My Book Group | Enjoying Novels Versus Appreciating Them

(Loitering at World Cup Coffee today.)

This morning my book group discussed Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I like my book group. We’re a feisty, fabulous fivesome, and we discuss our reading picks before veering into the usual usual. (Cosmetics — as in wearing them at all, pros, cons — was a hot topic for two minutes.)

I’m the only writer, so I approach the discussion from a different perspective than my friends. Just today, one of the fab-five commented, “I’m so glad you’re in the group; I like the book so much better now that we’ve discussed it!”

During our book chats, I’m reminded that we fictioneers read novels the way I imagine filmmakers watch movies — with detached analysis murmuring in the background.

Let’s take, for example, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, which got great reviews. Won’t go on my 2008 favorites list, yet I appreciated it. Craft-wise, I respected what Messud accomplished with her omniscient voice and unlikeable cast of characters. However, if I weren’t a writer, I would have given up on the book because, frankly, I didn’t enjoy the story. (The rest of the fab-five detested this novel.) 

For me, enjoying a book and appreciating a book are separate acts. The appreciation comes from my inner-writer. So, for example, when one of the fab-five complained that she felt distanced from Messud’s characters, I responded from the appreciation space — pinpointing the omniscient voice as the likely culprit and explaining why I thought Messud’s novel couldn’t have been written in anything but omniscient voice. From the enjoyment space, I agreed with my friend: I could have cared less about the characters.

These days, I can’t enjoy a novel without my inner-writer observing from her squeaky soapbox. Sometimes, she annoys me. Sometimes, I just wanna read.

Friday ‘Fess Up + Four = Friday Five

I’m combining two Friday memes that seem to be going around (but not like a virus). First, the literate kitten’s invitation to ‘fess up to our crimes and misdemeanors against our writing efforts and then a “friday five,” in which we list five random things about our week, about anything. I like both ideas, so I’m combining them…

1.  ‘Fessing up: Ideally, my writing work-week begins on Monday. This week Monday was once again my Sunday. I don’t know why, but Monday often turns out to be the one day of the week that’s truly mine and truly free (except for the fact that I’m supposed to be writing, of course).

Also, I’ve finally discovered the fun of participating in the blogosphere with a blogroll, comments, and so on. YIKES! Blogging: procrastination, time sink, distraction! The fact that I know what the word “meme” means frightens me. I must take care — this week got a little out of hand.

Two new scenes written; one of them felt particularly good.

2. Self-promotion has been on my mind lately. I recommend the how-did-you-find-your-audience? series of author interviews on debuting novelist (2009) DeAnna Cameron’s blog. Worthwhile reading.

3. A strange thing happened at my mom’s house. I happened to pop in while an arborist was trimming the trees. This arborist was a delicate women who spoke with a breathy Jackie-O voice and wore her cumbersome tool belt gracefully. I swear that her gaze quickened when my mom mentioned my writing. “Oh, you’re a writer?” she said. I could see it in her eye — suddenly I was interesting. Seems she writes also (go figure). She asked me for advice about how to transition from short story to novel. I bumbled my way through an answer, which was based on my personal experience, and she actually thanked me as if what I had said came out of an “expert” place, like I knew what I was talking about or something. Frankly, I felt weird. To some folks, I might be considered an expert?

2. Started reading The Gathering by Anne Enright. OOh, baby, I can already tell this novel is going to be one of the stand-outs on my 2008 reading list. Starts out, I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen, and continues on fascinating me with its stark yet lush voice. Technique-wise, the way she circles around the unknown event is masterful in its non-linearity.

5. Photo of the week as shown above: One of the many reasons why I love Italy (Siena). It’s probably too much to ask that he’s got a novel tucked away in his backpack, isn’t it?

Success and Scrutiny

Novelist B– is a prolific writer and has much insight into the publishing world. A few years back he told me something that has stayed with me. He said that the more successful you are, the more people feel compelled to drag you down. (I hereby shatter B–‘s anonymity so that you can check out his websites: here and here.)

Literary award season just passed us by, and I read two items that reminded me of Bob’s observation. The first item concerned Dorris Lessing, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Here’s what I read on the Guardian Unlimited website:

In response to learning about Lessing’s win, a literary critic told the Associated Press that “although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction.”

Ouch! We’re entitled to our opinions, but I wonder if this critic had ever thought to say such a miserable thing about Lessing’s prose before she won the Nobel Prize.

And then there was the article from the November 8th, 2007, issue of The New York Times entitled “Congratulations on the Book Award, and Welcome to the Scrutiny.” Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize — Great Britain’s top literary award — for The Gathering. Soon afterwards, she wrote an essay about a child’s abduction, and, boom, what happened then but that a few ogres trumped up one sentence from the essay thereby giving the impression that Enright blamed the parents for the crime.

I ask you, would anyone have bothered quoting Enright out of context and ripping her a new one if she hadn’t just won the Booker?

The sad part is that I’m not immune to scrutinizing my fellow novelists. In fact, yesterday my reading group met, and I along with four sassy lassies dumped on this month’s reading assignment. In a big way. We roasted that poor novelist alive.

As I finished my coffee and fingered up scone crumbs, and as the group’s conversation turned towards 40th birthday parties and housing prices, I couldn’t help feeling like a hypocrite even though the novel was ill-conceived, not to mention so boring that I set it aside for the previously mentioned chick-lit succubus murder mystery (sad indeed). I imagined some future reading group lambasting my literary baby.

When I mentioned my imaginings to the Sassy Lassies, they laughed. They could imagine it also. Yeesh, so it starts already, does it?