I’m reading a novel that a friend highly recommended—she “couldn’t put it down” and “it made her cry in the end”—a “New York Times Bestseller” published about five years ago, a “chick novel,” a “journey” of “hope” and “love” the blurb says. It is packed with information—not surprisingly—because it is “historical fiction,” with real times and places, informed by actual historical events.
The research the author has done cries out to be noticed; the young heroes, who later, are old, demand to be loved; the historically-laced bigotry demands to be hated. Oh such demands.
I am still trying to understand what it is that makes so many people—who would never be considered literary, who never read poems, who never analyze anything, who don’t read philosophy, or literary criticism, who couldn’t articulate a literary or philosophical idea if their life depended on it, and who don’t know history at all—consume with relish literary/historical productions of several hundred pages. Why do people spend so much time reading what is neither wise, nor strange, nor beautiful? The writing of a typical “best-selling” novel is plain, verbose, and matter-of-fact (always necessary for historical, realistic, and best-selling fiction) and takes perhaps weeks to resolve itself. Why the hell do people read novels?
I am reading this novel, and plan to finish this novel, because I love my friend; I am on…page 120, almost half way through! I began the book two days ago. I’ve had to force myself to keep going, more than once; I find the experience, to be frank, terribly boring, as if forced to listen to a long-winded friend: Get to the point! What’s your point? Why do I need to know all this information?
I will admit three things: First, I know a little more about a certain time and place than I did previously. Second, when I was wakeful last night, reading 10 pages was a wonderful soporific. Third, reading a book recommended by a friend which, through, language, presents a coherent “world” of “a life,” past and present, calms me, and makes me less inclined to get drunk, or watch TV, or indulge in lonely, self-pitying thoughts. Admittedly, this is socially important.
Socially, very important.
Novels are sleeping pills. Calming drugs. That’s what they really are, in terms of practical use. It’s very similar to having a pet. You ask your cat when you arrive home, “what did you do today, pumpkin?” The cat doesn’t say, but you know the cat did something and you imagine what it was. Similarly, we ask the novel we happen to be reading, “what were you doing today?” The novel doesn’t answer, but someone (the author of the novel) has imagined it for you. And this inevitably involves the manners and habits of other people. We are interested in other people, especially if we don’t really have to bother with them. This, too, is highly attractive.
I think all three of these are related: humans like to share information, participate in something larger than themselves, and feel calm and relaxed.
We are endlessly curious, like ants on an ant hill who, with wavering antennae, are bred with a need to know everything about their surroundings, and humans extend this to an extreme degree, curious about other times and places and things which have nothing—or perhaps because of language—seemingly everything—to do with themselves.
And this is why people read novels.
But I don’t like novels. How many can one read, before one gets sick of them? I can’t imagine becoming addicted to them, as so many people are.
I like beauty, and hate to be enslaved by curiosity, and trapped in an informational nexus of clichéd ideas and mere information for information’s sake.
I hate the ant-existence. I have no patience for ants, with their little antennae moving about, who read novels.
I prefer one sly smile to a million words.
I’d rather look at a beautiful face than hear a conversation.
I don’t need any other reason; I hate modern art because it’s—ugly. I hate novels because the writing is—ugly, even as it’s evoking a tender sentiment. I don’t care what you think. Give me beauty or give me nothing.
Call me misanthropic, if you wish. You will have to get to know me better to find out that I am not. Nor would I make you choose between humanity and me. I know I am part of humanity. I know I am an ant, too. I only hope you will show me a little patience as I write what must seem to you a misanthropic rant.
And I know what you, the self-righteous, are thinking. I know exactly what you think of me. And this is why I am so bored with you—and “New York Times Bestseller” novels.
I am not made of language. I am made of flesh. And I love poetry because it has flesh—which weak, matter-of-fact, informational prose does not. I want to live and die by what I really am: flesh.
But if I make a plea for poetry instead, I must admit that poetry has none of the practical and social attributes the novel has; poetry demands more; it does not comfort, at least for any length of time. Poets are weird, simply because they do not write novels—which do have all these practical comforts. Poets are too lazy to finish a novel. Poetry takes one away from real life into weirdness. The poem hasn’t a chance against the novel. If a poem were a sweet little song, that would be one thing; it might be added to a reader’s menu: a little desert after dinner. But poetry is too proud to be an after-dinner mint. Unfortunately it wants to be more. The poem wants to call into question novel and history and cat and house and sleep. Bad poem. You should know your place.
It really was the novel that killed poetry.
Update: I have finished the novel my friend recommended.
I liked the book. It portrayed a lost love, lost to many years, and reading the book, I participated in this loss, triggered by historical events of war and prejudice and, fed by the romantic events and travails of youth and love and circumstance; historical events (was the history the food, or the sauce?) fed my mood-altered curiosity, too.
I experienced the appeal of the historical/romantic novel in all its unfolding glory: the early pages of “hard work” becomes a platform from which the invasion is launched, as the characters and their lives resolve themselves in the ongoing story—whose length allows nostalgia to seem “real” in terms of the work itself. A pretty neat trick is played. Young, chaste, innocent love is prevented from flowering, and the reader’s captured heart, sweetly indignant, races to the end of the book to see if there will be justice, or despair. We compare our bitter, and incomplete, and long life to the model of similar aspirations; time–time–time is the fuel in which we, and the novel, burns.
By a ratio, similar, I would guess, to a falling object’s acceleration, I found myself reading more quickly and enjoying the book more with each chapter: I enjoyed the third quarter of the book twice as much as the first half of the book; I enjoyed the final quarter of the book four times as much as the third quarter of the book. There is something about getting near the end, and then reaching the end, of a novel, which gives the reader a pleasure aside from the book itself, a pleasure which is difficult to pinpoint, but which perhaps makes the reading of novels addictive. Call it the ‘Falling Syndrome.’
The pleasure of looking at a painting—those old paintings which tell a story in a glance—is immediate; how different, the slow progress of reading a novel! The effect is the same: a story is conveyed. But with a novel, a thread is placed in our hand; we work our way through the maze until we get to the final room, where the Minotaur bellows, and the echoes, in the mazy distance, as we approach—clutching our winding thread—thrills.
The novel is a thread of sentiment; the matter of the novel is less important than the illusion that we are traveling in a little boat, with those we half-know, to our doom.