On literary fiction – Armchair BEA 2013 – Day 3

It’s day 3 of Armchair BEA, and today the topic is literary fiction: What books have you read this year that would fit into this category? Is there anything coming up that you’re particularly excited about?What authors/novels would you recommend to someone new to the genre? Are there any misconceptions or things that you’d like to clear up for people unfamiliar with literary fiction? What got you started into this kind of book? Name a novel that hasn’t received a lot of buzz that definitely deserves it.

I ranted yesterday about my reservations with distinguishing between literary and genre fiction, so today I’ll (try to) content myself with answering the question.  I don’t read a lot of literary fiction — some years, I don’t read any.

What is literary fiction, anyway?  It’s a non-genre genre, and perhaps it’s best defined by one thing that it isn’t, and one thing that it is. It isn’t genre fiction, and it is (must be) identified as literary by an accepted critic whose merit as judge and gatekeeper everybody who is anybody approves.  It tends to be written by men (for a variety of reasons, including: books by women tend to be sidelined as chick-lit or the slightly better-named women’s fiction, and most reviewers bestowing literary status are men and may be less inclined to review books written by women, though probably not for nefarious reasons… in our culture, we tend to assume that books written by men are for everybody, but books written by women are for women and thus are not mainstream), and I suspect the idea is that the books that are touted as literary fiction today will end up being the classics of tomorrow.  I wonder how many of them will actually make the cut.

So why don’t I read more literary fiction?  I like good books, and I recognize and appreciate quality writing where I find it — why wouldn’t I read a genre that is vetted for quality?  Honestly, it’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ fault (everything is, actually).  I know, I know – Tess is a classic and bears no resemblance to modern literary fiction.  The thing is, having spent the better part of a decade reading the classics, that sea of venerable men and a few worthy ladies, I’ve come to associate literature with sexism/misogyny.  Tess is just a fine example of it, even if Hardy was being ironic (and I’m not entirely convinced that he was).  So I’ve been making a concerted effort to avoid misogynistic literature and cultivate a more feminist library.  I’ve been a lot happier, in general.

I know — I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and I’m terribly wrongheaded and all that — I know!  But I’m just being honest, here.  It’s probably a temporary thing, but for now, that’s where I’m at.  Have any of you gone through anything like this in your reading, where you purposely avoid an entire section of the bookstore because those books make you angry?  Did you grow out of it after a while?

Lastly, these books are probably not considered literary by the gatekeepers at the NYT, but they certainly struck me as being more literary than otherwise.
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Blogging and genre – Armchair BEA Day 2

Well, it’s day 2 of Armchair BEA, and today, there are two topics: Blogger Development & Genre Fiction.

I’m certain I’m imposing my own insecurities on the question, but I have to be honest and admit that the very notion of assessing my development as a blogger makes me feel a bit inadequate.  The truth is that I consider this blog to be a hobby, a thing I do because I enjoy it, not because of any external pressure to perform.  Even if no one read this blog, I would still write it.  With that starting position, I feel very little compulsion to promote my blog, and if I drop off the map for three weeks because I’m unbelievably busy, I don’t feel at all bad about it.  That’s not to say that I don’t take this blog seriously — quite the opposite — but I don’t measure success in terms of popularity or marketability.  I have a job, and this blog isn’t it.

That said, I have developed quite a lot over the past year.  For one thing, I’m a better reader than I was.  For another, I’m a better writer.  Best of all, this past year of blogging has helped me to chip away at my habitual reserve, to make some friends (never easy for me to do), to say some true things and put them out there for all the world to see (should the world go out of its way to find my little corner of unreserve…), to try new things.  It has been a fantastic year, but these successes can be measured only on my peculiar scale.

