps up tidily in the end. There aren't even any psycho antagonists who mess with your sleep patterns or tragic situations that leave you curled in the fetal position with a box of tissues and your thumb in your mouth. Yes, The Fault in our Stars, I'm talking to you.

These days, I prefer largehearted to fetally depressing. That didn't keep me from enjoying Me before You by Jojo Moyes, a complex slog through the world of dysfunctional families and assisted suicide. It's not exactly literary fiction, but Moyes makes her readers think about these issues far more deeply than your average Oprah pick and the ending, though sad, is also uplifting.

When my son Nick took a practice PARCC exam a few weeks ago because that's all kids do in school these days is take practice exams to prepare for the real exams because all that matters in education is standardized test scores, but don't get me started....

Where was I?

Oh, right. So when Nick took a practice PARCC exam in English, he had to read "The Masque of the Red Death" by Poe and answer questions about it. The story is just as cheery as the name sounds.

It is by Poe. What does Nick expect?

My son, who reads dark comic books with psychopathic criminals and plays first-person-shooter video games, ranted about schools making kids read sick, extremely well-written stories by crazy dead white guys.

"Why do they only make us read the horrible stories? Why can't we read the happy ones?" he exclaimed.

"I know!" I exclaimed right back because I am a cool mom who validates her son's feelings.

The ancient Greeks strove for balance between tragedy and comedy, but as literary studies became professionalized in the early 20th century, something happened to the idea of great literature being fun. Serious things can't be fun, right? Literary scholars began privileging tragedy over comedy, even though authors have written quite a lot of literary comedy in the past two-and-a-half millennia. Very few literary greats whom teachers assign today--Jane Austen and Shakespeare, for instance--get away with happily-ever-after endings. In the "serious" literary canon, the best way to get the wedding at the end is to have the mad woman in the attic burn to death and the hero blinded. Yay, Jane Eyre! You won!

I've read enough serious literature to know that the stories we tell often reflect our angst and hang-ups, and occasionally, we'll stumble across a character who shows us how to cope, or more accurately, how NOT to cope, or even more accurately, how we are simply not in control of our lives and sometimes the Red Death wins, Molly cheats on Leopold, and something rotten in the state of Denmark leads to poisoning, stabbing, and suicide no matter how we agonize over it.

In the end, I think that's the reason so much literary fiction is horrible, to use Nick's word. It shows us we're not in control. Boy, do we want to be in control! We want justice and goodness and fairness to win, but the truth is, sometimes they lose...spectacularly.

What really matters is how we pick up the pieces and move forward after the bloody climax. Sometimes, literary fiction ends too soon, and we're left with the tragedy and no lesson on how to go on afterward. But we do go on, and sometimes, we go on quite well.

Lately, some sad events have touched people I love, which leaves me wanting to read more comedy to find some sort of balance. If I'm in need of levity, I like to take refuge in comedy of either the sarcastic or romantic kind. Recently, I read Sarah Addison Allen's The Peach Keeper (romance) and Jen Mann's People I Want to Punch in the Throat: Competitive Crafters, Drop-Off Despots, and Other Suburban Scourges (sarcasm). Neither qualifies as literary fiction and both are delightful escapes.

The ancient Greeks got it right. We are stuck with both comedy and tragedy. Real life wears both dramatic masks, and we need to deal with both as Fortune's wheel turns.

But as Nick learned from Poe, if the red mask comes after you in the form of a standardized-test bubble form, you're sort of screwed.


  1. If you haven't discovered Alexander McCall Smith and the Ladies #1 Detective Agency series or Patrick Taylor's Irish Country Doctor series, you are in for a treat. The first is more like a travelogue through Botswana, iwht he mysteries being solved more like people's personal problems.-No bodies,guns, or grisliness. The second is like All Creatures Great and Small except about people and in Ireland. Both good ways to escape the daily and mundane and idiocy . Enjoy!

    1. I've been an avid fan of Precious Ramatswe from the beginning, but I simply must check out the Irish Country Doctor series! Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  2. I love all sorts too ... and some NOT. I've stopped taking out books that I don't like from book club - all those I'm "supposed" to read. Not enough time.
    Love Jojo Moyes too, especially "The One plus One". A great line in there "you'll find your tribe".
    Have your read The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. Simply delightful. About a guy who doesn't realise he has Aspergers and is looking for a wife.
    Happy reading.


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