Rick Groen wrote this in the Globe and Mail almost four years ago. I liked it so much I printed it out and stuck it in a notebook. Then into a folder of inspiring readings, as the notebook was filled up and replaced. Then, while cleaning out my office and emptying bloated file folders, although I tossed a bunch of stuff away, I reread it, and loved it again, and folded it up and tucked it in the back of my dayplanner. Where it just resurfaced.
And so, I share it.
Long may it be read, and reread.
I’ve done the math and here’s the bottom line. If you want consistent artistic bang for your buck, skip the movies, forget the theatre and turn off your TV set. Instead, read a book. More specifically, read a novel. More specifically still, read the kind of novel that publishers call “trade fiction.”
Or “literary fiction.” By which they mean, the made-up stuff that has higher aspirations than the made-up stuff scribbled by a Dan Brown or a Danielle Steel.
Okay, my arithmetic is personal and subjective, as are the standards I’m using to measure worth. But at least I’m applying those standards evenly across the different storytelling media. When I do, the numbers shout out. Over any given year in the movies, when the likes of a Pan’s Labyrinth or a Capote graces the screen, I can maybe see 10 films good enough to qualify as – I’m sorry to have to use the word – art. My theatre visits are less frequent, but sufficient to suggest that my tally in new plays would be no higher. On television, I love The Sopranos and … well, I love The Sopranos.
But then, with a twist of my head, I survey the ever-mounting stacks of contemporary hard covers and paperbacks that surround me, piled on bed-stands, on tabletops, sometimes even on shelves. Calculating when I first read the books, then sorting them into 12-month periods, pondering as I do the various delights of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty or Orhan Pamuk’s Snow or anything ever written by David Mitchell, I figure my annual average is about 20. And every last one is art. What’s more, all that stops the total from being a whole lot larger is my chronic inability to read any faster.
Now I know these words are loaded, that terms like “artistic” and “literary” and “higher aspirations” are open to debate, vulnerable to scorn and prone to getting slapped with that most damning of modern charges – elitism. But stick with me a moment, Fantastic Four fans, and let’s begin with a more objective yardstick and with an interest that everyone shares. Let’s begin with money.
This much is certain: Compared with the skyscrapers of dough regularly built and toppled in the movie and TV industries, the publishing biz is a cheap bungalow, a hard-up cousin. Sure, there’s an occasional phenom like The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Pott er tomes, but (a) they’re the exception and (b) they’re not literary fiction (don’t be impatient, definition to follow). Relatively speaking, books and their writers are cash-poor. Go to the Oscars and the folks making the acceptance speeches have all arrived in fat limos straight from their palatial mansions. Go to the Gillers and it’s a safe bet that the slimmest wallets in the room belong to the nominees on the podium, who probably schlepped to the big night in the back seat of a battered Golf. Admittedly, at this stage in their careers, no one’s holding a tag day for a Canadian icon like Alice Munro, or Brit stalwarts like Ian McEwan or Martin Amis. Yet neither did they just pocket $10-million for a few months’ work in Spidey 3.
Happily, what’s bad luck for the serious writer – a breed that’s forever whining about their monetary troubles – is good news for the serious reader. Simply put, scant money in the pot translates into more creative freedom and less commercial pressure. Consider just the several talented Jonathans on today’s scene – Coe (The Rotters’ Club), Franzen (The Corrections), Saffron Foer (Everything is Illuminated) and Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude). In the several years it might take them to write a novel (discounting the time spent padding their income with teaching or journalism), they’re pretty much left alone to stew in their juices. Publishers, unlike other media execs, aren’t launching focus groups and market research that force their geniuses to brighten up the book’s ending or lower the neckline on its heroine. They probably would if they could profit from it. But, since no one’s making a boatload of money off these Jonathans anyway, each is able to engage in a prolonged solitary activity that yields an individual vision.
However, their unique visions do have certain factors in common, notably two traits that separate these “literary” efforts from the Dan Browns of the printed word. First, the Jonathans of literature, or a Rohinton Mistry or a Guy Vanderhaeghe or a Michael Chabon, can do a thing that most of us cannot. They can write a stylishly imaginative sentence. Let’s quickly peek at a couple of small examples from Chabon’s recent The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Like this: “He turns, and Brennan’s there, that large-headed man, hatless and coatless, necktie blown over his shoulder, a penny in his left loafer, bankrupt in the right.” There’s music in the rhythm of that sentence and comedy in the kicker ending. To read it is to get pleasure, aesthetic pleasure.
