I still read quite a few books–more books than ever, actually–but I almost never have the urge to post about them. Partly this is because I have, for whatever reason, been drawn to more mediocre books lately. I’ve been reading a number of domestic thrillers: entry after entry after entry in the genre that arose in the wake of the success of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. Many of these books are not very good. Their view of human nature is simplistic, and in their attempt to be ‘shocking’ and ‘thrilling’ they throw realism out the window.
(Nonetheless I persist in reading them. I’m drawn to the promise of the genre. I love to read about people who are riven by longing, and I love reading stories about ordinary people. Domestic thrillers provide both.)
But I also have read some serious novels that are more than worth posting about. I’ve been working my way through The Story of the Stone (also known under Dream of the Red Chamber and a half-dozen other sobriquets). This is an 18th-century Chinese novel–a comedy of manners about the decline and fall of a great aristocratic house. Although similar in some respects to other sweeping novels of manners (Buddenbrooks particularly comes to mind), the book’s micro focus is upon the scion of the family, Bao Yu, and his relationships with the three dozen maids, aunts, and girl-cousins who make up his household.
It takes a while to warm up to the book, which is extremely long (the Penguin Classics translation by David Hawkes covers five volumes), but there’s something quite sweet about Bao Yu. His interest in the girls is relatively non-sexual. He idolises women and girls and goes out of their way to placate and cater to them, without recognizing that, as the master of the house, they’re actually all trying to keep him happy.
Bao Yu strikes me as the very portrait of somebody who, today, might think of himself as a trans woman. He at several points wishes openly that he was a girl, and he not infrequently denigrates his own sex. He also seems to have a horror of puberty and of growing up, and when the various women in his coterie are married off, it’s like something forever shatters in his world. I think there’s something sweet and ineluctably true here about what it means to grow up as a man and to be slowly forced into a role that you didn’t choose and don’t want.
Nonetheless I haven’t posted much about the book. Even the above I only wrote so you’d understand what I was talking about. The thing is that I sometimes wonder if I have anything to add to the Internet’s book discourse.
It seems to me that most people who write about books on the internet come from one of three traditions of criticism: academic; fannish; or pop-culture. An academic writer would be someone like Matt Cheney at Mumpsimus, who writes extremely smart things about books, using words and concepts I’ve never heard of. A fannish writer would be someone like my friend Becca, who writes about her bookish loves and does an amazing job conveying the enthusiasm they arouse in her. A pop-culture writer might be Abigail Nussbaum, over at Wrong Questions, who combines a knowledge of technique and impact with some sense of the work’s role in the current palette of what people are watching and reading.
I don’t feel very at home in any of these traditions. The academic tradition is entirely foreign to me. I just don’t read or think that way. I don’t like or respond to books the same way that fans do. And maybe I’m just not a rigorous or serious enough thinker to react to things the way a pop-culture critic does.
For most of the lifetime of this book, I’ve free-associated about books. When I read a book, certain ideas occur to me, and then I use the reading of this book as an occasion to write about those ideas. Most of the time, those ideas have nothing to do with the book in question. I’ve noticed, actually, that my ideas tend to be more negative than positive. They’re all things I’m against, rather than things I’m for.
I am deeply suspicious of books and of culture in general, and I try to resist the impulse to valorize them. I also don’t trust heroism. Not just the prevailing mode of heroism, where a white man breaks the law in order to save us all, but even the broader idea of heroic action: the notion that one person can or should make a difference. I’m suspicious of all humanistic or rationalist systems that purport to provide some meaning for life. I’m suspicious of friendship. I value it quite a bit, but I think it’s much weaker than most people would like it to be. I’m suspicious of Critical Race Theory and its offshoots. Not that I don’t see the value of critiquing systems of power relations, but the critique has become too facile, too simple, and too automatic. It’s time to figure out other ways of talking about art. I’m suspicious of the aristocratic impulses that many artists have: the sense that there’s a certain elect who’re capable of appreciating beauty–it’s too easy to draw a line between these ideas and fascism. I’m also suspicious of democratic impulses in art: the idea that what is popular must be good, and that art needs to or ought to be accessible to the masses. It’s too easy to draw a line between these ideas and fascism.
