Choosing which books to read, of the thousands if not millions of choices is an overwhelming decision. For each book I read, there are thousands that don’t make the cut. Time is precious. Until this year, I read lots of great books, but I didn’t have a plan or a method to guide my choices.
I decided to get more intentional with my selections and that begged the question, what am I looking for in a book? I ran across this post from 2006 at litblogger Scott Esposito’s Conversational Reading. Scott’s focus is on modern and postmodern fiction and he reads quite a bit of work in translation (and in Spanish, for that matter). I’ve included two litblogger’s lists in their entirety (although each of the original posts has more content) because I think their criteria is interesting. Scott has some specific criteria to identify what he likes and he’s listed them in order of importance.
Ongoing Dialectics. I like to feel that the book I'm reading is a debate, not a lecture. I like to feel that I can't judge what the author's intent is until the last page, and sometimes not even then. If I think the book is becoming too obvious in what it's trying to tell me, then it becomes just a dull demonstration. I get bored. I probably won't finish it. The ideas that animate a book should be like a tightrope walker, now teetering a bit one way, now teetering a bit the other way, always forging forward on an invisible thread. Note that this debate can take many forms--debates over philosophical ideas are the most obvious, but a book could also debate any of the following: different interpretations of a character, different value systems, different interpretations of events, different approaches to constructing a narrative or conducting a life, different styles. Note also--there's no rule that there can only be one dialectic per novel.
Challenging prose. Challenging prose is interesting prose. I love feeling that an author has abandoned me to a room full of hostile words. See, for instance, the beautifully complex sentences of James Joyce, Malcolm Lowry, or William Gaddis. I like feeling like I'm constantly under pressure to interpret what the wuthor is telling me. I'm also interested in challenging prose on the level of a story: see, for instance, the narratives of Kazuo Ishiguro or Manuel Puig--I love how they continually make me feel like I'm just a step away from cresting a hill, after which I can look down upon the story and finally see how it works. (Note also: this moment is inevitable, but it is also inevitably a letdown; I like it when authors delayed it as long as possible.)
Stylistic creativity/skill. I almost put these into two separate categories, but then decided I couldn't separate one from the other. Some authors tinker with form, some perfect forms that have already been invented, but either way I think it requires a good deal of creativity and skill. Regardless of whether they're tinkerers or perfecters, however, I think authors should be showing me something I haven't seen before. Imperfections in style, while unavoidable, should be rare and forgivable. Also under style comes voice, which should be strong, original, and suit the aims of the novel. However, if I feel like a book has nothing to say, or that the prose isn't interesting, then very rarely will I keep reading, despite how much stylistic creativity or skill is present.
Depth of metaphors. I love metaphors with multiple meanings, and I love it when authors can orchestrate their books so that these metaphors interact in interesting ways. I would reference the works of Haruki Murakami here, most notably The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I especially love book-spanning central metaphors that become a pivot point. A caveat: this is not an invitation for limitless complexity. Obviously there's a limit to how much meaning can be loaded into a metaphor before it becomes contrived, not to mention confusing.
The book makes an attempt to embody the workings of some organism. While not a deal-breaker, this is something I look for and am interesting in. Call it a pet interest of mine. Most often, the organism observed is the human mind, but I chose the word "organism" because I didn't want to limit things a book can embody to only the human mind. For instance, Don DeLillo's narratives don't embody the workings of the human mind so much as the systems that societies are organized upon (see also Orwell, David Mitchell, Pynchon). There have also been authors who have attempted to build alien consciousnesses.
Fidelity. Authors are free to tell their stories in whatever world they choose (our own simply being the one most commonly chosen). But once they have decided on their world and the rules that govern it, authors should never break those rules for frivolous reasons. Deus ex machinas suck (unless they're being explicitly used to point out something interesting about how they suck).
Characterization. Although I recognize that authors can use flat characters to good effect, I'm far more interested in well-characterized characters. Simply put, I think people are interesting and I like learning about them. I like seeing the creative ways an author can draw a character and how well the subtle nuances are brought out.
Economy. I don't have terribly strong feelings about sparse prose vs luxurious with prose, but if I have to choose one, I'll easily choose too sparse. Did I mention I love minimalists?