Next this: “He is a young man with pudding cheeks and rimless glasses and a complexion tinged with green, like the white in a dollar bill.” The simile does the descriptive job beautifully, finding a connection where none seemed to exist. Don’t know about you, but my dull mind had never before linked bilious skin and paper currency. So style not only affords pleasure; it can also reach out into the swirl of experience and build a tiny bridge, forge a bit of order from the chaos.
Ah, but now for the tricky part. On to the second common factor: Content. Is there a perspective, a sensibility, shared by literary fiction? Franzen thinks so and, in a fascinating essay titled Why Bother? (part of his How to be Alone collection) calls it “tragic realism.” But he offers this careful proviso: “I hope it’s clear that by ‘tragic’ I mean just about any fiction that raises more questions than it answers: anything in which conflict doesn’t resolve into cant. (Indeed, the most reliable indicator of a tragic perspective in a work of fiction is comedy.) … Tragic realism preserves the recognition that improvement always comes at a cost; that nothing lasts forever; that if the good in the world outweighs the bad, it’s by the slimmest of margins.”
Eureka. A definition of narrative art, one that helps explain why most of it, from Shakespeare’s fools to The Sopranos’ hit men, has a discernible undercurrent of sadness, a recognition that the human heart is always in conflict with itself. Every writer worth his garret – even humorists like Mark Twain or Evelyn Waugh or those Yale grads who crank out The Simpsons – possesses and explores that sensibility. But contemporary writers do so in a culture that values precisely the opposite view, a culture that has become as binary as the computer that dominates it. There, every problem has a solution, every heart can be healed; there, you’re either good or bad, healthy or sick, with us or against us. Alas, my experience of life tells me that I’m not either/or but both/and – both good and bad, smart and stupid, with our brave boys and against them.
So it’s surely no coincidence that my passion for literary fiction began, somewhere in my early teens, with the dawning realization that I was a flawed creature, no longer the golden hero of my childhood dreams. With my own heart already beating at cross-purposes, I read to have my emerging view of the world, and my shaky place in it, validated. Peers and parents seemed to take a dim view of this interest: “Always with your head in a book. You’re anti-social.” Actually, I was trying to be pro-social; I was reading to feel less weird, to see my anxieties reflected in other “characters,” to enjoy that delicious “shock of recognition.” Even then, the paradox seemed clear: Reading is a solitary activity that makes me feel less alone. I wasn’t escaping from life, but escaping into life, or into a sense of it that more truly echoed my own.
Obviously, most pop culture leads us in the reverse direction, and the people who love it (or, like me, intermittently love it) insist: “I just want to be entertained. I want, for an hour or so, to get away from my cares and woes.” Fine for them, fine for me too. That kind of “escapism” is perfectly valid. But this stuff is all around us now, and too much of it generates a further paradox: Escapist entertainment has become its own vast prison. Often, we’re just exchanging one jail for another, and one brand of woe for the next.
A final question remains. Since I sure ain’t a teenager any more, what continues to draw me to these literary tales with their sad undercurrent? Do I still need the validation that my fears and hopes aren’t unique? I don’t think so. Then is it to grow wiser or, as the classicists urged, to be “instructed?” I hope not. Reading shouldn’t be a sour medicine that is vaguely good for you. Nor do I agree with Franzen’s high-falutin’ response: “The formal aesthetic rendering of the human plight can be (although I’m afraid we novelists are rightly mocked for overusing the word) redemptive.” Hey, mock away – redemptive vastly overstates the case.
For me, “liberating” comes closer. When a gifted writer gets those twin-talents to merge, when his flair for a great sentence fuses with his honest measuring of the human pulse, magic happens. And, momentarily at least, I feel liberated from the very sadness that gives the book its sensibility – somehow, simultaneously, I’m immersed in the undercurrent and soaring above it.
Of course, the goal of all the liberal arts is to liberate – some emotion, some thought sparked by that emotion. I’m not saying that the experience can’t be found on screens big and small, or on the stage, or in the corner of a canvas or the notes of a melody. And I’m certainly not saying that all literary fiction is literate and artistic. Much is neither. But I am arguing that, these days, talented writers – toiling alone for prolonged periods, free from big commercial pressures and usually bereft of big commercial rewards – are more likely to consistently produce that quality of work, enough in any year to fill several years’ worth of reading time.
Not so long ago, prophets predicted the death of the novel. They were dead wrong. It’s not ailing and it’s not arcane or marginalized. Every book mentioned in this piece is readily available from your nearest chain store. Nope, in today’s culture, today’s novel is alive and crucially vital – at best, in top form, it’s a liberating rebel with a sublime cause.