Monday, June 12, 2006

Missing the Boat

A long time ago, in a blog entry far, far away, I fell prey to what was a blogging trend at the time, and posted a column featuring lists. Besides being easy and rather humorous to write, it allowed me to give some information about myself without revealing my top-secret identity.

One of the lists was "Top 5 Famous Works of Fiction that I Hate or Can't Finish." Number 3 on the hit list: Toni Morrison's "Beloved."

Close followers of the literary zeitgeist will realize that not only did Beloved make my list, but was named the "best" American novel of the past quarter-century in a New York Times Book Review poll.

The problem is that I can't finish "Beloved," much less say I love it, for reasons that go well beyond my abilities of expression ("I thought it sucked," "the language was all emoting," "I thought it sucked."). Literature that is all emotion and no brain (or conversely) grates on my nerves, and while Beloved is certainly a brainy book, in a way, it often reads more like a Harlequin Romance parody than, say, William Gass or Thomas Pynchon.

One can couch it in terms such as effective use of anaphora and synecdoche, but to put it in blunter terms, "Beloved" made my brain hurt. I read it until I couldn't stand it.

I don't get it

But apparently "Beloved" has touched a great many writers and readers, so I am left to wonder just what I'm missing. Where I went to grad school, criticizing Toni Morrison was a foolish idea, like dissing your brand new, 6-6, 300 pound, sex-deprived cellmate at Attica—do it at your own risk. Everybody at school just loved the book, and, in the one smart thing I did as MFA student, I shut my mouth while the copious praise of Ms. Morrison’s masterwork floated around my ears in class like clouds of silver.

I've only read one other Morrison novel, "The Bluest Eye," her first book, and rather liked it, so I can't chalk up my disdain for "Beloved" to a general animus I hold against the author, and I don't fancy myself as a racist, despite one grad school professor's characterization of all white folk (and she was a honkie, just like me).

The panel of “experts” for choosing the best book of the last quarter-century was a who’s who of American letters young and old, and who the hell am I, an unpublished novelist with a bitter streak, to question their wisdom? Perhaps it is the best work of fiction this great nation of ours has had to offer since 1981 and since I haven’t read “Mating,” “Winter’s Tale,” "Blood Meridian," “Housekeeping,” or (gasp) any of the Rabbit Angstrom books, I probably am not really qualified to pass judgment.

My remaining 20 digits are not enough to count the “classic” works of literature that I didn’t “get,” enjoy, or quit in frustration. Most of these misbegotten ventures were forced down my throat in high school, college, and beyond. In part, my disdain of any book is correlated to my disdain of the person assigning it; a yukky high school teacher assigned “Ethan Frome” and I didn’t get over my Edith Wharton trauma until I read “The House of Mirth” years later.

I could tell you how “Middlemarch” made me doze, “Mrs. Dalloway” left me cold, and how Milton made my eyes bleed. I could tell you how I never got Dylan Thomas, how Ben Jonson made me cry with boredom, and “Moby-Dick” just made me cry.

At least these were school assignments. I know we’ve all be victims of a literary proselytizer, those folks who wave a book in your face and tell you that if you don’t read this—and love it more than anything ever written—you will be consigned to the lowest level of the literary afterlife. I’m one of those annoying characters, as are all passionate readers, and so when I don’t like a book that a friend pushes on me, I just blame the friend, not the book.

Me write now

But when you have institutional imprimatur for a book from other writers, a la “Beloved,” when you’re not a fan, it seems particularly grating. Everybody loves something, you don't, and what the hell am I missing? Am I stupid, ignorant, or just a pro-wrestling lovin', beer-swillin', troglodyte?

Don't answer that.