Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reading Books 1 : High Brow

    I’ve spent the summer reading. Being a teacher, I have nine weeks off, though I DO plan and trudge into my room periodically to work and tidy up. Right now, there’s a giant plan sheet with all kinds of standards to be reached and lessons to be taught plastered onto my white board. I don’t think about it much.

    The reading has been my main focus this year.

    On my Goodreads shelves are dozens of the newly consumed books, but honestly, I only put half of the books I read onto my account. I haven’t figured out how to stop the automatic announcements of my updates to friends so I’ve been limiting my list. I don’t really want to bother them. So I post only a few at a time, while I’ve been averaging some six books a week. If I read a series of books, for example, I’ll only post one of the books, sometimes with a review for the entire series. Thus, I’ve read all of Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters and Bridei books, but only posted two out of the seven.

    I’ve been noticing trends in both style and voice within the different genres.

    In mainstream literary fiction, the supposed high brow stuff such as Little Bee, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and The Lace Reader to name a few that come immediately to mind have main characters, women that are pretty much mutilated emotionally and/or physically. They endure. There’s no hope. The reader cannot imagine surviving happily themselves let alone believing the characters could find a life that’s livable. The language of these books, filled with visuals and voice that compel and so on, are beautiful. In The Lace Reader, for instance, I was stunned by the wonderful descriptions of Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of the book. I was sucked back to my own memories of that place, and as I said in my review, I could practically smell the vendor’s sausage cooking on Pickering Wharf from the vivid imagery the author created. The woman in that book was nuts, however, and her only hope was going to be a nice safe house in the back of her destroyed property where she could lick her many wounds and survive as a shell of what she could have been. There was no hope. Women just don’t get a break in modern literature.

    Women are the primary buyers of fiction these days. I think I read that on Yahoo, I can’t remember. So why in the world are women buying literature wherein the characters survive, barely, and don’t find love, or hope, or anything but misery? I can’t even blame male dominated publishing because I believe it’s dominated by women these days. Every agent and publisher seems to be a woman. So what gives? For that matter, why are writers writing these books that subjugate and demoralize these women?

       I only read these books because I belong to a book club that picks them up as the monthly read. I tell the other women in my group that I’m too shallow to read such better fiction without it being ‘assigned reading’. Every time we discuss one of the books I think they expect my verbal eye roll as I point out that we’ve read yet another story of some poor woman getting nailed to the cross of endurance and misery.

      I have a theory, however, as to why women are getting such a raw deal in high brow literature these days. It’s kind of convoluted and I’m practically thinking out loud as I write this, but here it is…

      I think that the subjugation of women in literature, i.e. the describing of lives filled with male domination, and betrayal of culture and family runs along the same lines as women in fine art being the subject of choice for artists. Women are objects used to describe our culture. Ask yourself: Why would you rather look at the image of a naked woman than a man?
Woman by W. De Kooning

      Yeah, yeah, The Thinker by Rodin comes immediately to mind as an objection to this theory, but really, overall, it is women that are the subject of choice in the arts. Why? What do we ultimately represent in culture? Why is the Rape of Europe, Madam X, or even the Mona Lisa considered great art? Or look at more modern art, Picasso’s subjects (there’s a sexist for you) or Dekooning’s pictorial diatribes with his slashing color and viciousness.

      And what of the post modernists who actually DON’T use the female figure much? How many times have you heard ‘regular people’ say that they don’t understand post modern art?

      My theory is that the describing of women’s demoralization and their rape of the female self by others has become a vehicle of choice for the modern writer to describe their loss of hope in our culture in general. Thus, Little Bee gets carted off by soldiers in Africa, not because she is a real person that we’ve come to like and root for, but a symbol of what real Africa is being subjected to by totalitarian forces bent on killing that culture. The oil companies, in that case, do the raping.

      Whew! That’s a load off my mind for the moment. I had to justify it in some way in order to read these books that my book group keeps picking. Now I’ll be able to read them and NOT hope that the poor woman makes it out of whatever death grip she’s subjected to. She’s just an object not a person I should like and root for, I’ll tell myself. She’s not a person that might be me.

      The trouble is I’ll know I’m lying to myself. I hate that modern fiction objectifies women into symbols of culture and that the modern writer feels that the culture is being raped and pillaged and buried by whatever big bad guy is around. Of course, the alternatives in literature are the postmodern stuff, writing that has no plot like Jackson Pollack has no focal point in his paintings.

      Or, on the other side of the coin, there are the other books that I have been reading in droves. Fiction that is more narcissist and introspective stuff: fantasy and science fiction. That’s a subject for another blog though, and I’ve gone on too long already.