I am perplexed. Have you ever had a dream that is emblematic of some issue that you are trying to resolve? Remember the opening scene of Billy Bathgate? Instead of Dutch Schultz and Bo Weinberg, I am there in the chair with some nameless inquisitor; instead of my feet in a bucket of cement, I have numerous books attached to me for that swim with the fishes in the East River. An Amazon drone delivers the books. The faceless gangster is about to hit me again with that most democratic of books – the phone book. His resounding question through the night was, “Why should I care?”
In answering this question I will do some unpardonable things, like wear down some clichés, end sentences with a preposition, or gasp – start one with a conjunction, because there is something seriously wrong with literature these days. Why should I care? I mean wrong and illogical as a smarmy shirt-and-tie trying to convince me that a derivative is sound financial practice. “What is wrong?” you ask. I have been reading too many books with unlikeable characters. And I am not alone. Scroll through reviews on Amazon and you’ll hear the refrain: Why should I care about any of these characters? They are unlikeable, despicable. I won’t cite particular examples, because they really are legion.
Let us not delude ourselves. Our motivations for reading vary. Nothing new there, folks, but bedrock to the “literary experience” is that we care at some level for some character and we are “into” the story. I don’t know whether the phenomenon says more about us as readers, us as a society, or whether it is with the writer, or the publishers who think this is what sells. Are readers that masochistic that they will spend precious mortal time reading hundreds of pages with some despicable main character? Some do. Are readers so sadistic and voyeuristic that, like reality shows, they derive some satisfaction from witnessing another’s continued humiliation or is it that they empathize – and root for — the villain? Depressing statement about human nature there. And what about the writers? Are we that misanthropic and nihilistic that our imagination is that pathological? KA-CHING!
Let there be no illusion. Literature is the oldest con game around. Once upon a time the writer’s toolbox was simple. There were two types of stories: the hero’s journey and stranger-comes-to-town. Every story is either The Illiad or The Odyssey. Somewhere along the line someone sold us a bill of goods and said that the Anti-hero is modern and chic. Wrong. Oedipus was the first literary Anti-hero, although I’ll risk blasphemy here and say it was Jesus Christ. Let’s look at the facts: reluctant hero, flawed human being, wishy-washy on the whole destiny thing. Divinity aside, JC had anger-management issues, whereas Oedipus had “swollen feet.” The literary canon is stuffed with Anti-heroes, from Lady Macbeth to Scarlett O’Hara and Lisbeth Salander, but the salient difference in such characters is that the reader saw change, felt catharsis, and traveled through the pages some journey from A to B. In many – not all – but the majority of those served up today there is no such change. Why should I care?
Since I alluded to metamorphosis, I will posit the tipping point occurred with “literary modernism” or “post-modernism.” I’m convinced that most people can neither define, let alone distinguish, the two terms and they shouldn’t care. The simple truth is academics have to earn a living, too, but more on that in a moment. “Modernism” is that painful itchy and excruciating self-awareness, that self-conscious writing, when Life seems unbearable, the paper so dull that a paper cut is well nigh impossible. Proust is the exemplar. His seven-volume novel is plotless, the language is the object itself, the rudderless boat down the River Styx. Charon was so overcome with Ennui that he threw himself overboard. Read one way, Proust is a philosophical survey of all that the French language can do, but read another way, too much interiority become narcissistic, if not, I daresay, masturbatory. Lest I be accused of beating up on our Gallic friends, I offer up Joyce’s Ulysses. All interpretations aside on what it means – day’s journey, the quest to get laid – I am convinced that Jimmy wrote it to assure his reputation. He literally became Homer at the end of his life, but I think our polyglot Irishman had more in common with that other great prose stylist, Winston Churchill, in that seen one way the V is for Victory, and the reverse is, impolite. American readers should know that the reversed gesture is equivalent to giving the middle finger. Keep in mind that Sir Winston is always seen smiling. Is this the modern writer? Is this the “artiste” who has contempt for the reader, Ego and Id, at a premium because they’ll write for themselves, and the audience be damned? Why should I care?