Abrupt subject change: I’m all about genre fiction!  To be honest, I think all fiction can easily be categorized as genre fiction of some sort or other.  I know folk have a strong inclination to distinguish literary fiction from the sordid genre type, but this inclination seems like misplaced snobbery to me.  All fiction is the work of scribbling human hands to explain some part of the human experience.  Maybe that explanation comes in the form of alien planets or vampire stalkers or amorous dukes and barmaids or neurotic narrators recounting their entire misspent lives; the connecting thread running through each of those stories is the humanity of their authors.  (In case you’re curious, I did just lump Children of the MindTwilightAny Duchess Will Do, and In Search of Lost Time into one category, Aristotle be damned.)

Some authors undoubtedly write better than others, some come closer to achieving a real art, some have more skill at using the lies of story and narrative to tell a truth about who we are as humans, but when we assign categories to writers, we hobble ourselves as readers and limit the artistic reach of those writers.  (We also inflate the egos of those writers and critics fortunate enough to be the gatekeepers of literary quality.)

I suppose I should scramble down from my soap box now and talk about the kind of stories I most want to read.

I’ve always been a sucker for a good story.  When I was in elementary school and junior high, I read whatever I could get my hands on: library books, school books, my mother’s books, etc.  I didn’t precisely have a favorite genre because I was just obsessed with the written word and all the knowledge it contained.  The first book I read that truly took my breath away was Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming.  In junior high, I discovered fantasy books, and I read The Hobbit and tried to read The Lord of the Rings (I didn’t succeed in reading it until I was 20 and had achieved something like patience); I read Terry Brooks and Piers Anthony, and a bunch of truly terrible Dragonlance books.  Then I read Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series (books 1-4) and W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neil Gear’s The First North Americans Series.  Then I read Les Miserables and discovered that what I liked most in all those stories I’d read was any inkling of the redemptive power of love.  Strange as it might be, it was a short skip for me from Les Miserables to romance novels, because that’s where all the love stories hide.

These days, I read romance novels almost exclusively.  Some of them are terrible, and some of them are incandescently wonderful.  I highly recommend each of the following.

Jane Austen January – Austen’s men

OK, here’s the thing.  I love Persuasion, but Captain Wentworth is a bit of a douche-pony throughout much of the story.  Every time I re-read the book, I am astonished anew at how annoying he is in his anger and resentfulness.  It annoys me further that Anne interprets and excuses his behavior, that she castigates and blames herself for the decision she made at nineteen.  But then the novel redeems itself (to me) by giving Anne an opportunity to share her thoughts with Captain Harville, overheard by Wentworth, and allowing Wentworth to realize fully just how wrong he was and do a bit of groveling.

I absolutely love it when Austen allows her heroes to learn where they have been in the wrong and to amend their behavior where appropriate in order to earn the respect and affection of their chosen ladies.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Darcy’s fatal error in his first proposal to Elizabeth is his arrogant assumption that she will be gratified by his proposal, that he need not exert himself in any way to be pleasing.  Honestly — “Your family is pretty damn awful, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of my life wishing that they weren’t a part of it, but I just can’t help myself… Marry me.”  After the ensuing confrontation with Elizabeth, Darcy eventually realizes that her condemnation of his character is not wholly unjust, and he takes pains to improve himself.  When he approaches her a second time, he is hopeful but not certain that he has succeeded.
  • Persuasion – Wentworth’s error throughout the eight years of his estrangement with Anne is in holding too tightly to his belief of having been wronged by an inconstant Anne (rather than perceiving that the risk in marrying him was all on her side and asking her again once his ability to provide for her (and any children) was more a sure thing.  He compounds this error by being a real jerk muffin towards Anne once he is again in her company.  These are grievous errors, to be sure, but in his letter to Anne and subsequent conversation, Wentworth demonstrates that he appreciate’s Anne’s sufferings and fully comprehends that he was the cause of most of them.  And, oh, that letter…
  • Emma is perhaps a bit less approachable to a modern audience given the huge age gap between Emma and her Mr. Knightley and the rather odd occurrence of Emma sort of growing up under his tutelage (ew).  Yet even in this story, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma convinced that he, with his constant correcting and nitpicking, has driven away all chance of her affection.  The very instance of his seeing his behavior towards Emma as potentially officious rather than his natural right becomes, to me, the most attractive part of his character.
  • Northanger Abbey – Henry Tilney gets to apologize for his father’s atrocious behavior, but he’s mostly on this side of the list because I like the story and construction of Northanger Abbey so well.  Henry may not be exactly my favorite type of hero, but he is certainly the most charming and witty of all of Austen’s men (except, maybe, Frank Churchill–but Frank is also a bit silly and quite selfish and so does not qualify as a truly good man).

