March 6, 2009

Literature of expression and escape

Ron Charles bemoans the “suburban contentment” of college students today, as judged by their book buying!
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. … In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title in January was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. Their favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” about what makes successful individuals. …

Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.
Better that they read something than twitter or social-network all day, no?

This also reminds me of something I read last night which actually reminded me of my own approach to reading until a couple months back. I never really got into genre fiction (mystery, sci-fi, etc.) and have always chased around what I considered literary fiction. Then two months back, I felt like reading something lighter -- not great literature but a book that tells me a good tight story. A thriller of sorts. That is when I read Anthony Neil Smith's Yellow Medicine. It was not the best written book I have read by any means (would be bottom 10 percentile, if anything if ranked by that yardstick.) But it has to be one of the fastest read books in recent times -- with fewer interruptions to blog, twitter, facebook, eat, sleep, etc! While I would not call it an unputdownable page-turner, the story was indeed gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. And it dawned on me ....isn't that the first thing a writer ought to do to be called successful - keep the reader turning pages. If a reader cannot get beyond 10-20 pages, no matter how well written the book may be, how good of a book is it - atleast from the stand-point of that reader!

Anyways, in that spirit, I have been opening mysellf up to more of the mystery/crime/thriller fiction genre recently and picked up The Best American Mystery Stories, 2008 at the library yesterday. In reading the introduction by the editor, George Pelecanos, I came across this gem of an excerpt from an essay by Raymond Chandler, titled 'The Simple Art of Murder.'
As for "literature of expression" and "literature of escape" - this is critic's jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

While I have not read Chandler much, I have heard of him as a great short story writer and would certainly have "categorized" him as a literary writer.

That said, after the introduction, of all the 20 stories in the collection, the one I started with was one by one of the finest literary talents today - the best exponent of the short story genre, Alice Munro.
Incidentally, I just find out the same story also made The Best American Short Stories 2008 (edited by Salman Rushdie). Haah! So, that just proves Chandler's point further no? Who cares what critics (and some readers) want to categorize something as -- genre or literary. If its great writing, it is great writing - no matter what the genre.

Btw, the particular story by Munro, Child's Play, can be read here, if you are a Harper's Magazine subscriber. It is also part of her recent collection of short stories: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

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