I’m full of suspicion, is what I’m saying. But it’s very hard to figure out what I am in favor of. Moreover, without the backing of some school of criticism, it’s hard sometimes for me to understand if the things I’m saying are either brutally obvious or completely off-base.
I think books, for me, are a private island. I relate to books in my own way. And, like, most people, I’ve built up a system of referents that I return to again and again. The authors I think about day-in and day-out are Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, Euripides, Yasunari Kawabata, Jorge Luis Borges, Dashiell Hammett, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, Honore de Balzac, and a few dozen others.
Interestingly, I’ve been most likely to find kindred spirits amongst writer and professors of the older generation: writers who are in their sixties and seventies and eighties, and who are considered out-of-touch even by other Boomers. With them at least I feel able to communicate. If you meet someone who loves these authors, then you know something about them.
I think, despite the atomizing impulses that power my skepticism, I still believe in the novel as a vehicle for saying fresh and true things about human relationships. This is why I have a hard time, honestly, getting into a lot of contemporary fiction. It’s too deeply situated in the personal. It’s about moment-to-moment experience. There are too many images and not enough conversations, not enough summary, not enough telling.
Most writers in the modern day seem to feel a sort of exhaustion. They retreat into the embodied world–into the world of sensation and images–because it seems infinitely varied. When it comes to social novels, the terrain seems to be exclusively in the possession of multi-cultural writers. But even here there’s a sense of exhaustion. When I read a book about Native Americans in Oakland, I don’t see anything in it about human relations that wasn’t common currency in Emile Zola’s time. Modern society destroys people, in party by systematically creating incentives for families to desert and sacrifice each other.
When multicultural novels succeed, it often feels like they succeed simply because they describe sights and sounds we’ve never read before, or they use cadences we’ve never heard.
But I think so many stories have not been told. There seems to be such a dearth of novels that describe human relations as they actually are. When I read books about love and sex, for instance, it’s not that they haven’t yet adapted to the 21st century…most of them haven’t even adapted yet to the nineties! The story of modern times is not the story of libertinism. It’s not the story of successive semi-serious monogamous relationships. Peoples’ lives are not like Friends. Most people I know are or have been single for long stretches of time. They have had few sexual partners. They have off-beat sexual preferences that are sometimes best satisfied through masturbation. And they read these books, and they’re like “What’s wrong with me?” When the real answer is Nothing, you are so normal.
But then these same people sit down and write a book, and it’s like fucking Friends. It’s all about some chick deciding between two men. That’s so dumb! Modern life isn’t deciding between two men. It’s deciding between zero men. Or between men and women. It’s not deciding between a boring guy and a dangerous one. It’s deciding between the dangerous one and nobody. Or the boring one and nobody. There is a remarkable reluctance, in modern fiction, to face up to the mute fact of loneliness. And this is so true that the few books and films which actually do acknowledge loneliness become classics almost through fiat, not because they’re any good, but simply because they exist.
It’s so shocking to me that in this world where it seems like everybody is writing stories and everybody is making art, nobody is able to see to just see things as they are. Another example: men are full of violence. It’s not just some small portion of men. It’s most men. Not that most men will be violent, but the rage and hatred that creates violence is inside almost all men. But you could read novels all day long and never realize this to be the case. It’s almost a conspiracy of silence. Women don’t know the truth. In their novels, they portray violent impulses as something erratic or pathological. And in our books men go along with this fiction–when we have protagonists who are violent or angry, we pretend that they’re sociopaths or troubled individuals. But they aren’t. We are all violent. Every man, and most women, know this to be the case, yet it’s completely absent from our pop culture. The only difference between a violent man and most men is the fact that the violent one at some point realized he could get probably get away with it, so long as he chose his victims carefully.
I could go on and on and on. It seems to me that there is so much unexplored terrain in fiction. Luckily, television is filling in some of the gap. The novel is at this point almost the little brother of television; it’s only relevance comes through the influence that novels have upon TV. The power of novelists come not from any inherent power of the textual medium, but through the structural freedom involved in our art. Novels don’t require ten million dollar budgets to come to fruition. Although a novel needs buy-in from several major corporations in order to hit the shelves, that still, in practice, means that a novel only needs one or two determined supporters, as opposed to the hundreds or thousands that a TV show needs. As such, it’s possible for a novel to make statements that a TV show cannot.
So go out and make them! And maybe then I’ll be able to write about books again.