To my mind, nothing suits a man so well as a little uncertainty.  It is the quality that separates my favorites of the Austen men from my least favorite.

  • Mansfield Park – Edmund Bertram… ugh.  One day he happens to look over at Fanny and realizes that he might just be in love with her after all.  It’s true that he repents of trying to force her to marry Henry Crawford (and of being carried away by his appreciation of Mary Crawford’s fine features…), but I always wish for significantly more groveling than the reader receives.  Fanny, of course, is perfectly happy to have him, but she’s Fanny, so it hardly signifies.
  • Sense and Sensibility – Edward Ferrars gets another ugh from me.  I think he’s my least favorite of all the leading men.  After leading Elinor on and being super moody and a bit freaky about the hair ring (ew), he just shows up one day, declares that Lucy married Robert instead and asks Elinor to marry him, and she’s like “Hells yeah!!” And he’s like, “Good, ’cause Lucy had appalling diction, and her letters have been an embarrassment to me for a long time, but what can I say? Boobs!” And Elinor’s like “LOLZ.”  Ugh.

Who are your favorites among Austen’s men?  What are your qualifications for inclusion on your favorites list?

Jane Austen January – Pride and Prejudice – Caroline Bingley

I haven’t started reading Persuasion yet, so Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite book of all time.  I seem to waffle back and forth between these two, but my waffling has nothing to do with any concrete, supportable impressions of the books; rather, my inclination towards one or another is based on which one I have most recently read, what my prevailing mood is that season, and, probably, what I had for breakfast.  My rational self, who shows up to the party every now and then, believes that both books are equally excellent, yet different (rather like my children).

Anyway…

My favorite thing about Pride and Prejudice is that both Elizabeth and Darcy go on an incredible internal journey to get from their starting positions to their ending ones.  My next favorite thing is the way that all the secondary characters (caricatures, all) influence Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s respective journeys.  If these characters cannot go on a journey of their own, at least they have some impact on the main characters’ development, right?

My favorite of these influential secondary characters is Caroline Bingley, who is wonderfully awful throughout the book and is considerably more observant than Elizabeth (of course, nearly every character wins that prize).  In a weird way, she acts both as Darcy’s confidante and as Elizabeth’s tormentor, and, throughout the Netherfield section of the book, she simultaneously helps Darcy to increase his affection for Elizabeth and helps Elizabeth to increase her dislike for Darcy.

Caroline Bingley has her own reasons for paying close attention to Darcy, but I wonder if she would have picked up on his burgeoning regard so quickly had he not rather flippantly made to her his initial comment about Elizabeth Bennet’s fine eyes.  Darcy must have known that Caroline was angling for him–she isn’t subtle–so I wonder if he was trying to let her know that he just wasn’t into her.  I’m not entirely certain, however, that Darcy’s motives are so virtuous.  If he were really interested in discouraging Caroline’s regard, he ought not have made his vaguely smarmy “I can appreciate your figure better from over here, sexy ladies!” comment to Caroline and Elizabeth.

A lot of characters notice that Darcy frequently follows Elizabeth around with his creepy stalker eyes, but only Caroline knows with certainty that he looks out of admiration rather than censure, and only Caroline is in any position to talk to Darcy about his staring problem.  As Caroline is consumed by jealousy, she takes every opportunity to needle Darcy about his attraction to Elizabeth, and her needling prompts in Darcy a consciousness of his growing feelings (and feeling of their being dangerous to him) and, perhaps, an increased awareness of Elizabeth’s attractiveness.  After Elizabeth walks to Netherfield, Caroline slyly suggests that Elizabeth’s behavior may have dampened his appreciation for her ‘fine eyes.’  Darcy replies that they were brightened by the exercise.  Once Elizabeth and Caroline are under the same roof, Darcy has the opportunity to compare their behavior: Elizabeth reads, and Caroline pretends to read; Elizabeth behaves with civility to most and friendly warmth to Bingley, and Caroline is cold and uncivil (sometimes downright rude) to Elizabeth and obsequious to Darcy.  With such comparisons to hand, it’s no wonder Darcy develops an attraction to Elizabeth.