Humor. I think many good authors are playful authors, but I don't think being playful is the same thing as being humorous. Many authors are playful, but few are humorous. I like it when they are. See, for instance, DFW, who makes me laugh out loud.
Big Books. This is somewhat whimsical, so I'm putting it pretty far down the list, but I do have a soft spot for big books. I'll forgive more in an epic simply because I often admire its scale.
A sense of playfulness. I will confess that a novel with a playful prose style is likely to tickle my fancy more than a straightforward tale written in that humorless realist mode that James Wood is so smitten with. This is not to suggest that I am adverse to realism or serious fiction. Richard Yates remains a firm favorite and I’ll go into the whys of this a tad later. The playfulness, however, should adhere to some reasonable human construct. It should be justified, motivated not by an author flexing his chops (see Dave Eggers and, to some degree, Saul Bellow, early Martin Amis, and Benjamin Kunkel), but because the nature of the fiction requires it. But here’s the strange loophole: If an author presents a unique and distinct way of seeing the world (such as Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers or David Foster Wallace), I’m more willing to forgive him his narrative digressions.
A concern for details. I have a soft spot for books that dare to present the world’s quotidian details in ways we haven’t seen before. Nicholson Baker comes to mind. Carol Shields too. Colson Whitehead, definitely. I suspect this is why I also like Updike so much and am willing to forgive Terrorist (and even the dreadful Gertrude and Claudius) for its flaws. When Updike writes about old buildings being split up like a cardboard box, there is something in his phrasing and imagery that makes me quite giddy. I feel as if I am seeing the world in ways that I haven’t observed it before. Sometimes, it could be through a miniscule detail in the phrasing. Sometimes, it’s just outright daffy foci. When Baker describes a paperclip and dares to chart precisely how it was manufactured, I feel indebted to him for overlooking some pivotal aspect of the world that I should be paying attention to.
Keeping it real. I’m not a big fan of magical realism. My bullshit detector flies off the charts when people inexplicably begin flying in the middle of a novel because the author can’t determine a way to progress his narrative forward. There are certainly exceptions (Murakami, Calvino, Borges) with authors who dabble in the surreal, but, for the most part, such exercises escape a writer’s first and foremost duty: to convey the human experience in a way in which we can believe it. I can believe, for example, the extraordinary world of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon because there is an underlying structure to its gaslights, its curious criminal justice system with the Remades, and its underground scientists toiling away at experiments in dingy apartments. Likewise, I can look at a book like Richard Yates’
Revolutionary Roadand ferret out the precise details which reveal the Wheelers’ discontentment. The environs or the genre or the highbrow/lowbrow status matters little to me. It’s the verisimiltude that keeps my motor purring.
A fresh perspective. For the next LBC round, I nominated a book that had one of the most unique perspectives I had encountered in some time. It was not simply the book’s unusual and quite idiosynchratic perspective that rocked my world, but, tied into my last point, the realization that this author had weaved a tale of unexpected poignancy that felt as real as any other tale. This harkens back to my earlier point of recontextualization. I think Scott and I differ a bit on this point. We once got into a heated conversation about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which he felt that what Mitchell was portraying was typical and I defended the book’s ability to recontextualize both narrative and the world around us, while agreeing that its platitude-stacked ending was a bit of a letdown.
A sense of ambition. One of literature’s great challenges is to push the envelope further in a way that we haven’t seen it before. I can forgive a flawed book like Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, which I wrote about here, because it’s attempting an earnestness that is well at odds with the irony-soaked novels and literary realism so fashionable today. Likewise, if Robert Coover sometimes leaves me cold or a John Barth volume flounders, the ambition still sticks to the craw.
Giddy experimentalism. To me, Gilbert Sorrentino and David Markson are extraordinary writers because they experiment in a manner which invites. Sorrentino’s elaborate lies (such as the giddy notion of a character playing “roles” in various novels offered in Mulligan Stew) and Markson’s sentence-by-sentence approach to narrative remind us that experimentalism doesn’t have to be a cold and off-putting affair. Theirs is the purest and most difficult form of experimentalism to pull off.
