She Only Reads Novels!

Buy the old James Bonds before the revised, sanitized editions hit the shelves.

“Oh, she only reads novels!” said a phlebotomist who used to belong to book group. As I entered the conference room, she was gossiping about moi, and claimed that my fondness for novels was a character flaw.  

Then she made my kind friend Janet cry. When Janet recommended Joy Harjo’s latest collection of poetry, the phlebotomist gave her a sharp tongue-lashing.   Fiction may be dangerous, but poetry apparently is too-too!  The rest of us thanked Janet and decided to read Harjo.
One of us suggested that the phlebotomist was actually a  “racist vampire.” That made me laugh, but to give credit where it’s due, I doubt that the “vampire” knew that Joy Harjo was a former Poet Laureate, or that she was a Native American. In fact, I am sure she knew nothing about her!

The prejudice against novels and poetry is prevalent in our society – something to fight against in our new age of book-banning and “revision.” Good old Dad once called me “a non-participant in life” and punished me for reading on a weekend by making me mow the lawn.  All the neighbors saw me sobbing and mowing, so he rescinded his order – for his image. I raced inside, slammed the door of my room,  and returned to my book – possibly J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Thank God my mother and grandmother encouraged reading!  Is there anything more glorious than discovering Dickens? The  richness of language, his gorgeous use of anaphora and hyperbole, eccentric characters, wit, and brilliant storytelling?  I was also enamored of  the Brontes, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Influenced by Gothic novels and the Romantic poets, the Brontes wrote vigorously, lyrically, and  suspensefully about impoverished, independent heroines, dark, brooding anti-heroes, and forbidden love – not without wit!

Reading novels can be serious or fun, or serious and fun, but it is not an uncritical activity.  We do not consider Georgette Heyer the equal of Jane Austen, which is not to say that Heyer doesn’t  have her merits. (But I simply cannot read Heyer!)  And then there are Margaret Drabble and A. S. Byatt, both great writers, two quarreling sisters – do we have to choose one?  Or can we read both? 

Some psychologists and psychiatrists use fiction in their classes.  The late Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard, considered in his book,  The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Imagination, the role of novels in students’ lives.  Over the years he taught fiction in elementary schools, high schools, universities, law schools, and medical schools.  The texts he used included Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tillie Olsen, Charles Dickens, and William Carlos Williams.

 He learned from students that novels expanded their world view and changed their perspective on class and racial differences.  He interviewed a  rich white student who identified with Toni Morrison’s Sula, and a poor Black student who identified with Portia, an orphan in  Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart who is  very much in the way of her older half-brother and his sophisticated wife.  

When someone belittles reading novels – or attempts to ban a book – I think of banned 19th-century Russian novels, Lawrence’s The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and the long, long history of censorship. Now editors at publishing companies are “revising” (censoring) Ian Fleming’s  James Bond books to expurgate the language and attitudes of the past and brighten things up.. I dread the prospect of a sanitized James Bond. 

With this high level of book-banning and censorship, how long before the Library of Alexandria burns – again?

Does Criticism Quell the Joy of Reading?

I never wanted to be an academic. I enjoyed reading, but You Know, I Had a Life. I rarely studied at the library (there were no windows), and avoided the student snuggery where the more serious plugged away. I do not mean to suggest they were grinds–they were nice people–but it was much more comfortable and less distracting to work at home. And, honestly, I put my work aside by six or seven at the latest, and curled up to read novels: the Lucia books, Margaret Drabble, Larry Woiwode, or Trollope. Novels were my secret vice. I avoided mentioning them, because (a) my fellow students probably did not read novels, and (b) they would have been condescending. (An 18th-century hold-over about novels?)

I think I took a class from him.

I preferred reading novels to criticism, and good academic jobs were scarce. If you finished a Ph.D., you might become a Visiting Lecturer, also known as a gypsy scholar, depending on your point-of-view, or your self-presentation. To be a gypsy scholar meant spending one year here, two years there, never having a stable job or being able to buy a house. One friend was so miserable she left to go into the business sector. God knows what she did all day, but at night she read novels.

Of course we all loved to read, but were pleased that we never had to do literary criticism again, thank God. When I want to read criticism, I read the TLS or The New York Review of Books. Let those who love scholarship be scholars. Let the rest of us read novels and occasionally consult the scholars’ work.

Some academic writers still do analyze books from a common reader’s point of view, though. AT PUBLIC BOOKS, Matthew Rubery champions the joy of reading in his essay, “Stop Reading like a Critic.” Here are the first two paragraphs.

Take a moment to think about your favorite book. Now ask yourself: Would you be willing to reveal your thoughts to other readers? Most people wouldn’t think twice about sharing their enthusiasms. But literature professors are not most people. One of the first lessons you learn in grad school is to hide your personal taste or risk being shamed for liking the wrong sorts of things. Scholars have been conditioned to respond to talk of likes and dislikes with embarrassment, if not outright contempt. The facade of critical detachment may be on the way out, however. Some academics—most prominently, Rita Felski and Andrew Miller, each with a new book on the subject—invite their colleagues to fess up to the feelings they have for what they study, interpret, and even—dare I say it—love.

For Felski, examining this love is just as important as focusing on how “useful” a novel is, or whether a body of work serves a particular politics. More importantly, talking about attachments allows readers to admit to all the works they adore, breaking down barriers between what is “critically” and “commercially” good. It is time, urges Felski, to talk about Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir the same way we talk about Beyoncé and the Boss.

This next article isn’t quite on the same topic, but I do recommend it: “Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers” by Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic. Here are the first two paragraphs.

They can be identified by their independent-bookstore tote bags, their “Book Lover” mugs, or—most reliably—by the bound, printed stacks of paper they flip through on their lap. They are, for lack of a more specific term, readers.

Joining their tribe seems simple enough: Get a book, read it, and voilà! You’re a reader—no tote bag necessary. But behind that simple process is a question of motivation—of why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t. That why is consequential—leisure reading has been linked to a range of good academic and professional outcomes—as well as difficult to fully explain. But a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.

Does criticism interfere with the joy of reading? I’d love to hear your opinion. Perhaps you are common readers, but your attitude toward criticism might be very different from mine.

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