As a reader, I will freely admit it – I AM A BOOK SNOB. A terrible snob. A veritable class-A, turn up your nose and puke-on-demand book snob.
I despise bad writing. I feel physically ill when I see improper words on a page; I fear my brain retracts at the sight of such abomination. Yes, I know everyone is entitled to their own tastes and preferences; I just happen to think I have extraordinarily high standards (which actually seem to grow higher & higher with each passing year as I myself study the craft of writing, trying to appreciate and integrate the best into my own work) – and I grow more intolerant of CRAP. It’s almost like I can’t help myself…I wish I could just relax the reigns a little and glide aimlessly over terribly malformed words, but I can’t.
Case and point: I’ve just finished reading John Banville’s latest novel, “Ancient Light” (having previously read “The Sea” in 2011, which won the Booker Prize). I must admit I don’t care for the subject matter on a surface level: an old man recounts his ancient love affair with his best friend’s mother, when he was 15 years old and she was 35. (It’s no surprise Banville is frequently compared to Nabokov; this is like Lolita in reverse! Haha…) What does Alex Cleave actually remember, and what does he invent? How do memories, real or imagined, help to shape the person we’ve become?
Whether or not I like the subject matter is of no consequence. Banville’s writing is so good, so precise, yet lyrical & fluid, I cannot stop reading. In fact, I found myself going back to his book when I was starved of good writing and comparing it to the 2 or 3 other books I was concurrently reading at the same time (I have reading A.D.D.). And each time, I was amazed and startled by his sentences and extensive vocabulary (I must confess I learned the word vertiginous from “THE SEA” and subsequently had to implant it into my own novel.) 🙂
Yet, as I pondered over Banville’s book (which had a wonderful, poignant ending, but rather boring story-line – he is not known for stellar plotting), I found myself more amused and delighted from stories of Banville as the author. Described by some reviewers as a “word-drunk” and a “fancy pants”, I felt myself a kindred spirit of sorts, as I would also describe myself as a “word-drunk” (AKA: Someone in love with words, possibly even saying more than necessary at times…) I mean, who else uses words like susurrus, insouciantly, concumbence, prepuce???
Here are some of his well-crafted phrases:
“When I met her first her hair had the lustre of a raven’s wing, with a great silver streak in it, a flash of white fire; as soon as silver began to spread she allowed herself to succumb to the blandishments of Adrian at Curl Up and Dye…”
“The sky was hard and pale as glass, and in the limpid sunlight the little town above us was sharply etched against the hillside, a confused arrangement of angled planes and shades of yellow ochre, gesso white, parched pink.”
He writes the ocean had a “gay speckle of foam” or about “the arthritic tips” of cherry trees or “as if the very action of our voices might shatter the frail assemblage of light and spectral colour above us”, etc…(I could go on for pages…)
I came across a wonderful review in The New Yorker, which recounted stories of Banville’s legendary arrogance, citing that when Banville accepted his 2005 Booker Prize for “The Sea”, he remarked that it was “nice to see a work of art win the Booker Prize”. That made me laugh! 🙂
Though Banville is frequently compared to Nabokov, he asserts that Henry James is more of an influence on his work, forcing him to notice things, to be “a conscious being in the world”. (Digression: I, too, have a bit of fascination with Henry James after reading “The Master” by Colm Toibin, also an Irishman, why do I seem to prefer Irish writers (?) which has become an absolute favourite of mine. Although I must also embarrassingly admit that I’m a bit “light” on my James repertoire, having only read “The Turn of the Screw”, but have amassed at least 4-5 of his most famous works, currently staring at me from my bookshelf as my TBR list grows…)
Add to this is Banville’s quote that “Sentimentality is the absolute death of art” and I’m starting to realize why I admire him so much. I completely agree with him. Art should reflect the poignant and meaningful moments of real life; not what we wish it to be (or else just read fairy tales then…). When I was writing my novel, I was heavily influenced by Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”, which among other things, spoke to me because I realized at the end, the realistic, yet painful choice that Newland Archer had to make: leave his comfortable marriage to pursue the love of his life, or do the right thing? That choice alone wrenched my heart. That is when I realized I wanted to do the same sort of thing with my novel (though some of my early readers did complain it was sad, perhaps even rather depressing…). But my aim was exactly as Banville phrased it – Sentimentality is the death of art. Should I write something that makes people “feel good” inside, or do I write something real, at least what I feel is real – a real choice that a person has to make: follow your heart to be happy or to do the “right” thing? And there are always consequences to those choices.
Which brings me to my point about books and writing: What is the purpose? Which is more important? To create art or to entertain??
I must admit that part of the reason I have become such a book snob is I fear that books have frequently become reduced to the lowest common denominator: for entertainment or else for “light reading”. Though there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel entertained, amused, happy, sad, and then eventually happy again, must these flippant feelings be the SOLE purpose of books? To cheer us up when we’re having a bad day at work? To pass the time on the train? To not have to “think” too hard when our lives are increasingly becoming overloaded and stressful??
Many will say YES, but I will say HELL NO!
Books to me must be about something, to express something meaningful in the world, no matter what that is. The author *must* be trying to make us think about a particular topic or have a particular thesis on life he or she wishes to prove & convey; a notion of REAL life, and its inevitable complexities, tragedies, and joys that follow…even if it becomes difficult or uncomfortable. It can’t for me, just be a rompin’ good story (not there is anything wrong with that), but why can there not be more??
As Timothy Findley so aptly says in his memoir, “Inside Memory”:
“There are so many fascinating things the human race doesn’t want to know about itself – and what it DOES what to know bores the shit out of me.” LOVES IT.
And Willa Cather says:
“The novel manufactured to entertain great multitudes of people must be considered exactly like cheap soap or a cheap perfume or cheap furniture. Fine quality is a distinct disadvantage in articles made for great numbers of people who do not want quality but quantity, who do not want a thing that ‘wears’, but who want change, — a succession of new things that are quickly threadbare and can be thrown away…Amusement is one thing; enjoyment of art is another.”
Not that books should be boring either…There should be an element of suspense or surprise, a great twist that makes us sit up on our chairs, yet it cannot be done without the inclusion of meaningful themes.
An entertaining book without a theme is pointless to me. It cannot be art, it cannot be a form of expression if it just aims to amuse. And this is what becomes increasingly difficult for me as I create my own work: How do I mitigate the distance between what publishers deem as “commercially sellable” and what I want to write?? Yet as I wrestle with this question, I have always known the answer: it is the latter. To quote J.K. Rowling: “I just write what I want to write.” Because otherwise, it will never be any good, or reveal any truths – and this to me if what art ultimately is – a beautiful, poignant reflection of ourselves. Not a fake, exaggerated version of who we want to be. So once I finish reading a book (and hopefully also while I am writing one), it must strive to make me think, and make me see the world in a different light than before I opened its’ cover.