Yes, I ignored Irony in modern literature. I offer my apologies to Thomas Mann, the dramatists, and everyone else. So I took a swipe earlier at academics. I know it might seem anti-intellectual and oh, so American, but it isn’t. Scholars have been guilty of that business practice called market segmentation. Lest we forget that before the schools awarded MFAs for “the hook,” the Mad Men generation called it “the pitch.” Schools and scholars have vested interests. Publishers have been in collusion. Let’s face it: it takes over a decade to get a PhD in the humanities (twelve years on average the last time I checked). The quality of scholar varies, as I have known graduate students in German philosophy who can’t read Nietzsche (they used Walter Kaufmann), students of medieval literature who can’t read a lick of Latin, and one person who had spent so long — thirteen years to be exact — on The Color Purple that I asked what color his edition was. This may sound anecdotal and oh so snarky, but it is relevant. I am convinced to my marrow that by the time you finish secondary school you either know how to read or you don’t. Literature is not about reducing the author to a multi-hyphenate of special interests or packaged to fit some ideology, or demographic. Is it really that important whether Gregor Samsa is a beetle or a cockroach? Nabokov spent two pages going through the German to arrive at the verdict of “beetle.” Either Vladimir was a pedant or he was that passionate about insects since his hobby was collecting butterflies. Sometimes an insect is just an insect. I’d rather focus my attention on what Franz had to say about how we treat each other.
Why should you care? The Anti-hero has often been misconstrued as some existential construct à la Holden Caulfield, or fill-in-your-character’s name here. Nowhere is this more evident than in noir fiction and film. Chandler’s Marlowe might be your great-grandfather chronologically, along with Hammett’s Spade, but it’s the cliché of the guy so screwed to the wall that he is Harry Haller staring at his straight razor. Do I shave or do I slit my throat in front of this mirror I see before me? Is that really the philosophical question? I doubt it. Noir had the hero’s journey or stranger-comes-to-town, as old as Socrates’s hemlock; and it was fun reading it. It might be from a bygone era, but let’s not get nostalgic. The first chapter of The Big Sleep has enough booze, smoke, and sex that writers can learn the art of innuendo by reading it. There is no need for a dissertation, yet somewhere somebody is writing the taxonomy of elves, orcs, hobbits, goblins, trolls, and their cultural and metaphorical significance, and they’ll get tenure for it, or their contract renewed. I have often wondered how sex was possible with all that drinking and smoking in noir ficiton and film.
I left Irony out of the discussion earlier. The situational irony these days is that YA titles are doing well. Think about why for a moment. You know the titles and the movie franchises. Interesting, no? Katniss Everdeen has her hero’s journey; she is an Anti-Hero of sorts. My underlying question with dystopic literature is how can you not have a hero? In a bleak and grim world, ripe with violence and few alternatives, what other choice is there? It is do or die. The hero’s journey is more about Survival, with self-discovery as a consequence. Dystopia is Allegory, and the writerly danger here is not to moralize. Hawthorne fell out of favor because he wrote dark allegory. I leave Dante to your own conclusions.
I dislike the rubric Young Adult. It implies “high” or “low” or worse, child and adult. Back in the Dark Ages before there were computers, I had to use the card catalog to find books in the library. Once you understood the Dewey Decimal System, however, all you really needed was the alphabet and the author’s last name to find books. If you were really daring, you didn’t give a damn and just wandered the stacks and let your intuition guide your choices. This is how I discovered Borges. I didn’t know “magic realism” or “Spanish literature.”
A library, like reading, is not about genres. YA or Young Adult makes no sense to me; yes, there was a section “back in the day” called Young Adult, but it denoted picture books or Reader’s Digest condensed “classics.” Worse yet, it was also called “Juvenile Fiction.” Is Borges’s beloved Robert Louis Stevenson juvenile? Lewis Carroll? YA books suggest immature reading, limited vocabulary and sophistication. If that is true, then I guess cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels are adolescent. I didn’t find Maus to be Holocaust-by-Numbers. The world-building in most YA novels or fantasy novels – another genre that makes no sense to me – is complex and sophisticated. Dante built a world. Is the Marquis de Sade a fantasy novelist? I happen to think he is a satirist. He wrote about how far one can take it, whereas EL James discusses how deep. For all I know de Sade might have been a loon, but insanity defense or not, he lived at a time when you were crazy or not Society still killed you. Have things changed? EL James has readers doing the electronic version of brown-bagging the book with their Kindles.
I care. I want to be told a story, not have it become distraction or “entertainment.” If I have any “theory” to my reading it is not for Intellect but Feeling. What I seek is balance and solutions to negotiate the world so that I avoid that despair Gracchus Babeuf felt on his last night: “It seems that feeling too much, I feel nothing. I find solace and hope in knowing that the human condition is corporeal and sensory. I reverse the cliché that we live only once. Not true — we die only once. If I have to offer any anecdote, it is this: those who I have known who have almost died have returned to this side of Reality with their priorities changed. I detect Hesse’s laughter of the immortals in them. When I read writers more concerned with how clever they think they are with language, and they let the Ego run amok, and give me unlikeable characters and no character I can journey with, then I am sad because they have let the flame of storytelling die out.