Difficulty. I like books that challenge me. Books that I have to deconstruct, books in which I constantly have to look up things, books that compel me to reread them later, books I savor. I like books in which I don’t really have a sense of what’s going on until Page 75. I like books, like Ander Monson’s Other Electricities, that, with its index, suggest an interconnectedness that a grad student might spend weeks dwelling upon. I like Gaddis’s approach to dialogue in J.R., where we have to work to figure out who is speaking (which implies that we really aren’t paying nearly as much attention as we should).
Balls. I like writers who make me feel uncomfortable. I like writers who tell the truth. I like writers who want to take me to places I would never visit in a million years. I like writers who throw me into a horrific place and refuse to take the easy way out.
My goals as a reader aren't nearly as sophisticated. These are two litbloggers, among a number of them that I find interesting and I learn a lot from them. They eat and
For now, this is my list:
Originality. An artful novel needs to tell a story in a way that’s never been done before or present a unique perspective. The artfulness and originality may be in the story itself, the themes, the characters, the structure or the prose, but there has to be something that is unique to each author’s style.
Challenging Prose. I’m an active reader. I like it when an author makes me stretch. Proust has stretched me a fair distance. I’ve had to look up unfamiliar words and terms and refer to endnotes to understand cultural, geographical and historical references in order to understand and enjoy the work. Saul Bellow’s work is similarly challenging at times, but I love the payoff.
Ambition/Risk Taking. This makes me think of a novel I read last year that was incredibly ambitious, highly original, had deeply drawn characters and somehow just missed the mark. I would rather read a novel where the author has gone out on a limb, even if it doesn’t quite work than a formulaic story that works, but where the author didn’t take any chances or try anything new.
Characters With Depth. A book needs multi-dimensional characters to work.
Artfulness. Fine writing leaves me with a sense of wonder and the sensation that the author has superhuman powers. The perfect metaphor, description that is unusual, but never jarring, appropriate use of rhythm and the ability to write sentence that goes on for hundreds of words without exhausting the reader are all characteristics of artful writing. I love an author who gives me sentences or paragraphs that are so beautiful that I have to stop and read them again and maybe even break out a highlighter so I return to them and savor them again.
I’ve always been drawn to modernist literature and it seemed logical to me that I should start the year out by starting Marcel Proust’s seven volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. The modernist literary movement peaked in Europe in the early 1900s and According to Wikipedia modernist literature involved such authors as Knut Hamsun (whose novel Hunger is considered to be the first modernist novel), Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Dylan Thomas, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ezra Pound, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Ernest Hemingway, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, Joseph Conrad, Andrei Bely, W. B. Yeats, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Luigi Pirandello, D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Jaroslav Hašek, Samuel Beckett, Menno ter Braak, Marcel Proust, Mikhail Bulgakov, Robert Frost, Boris Pasternak, Djuna Barnes, and others.
Reading In Search of Lost Time has been a great reading experience. I finished the third volume last night and will take a Proust break for several books before I start the fourth. It has made me realize how satisfying it is to me to not only read, but to study literature. The beauty of reading titles that are so canonical is that there is no shortage of information and opinion about them, so I've been spending quite a bit of time reading blogs that focus on literature and literary criticism.
Some of the blogs and websites I've been reading lately are: The Reading Experience, Chekhov's Mistress, Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes, A Commonplace Blog, Maud Newton, The Elegant Variation, The Millions, Wyatt Mason and The Believer.
Where does all this heavy reading and studying leave my writing? Where, indeed.
I haven't touched my draft novel, The Foundling Wheel in months, but I have been trying my hand at some short fiction. I have always puzzled at the idea that some writers find that they are influenced by the writers they read. Never once did that happen to me, until recently. I don't know that stylistically Proust has had much of an influence, but the views into character and his detailed observations have profoundly affected the way I think about telling a story. For the double whammy, I find myself trying to emulate Saul Bellow.
There's no way to predict what path I'll take with writing now. Maybe I'll trash everything I've ever done and start over and maybe I'll decide that studying and absorbing the great works already in print is enough.
How about you? Do you plan out your reading list, and what do you look for in a book?