I have a weird brain.
OK, I think most of us do. After all, our brains are entirely unique to us as individuals; no one else is the same, so there can’t really be a brain that isn’t weird. We can be weird in the same way and call it ‘normal’, but it’s just a collection of weird we’ve decided is the usual sort of weird, and is therefore the norm. Or none of that made sense and I have just proven to you how ridiculous I really am.
I have a tendency to overthink things. Introspection isn’t simply my middle name, it’s the language of my creation. I want to know why things are. But only to a certain extent. Which is weird, I guess. I genuinely want an answer. It’s not the pondering I like; it’s the chance to come to a conclusion that I find satisfactory. Conclusions around which I can build my identity. I am very careful about coming to conclusions because I know that changing them means a rebuilding of myself. A restructuring of my world. That being said, new facts are new facts; I can’t ignore them just because they aren’t what I want them to be.
It is with this in mind that I dug into my… just not being into Station Eleven, the book A paired on Friday and which she lent to me some time ago because she really enjoyed it and we, in general, have very similar tastes. I have tried several times to read it because there have definitely been times a book was hard for me to get into that I ended up adoring when I finally finished it. (Same with television. As I write this, I’m wearing a Bob’s Burgers shirt. It took me four tries to get into the show, and I am now one of its most fervent disciples.) But… I can’t get into this one. And, being the person I am, I wanted to know why.
See… thing is, on the surface, it seems like the perfect book for me. A wandering theater troupe maintaining cultural identity following a cataclysm through, in essence, Shakespeare? Many storylines all coming together? It seemed like it would be a quick read for me; the kind of thing I pick up and then finish a day later having not slept or remembered to shower. And I wanted to like it. I wanted to be able to talk to A about it and use its structure as an example of how we wanted to structure Talentless.
But I couldn’t.
And I really couldn’t figure out why. Until it hit me:
With only a few exceptions, I do not like modern literary fiction. On the whole, in the main, by and large, and with the aforementioned few exceptions, I have never finished a literary novel that wasn’t written prior to the 1950s. And even then, the only exceptions are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (himself a HUGE outlier for reasons I’ll discuss later). And those I have finished and enjoyed have an element of fantasy in them or are more accurately called historical fiction.
Why is this? I don’t know. I should, on paper, like them. I just went on (check out Saturday’s post) about the rhythm I like in stories. I’m not one for the sparse, staccato, fast-paced style that propels people forward without giving them a chance to settle into a scene and breathe. For the most part, I do not like thrillers or “action-packed” stories (you know the kind I mean). I like beautiful language. I like when it’s obvious the writer chose every single word with care, or if they didn’t, wrote in a way that makes it clear they are simply a person of great erudition. If a writer can make me turn to a dictionary even once, they automatically go on my list of writers I want to read again. (This is why Hemingway is such an outlier for me.)
But I do not like modern literary fiction. Including literary genre fiction (which sounds like it’s an oxymoron, but it isn’t– Station Eleven is, technically, sci-fi, but it belongs in the fiction section, not the SFF, and the way it’s written places it firmly in the literary category). And the only reason I could come up with was… I didn’t like the way it is written. (Also, I don’t really like science-fiction, either. I know… I’m so picky.) Because, while I’ve never been interested in the kind of literary fiction that’s about small down families with dark secrets (and its ilk), Station Eleven is not that. So…
I’m reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House right now. Arguably, it’s denser. It’s got less… genre in it than Station Eleven. It’s got loving descriptions of houses and London and people, which is normally the stuff I skip (I’m a dialogue girl at heart). But I forgive it, and I even enjoy it. In Station Eleven, my eye skipped over it. If I had to read about flowers or whatever one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall (which, since it’s not my book, I didn’t have the luxury of doing). Somehow, to me, Dickens (even though he was literally writing as many words as possible so he would get paid more) was clearer, more direct, and more evocative than anything in Station Eleven. Where the descriptions in Bleak House seemed necessary, they felt more like a chance to show off how good the writing is in Station Eleven.
But why? WHY is that the case? What is the difference between what Dickens is doing, or Austen, or George Eliot (OK, maybe not Eliot, who’s a better writer than pretty much any of us will ever be) and what Mandel (the writer of Station Eleven) is doing? I know why I prefer fantasy–that’s a plot thing, as I find fantasy far more engrossing than general fiction–but why is it that the things I love in classical literature are the things that turn me off of modern literary fiction? And, for that matter, why is it that Lord of the Rings doesn’t bother me? Yes it’s fantasy, but Tolkien spends what feels like 20 chapters describing a ring. Why is it I can barely handle four or five paragraphs about the weather and landscape in a modern novel, but I can breeze through Tolkien like it’s light poolside reading?
I don’t know. Perception, I guess. My weird brain telling me they’re different. Maybe it’s the way the writers of the classics (and look at what my absolute favorite “classical” writers have in common: they’re all British, so maybe that means something) combine their words. Maybe it’s the historical factor, since I’m always going to like something if everyone involved is long dead than if they’re still living (in another few years, I’ll suddenly find myself really into WW2 in a way I never was before). I don’t know.
But I’m kind of upset that I didn’t like the book my Bestie recommended. And I’m upset that I can’t figure out why.
Do you think the fact that my favorite fantasy author (Neil Gaiman) is also British? Or that the author of my favorite book in the last couple of years (Daniel O’Malley, who wrote The Rook) is Australian? Maybe I just really don’t like American and Canadian authors as much.
Which bothers me.