Caroline’s influence on Elizabeth is exactly the reverse.  Elizabeth views Caroline’s obvious attempts to attract Darcy’s attention with contempt, and she, although indirectly, seems to blame Darcy for Caroline’s behavior.  The more Caroline reacts to Elizabeth with jealousy and spitefulness and to Darcy with toadying, the lower Darcy sinks in Elizabeth’s estimation.  This is not, in itself, all that surprising; how could Darcy possibly appear to advantage in such a setting?  So, while Darcy is able to compare Elizabeth and Caroline and conclude that Elizabeth is far superior, Elizabeth views Darcy’s interactions with Caroline and concludes that Darcy is proud and vain.  She assumes Darcy’s responses to Caroline are in keeping with his usual manner, proud, reserved, aloof, and awful (Bingley’s term: “I declare I do not know a more awful object than Darcy, on particular occasions, and in particular places; at his own house especially, and of a Sunday evening, when he has nothing to do.”), and she does not consider that Darcy’s responses to herself and Bingley are of quite a different tone.

In the end, it all comes down to Darcy’s letter and his amended behavior in Derbyshire to remove the last of Elizabeth’s resentments and misconceptions of Darcy.  When she meets Caroline at Pemberley, Elizabeth is able to see and appreciate the difference in behavior between Darcy, Miss Darcy, and Caroline Bingley.

For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January, how is your reading going?  If reading for the first time, what do you think of it?  If this is a re-read, has anything stuck out to you as surprising or new during this read?

Jane Austen January – Sense and Sensibility

Oh, Sense and Sensibility

Best synopsis ever.

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about Sense and Sensibility, and an equal number that I find troubling or downright irritating, but it is still my fourth favorite Austen novel and still ranks quite high on my list of all the books I’ve ever read.  As with most of Austen’s novels, my chief enjoyment is in the antics of the wide cast of secondary characters and in Austen’s witty, if harsh, take on those antics.  Who could not love the delightfully awful Mrs. Ferrars, Robert Ferrars (toothpick cases are important, after all), and John and Fanny Dashwood?  And what about Mr. and Mrs. Palmer?  I challenge any one to resist their charms.

Regarding the things I find troubling, most of them revolve around Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor seems to be the chief heroine of the piece, even though nobody much likes her, especially when she is in one of her disapproving moods.  Unlike Marianne, whose happy ending is sort of a throwaway and is actually Col. Brandon’s happy ending, after all (pun totally intended), Elinor achieves the full arc of her story.  My difficulty is that Elinor doesn’t go on any kind of internal journey throughout the story, so while I’m always happy that she gets her Edward (who doesn’t change much, either), it isn’t as satisfying as when Lizzy gets her Darcy, or Catherine her Henry, or Anne her Wentworth.

Can anyone really relate to Elinor as a character?  I certainly can’t, not because she’s so emotionally constipated (I am, too), but because she always behaves with the utmost propriety.  While I can comprehend showing a brave face and drawing as little attention as possible to one’s distress, I can’t imagine enduring all that Elinor does without at least a few episodes of histrionics or angry jazz hands.  Elinor’s adherence to strict propriety perhaps should, in being the exact opposite of her sister’s and mother’s wild expression of sensibility, be considered just as immoderate and intemperate as their behavior is.  But that’s not the case in this book.  Instead of Elinor being able to learn anything throughout the course of the story (instead of her story being able to have some point or purpose), she is instead depicted as the model for proper lady behavior.

