Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

Been awhile since I’ve posted, and I apologize for nothing! It’s now two years since my last book came out, and it’s almost two years until my next book will come out, and I feel like I’m not really blogging to attract or impress anybody. In general I’ve gotten a lot more sparing with my words, both here and in my writing, and a lot more interested in following the flow of my own interest. In my work, this means cutting out, even on a micro level, the sentences that don’t interest me. I won’t have somebody open a door and walk into a room, unless that interests me. I won’t write a conversation just because the information needs to be in the book. I won’t even include white space, unless it serves a purpose. Probably this does the work no favors, but I don’t care.

With this blog, I too sometimes have ideas, but writing them out bores and tires me. For instance, I’ve little interest in writing descriptions of most of what I’m reading. I am beginning the third and final volume in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and each volume has been better than the last. It’s really less about the Roman Empire and more about the development of Western Civilization (which includes, essentially, everything west of India and north of the Sahara) between the death of Marcus Aurelius and the fall of Constantinople. It’s an incredible work, and all the more incredible for having been written in the 1700s. I mean, it’s pretty racist, too, but not as racist as many things from that era can be. Also, many of the racial prejudices are somewhat quaint, for instance, the characterism of ‘Oriental’ (i.e. Persian and Egyptian and Asian Greek) people as being addicted to despotism. I think the author genuinely finds himself confused, at times, over how to reconcile the modern (i.e. 18th century) prejudices against Middle Eastern, Italian, and Greek people with the fact that, well, historically speaking, those places were the center of all that was civilized. Most authors treat the Mediterranean peoples from antiquity as if they were completely different from those of the modern era, but since Gibbon is dealing with that very transition from Late Antiquity to Early Modern, he has trouble performing this leap of imagination.

Anyway, it’s good. Each volume is about as long as five regular novels though.

Simultaneously I’m reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club by Alisa Valdes. I was intrigued after reading her description of her relationship with Junot Diaz, which also contrasts the difference in the acclaim their novels received. I think that writers of commercial fiction who write realist novels that are essentially modern comedies of manners find the system of genre distinctions particularly perplexing. It’s not per se obvious why Diaz’s book should get the Pullitzer Prize while Valdes’s would never even be considered for it. Where writers of science fiction and fantasy can at least say, “Oh, the system discriminates against non-realist fiction” (not entirely true, but at least it’s an easy explanation), the writers of romance novels, women’s fiction, and chick-lit face an even more arbitrary distinction.

Anyway, reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club and contrasting it, in my mind, with Oscar Wao has been an illuminating experience. I’ll leave it to other people to more directly contrast the two books’ quality, but I’ll note that Valdes’s novel has many virtues, not least of which is an honest examination of mores. I really liked the woman who’s in love with a social worker but is upset, essentially, because he’s cheap and poor. Or the other woman who’s really turned on by this drug dealer she meets. This all feels very real to me, and it’s not something I’ve encountered in other novels.

I think the worst part of the system of genre classification is the sexism that’s at its core. But the second-worst thing is the way it impoverishes literary fiction of realistic depictions of desire, of friendship, and of relationships, and I think that if you want those things nowadays you’re almost required to read commercial fiction (or to watch contemporary television). Which is a little sad, because depictions of manners are at the core of what novels are about.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

  1. disperser

    Good comments on the genres and their sometimes narrow definitions (at least as interpreted by the reading public) and the resulting slotting (or non-slotting) of books.

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