After consuming 2,000-3,000 books over the last half-century you’d think I’d know exactly what kind of books I love to read, but I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been living on the trial and error method up to now. Before recent revelations, if I didn’t like a book it was a bad book, or a boring book, or if I wanted to be generous I could claim I wasn’t in the right mood for that book or whine that the book covered a topic out of my territory. If I loved a book, it was brilliant, insightful, well written, heartfelt, and perfect for me. What if I’m wrong? What if why I love or hate a story has nothing to do with those factors? What if it has nothing to do with genre? What if it has nothing to do with favorite writers? What if the books I love the most, the ones I read the fastest are due to a particular writing formula?
Recently I selected The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon for my June book in the 1% Well-Read challenge, but that book rubbed me the wrong way. Since the Pynchon book was about the 1960s I thought I’d try a different book about the same time period and see how another author handled the subject. I quickly found, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, also covered in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Both books open in California, but the Pynchon book came out in 1966 and appeared to be about 1964, and the Boyle book was published in 2003 and was about 1970. Drop City rubbed me the right way.
So, with two books about Californian counter-culture, why did one soar and the other crash and burn? You’d think the book written in the middle of the 1960s would feel more authentic, but actually the book written in 2003 hit an emotional bull’s eye with my old memories of the times. Well, for one thing, Pynchon was born in 1937, and Boyle was born in 1948, and I was born in 1951. In fact, the Pynchon book reminded me of another book from 1966, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina, also born in 1937. I had the same kind of trouble with the Farina book, and for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the Pynchon novel. Both of those books felt overly intellectual and writerly, whereas the Boyle book felt like it was just a straight-forward tale about real people.
This first clue leads me to think I need to read writers who are like me in some way, because obviously I can’t always read writers my own age. I like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but they definitely aren’t like me, and I don’t resonate with them emotionally. I admire their stories greatly, but I don’t have a personal bond with them like I do with modern stories. I don’t think it’s time that keeps us apart, but their storytelling techniques.
Great Expectations is one of my all time favorite books, but that’s more for abstract reasons, and I greatly admire it for creative and intellectual reasons. I’ve got to admit that I preferred the narrative of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber (1960), a novel set in Dickens’ time over straight Dickens storytelling. Modern writers have developed skills to get their readers closer to their characters. I don’t know is this is an illusion, and modern historical fiction is more appealing because the historical characters are just more modern themselves, or if Jane Austen used modern writing techniques we’d feel even closer to her two hundred year old characters.
My all time favorite books are books written by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s. I also have a strong affinity for Jack Kerouac and his books from the 1950s. These books I’ve read and reread. Some of my more recent favorites are The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter series, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, His Dark Materials, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret Live of Bees, Middlesex, The Wonder Boys, Positively 4th Street, Nobody’s Fool, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Poisonwood Bible, The Glass Castle, Truth and Beauty, The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, The Memory of Running, The Time Traveler’s Wife, A Woman of the Iron People, Bellwether, and so on.
Maybe here’s enough clues to solve the puzzle. I think the books I cozy up to the fastest are first person narratives, or stories told in very limited third person. I don’t like intellectual authors, especially those who use third person omniscient to expound about life and reality. What I’m discovering is my kind of stories are about people, told in a very straight forward manner, and I greatly prefer the voice of the character over the voice of the author. Not only that, but I’m pretty hung-up on wanting the story to unfold in a linear fashion.
I’m starting to wonder: What if my kind of story depends on how the story is told rather than what it’s about? When I was in elementary school and begun getting into books I loved biographies and autobiographies first. Very linear people stories. If you examine the book list above, all the stories are focused on people and the narrator tells the story by sticking close to the main character’s POV. I liked Drop City better than The Crying of Lot 49 because Boyle got closer to his characters, but it wasn’t a super great book to me because he didn’t get close enough and there were too many of them.
When I listened to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this week, I got extremely excited about the beginning when I was first learning about Oscar, and got very disappointed when the story turned away from him. I just started Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell, and the first story, “Baby Doll,” was a hit because of the characters, and the third story, “The Last American,” was a dud because it was all ideas and no characterization. Intellectually I know “The Last American” is supposed to be a good story. I can see it’s creative parts. But it was painful for me to read because it had no character I could get behind.
I don’t think I’m seduced by every character driven story, because I’ve hated some stories with great personal writing because the POV character was too unlikable. I love stories where the POV character have a distinctive voice, like Chi-mo in King Dork or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I think one of the reasons why I love the work of David Sedaris is his distinctive voice – he wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so unique.
Literary writers definitely have the skills I like, but they often write about boring people. The character details may show fantastic writing, but the personalities of the POV characters are often unappealing. Who really cares about average alcoholic writers living in academia and getting divorced? Well, Michael Chabon made Grady Tripp different in The Wonder Boys.
Drop City would have been a much better book to me if Boyle had followed a couple of his characters more closely. It’s still a damn good story, but it’s movie like in that all the characters seem equal distant. A lot of writers do this, that is, follow the techniques of the movies, jumping from character to character. You can only get so emotionally close to an ensemble. The Big Chill was a masterpiece of my generation, but it didn’t have the wrenching impact of Forrest Gump or Four Friends.
Other techniques I don’t like are flashbacks, convoluted plots and frames. In the MFA classes I’ve taken, many of the student writers loved putting stories in frames, and then jumping back into flashbacks two, three and even four layers deep. Sometimes they even use fantastic tricks to bring the modern narrator back into the past, as was done with Middlesex and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. To me, this hurts the story. I can understand how dazzling this writing trick is intellectually, but not emotionally.
Now that I know what kind of storytelling turns me on it should help me improve my batting average finding great books to read. On the other hand, it may not be that useful. I often select books because other people say they are great and I want to discover what these people have discovered. There are a lot of reasons to read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, a book that is definitely not my kind of story. It is instructive about the nature of the early English novel and life in the 18th century England. Tom Jones can be a great novel but one I hate to read. So, should I read it?
Now that I’m more aware of what I like to read, should I only gorge on my kind of stories? If reading was only about entertainment, then yes. If reading is about pushing yourself into unknown territory, then no. It is interesting to know about my reading sweet tooth. Now I just have to learn how to recognize other reading flavors and how to savor them.