“I am not wishing him too much good,” said Marianne at last with a sigh, “when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own.  He will suffer enough in them.”

“Do you compare your conduct with his?”

“No.  I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

Elinor learns no lessons (rather like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, come to think of it), and Sense and Sensibility is less interesting a book as a result.  I am not suggesting that her behavior is not model, but it does seem to me that a character who behaves perfectly on every occasion can have little claim to being realistically portrayed.  Further, if a character behaves so well all the time that no reader can identify with her, how can the reader be more than passively interested in her story?  I would like Sense and Sensibility much more if Edward and Elinor’s story received the treatment that Col. Brandon and Marianne’s does in the book and if the latter couple got more page time to show how their understanding came about.  Theirs is the more interesting story, right?

Given I mentioned that there were things I find irritating about the book, I should, at least, mention them.

  1. Why does Margaret exist as a character?  As far as I can tell, she serves no purpose at all.
  2. Elinor recognizes that Marianne is Mrs. Dashwood’s favorite daughter by rather a large margin, but she accepts this parental failing with all the philosophy of a totally disinterested party–except she isn’t one.  Of all Elinor’s unlikely traits, this one strikes me as being the least realistic.  Who wouldn’t be hurt or angered to be so slighted by one’s parent?  But Elinor in all her perfection accepts what love comes her way and feels justified in the righteousness of expecting no more.  Ugh!

For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January (and for those who aren’t–and here’s a shout-out to the lurkers: HOLLA!), I’d love to know what you think of Sense and Sensibility.  Theories as to why Margaret exists are also very welcome.

Jane Austen January – Pride and Prejudice – an opening post

I have happily settled in to the reading of my favorite novel Pride and Prejudice.  I really should have started my January with Northanger Abbey, which I find very charming but which is rather inferior to the other books and cannot but suffer by the inevitable comparisons, but I just don’t possess very much self-control.

“Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds: but, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst are two of my favorite characters in P&P, in a guilty-pleasure sort of way.  They are gloriously awful, but it amuses me that they are just as silly and empty-headed as Lydia and Kitty but obsess about petticoats and beautiful little designs for tables instead of officers and dancing.

For anyone participating in this Jane Austen January, who are your favorite characters from P&P

Also, please check out Austenprose to discover all the various ways that one can celebrate the bicentenary this year of Pride and Prejudice, first published in 1813.

Jane Austen January

Portrait of Jane Austen in watercolor and pencil by Cassandra Austen (1773-1845), digitally restored and remastered by Amano1 Source: http://www.janeausten.co.uk/regencyworld/pdf/portrait.pdf via Wikimedia Commons

On Christmas Day in 1997, I received a collected volume of Jane Austen’s novels from my mother.  It is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.  I had read Pride and PrejudiceSense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park several times, but this volume introduced me to the other books.  In January of 1998, I read all of the books, and in every January of the following years, I made it a tradition to read at least a few Jane Austen novels.  This coming January represents the fifteenth annual Jane Austen January, and I’m hoping to make it into a somewhat informal blog event.

This year, I plan to read Pride and PrejudicePersuasion, and Northanger Abbey, but I might add in Sense and Sensibility as well, depending on how much free time I have.  My goal is to write at least one blog post about each of the books and, I hope, to engage in discussions with other readers.  I’m totally open to discussing other Jane Austen works, but I probably won’t read more than these four books, so my comments will be limited to my last reading.  (It’s been a while since I read Mansfield Park and Emma…)

Every time I read these books, I discover something new about them, though whether that is due to my changing over the years, to the books’ being that nuanced, or just to my possessing a truly terrible memory, I’ll never know.

Is anyone game to join me in this fifteenth annual Jane Austen January?  Please let me know in the comments below.  (Lurking is also totally welcome.)  Discussions can take place on Twitter, if that’s convenient, and in the comments feature on this blog.  Check the side bar for my Twitter info.  Please also feel free to do your own thang with posts on your blog, if you have one.  I do this event every year, alone; this is my first attempt to bring other folk into the mix, so we’ll see how it goes.  🙂