So, What DO We Look For When We Read?

Recently, Tim Morris sent me the link to an editorial by James Woods in the New Yorker that explores, among other things, the predictability of the tropes many contemporary writers employ in their novels. Mr. Woods argues that tropes aren’t a recent development in novels (he points out that the 19th century novels relied on popular plot manipulators such as eavesdropping, or gossip, or evil wills that leave the protagonist destitute) and that perhaps the more contemporary tropes (his scathing critique of gestures used in language by contemporary writers is hilarious) are in fact reminiscent of ones used in the past, only tweaked in response to what readers of “realist” fiction in today’s world expect. Mr. Woods ends the editorial by taking to task the problems (as he sees them) in Chang-Rae Lee’s new novel Surrendered (which, as it turns out, I’ve read a couple of great reviews of. And these reviews praise exactly what Mr. Woods, it seems, finds problematic about the novel).

After reading the article I found myself agreeing, in many ways, with Mr. Woods. Lately I’ve found myself beginning novels and then abandoning them, leaving a stack of discards on my bedside table that blocks my alarm clock. And it seems that I give up on many of these novels for the same reason–I grow desperately bored with them. And it’s usually not due to the predictability of the plot (which is what Mr. Woods ultimately complains about with Surrendered) but rather the “writerly, MFA graduate” tropes that I’ve noticed lately in many much-ballyhooed novels. There’s the alternating first person point of view chapters (or, sometimes, the alternating third person limited point of view), the enigmatic alcoholic (or depressed, or heroin addicted) love interest for the protagonist, the broken families and wrecked marriages, the prose that wanders on for paragraphs describing exactly the way the sun looks as it sets over the cornfields (or the suburban mini-mart, or shopping mall). It seems to me that these are tricks we’re taught in writing programs (pay attention to those objective correlatives! Introduce a new problem for your protagonist as soon as the old problem is resolved!) and I’ve found myself growing bored to death with these writerly tricks (my most recent put-down? Let the Great World Spin, which won last Year’s National Book Award.  Why? Well, I didn’t really find the characters all that interesting, and there’s the alternating third person limited POV sections, but–most annoying for me–there’s the language that’s trying really hard to make the ugliness in our world seem beautiful, and to guilt the reader into feeling shame for the crime of wandering around, blissfully unaware of all of the suffering people around us.  But maybe the book gets better in the second half.  I’m too busy turning my head as I drive past those guys asking for change out on Division Street and so am currently stalled out in the middle of the second section of the book ).

All of this has me thinking about what it is that we look for when we read. What makes us stick with a book? What makes us put one down? There must be some universal “it-ness” that we’re looking for (or maybe that editors and agents are looking for) but what is this “it-ness”?

So what do you look for when you read? And what’s the latest book you’ve decided to put down (or one that you just kept on happily reading?)

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on April 5th, 2010 |2 Comments »

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On April 6, 2010 at 10:42 am Renee Said:

    Oh my, I enjoyed this post!!

    Lines that resonate: “Introduce a new problem for your protagonist as soon as the old problem is resolved…there’s the language that’s trying really hard to make the ugliness in our world seem beautiful, and to guilt the reader into feeling shame for the crime of wandering around, blissfully unaware of all of the suffering people around us.”

    These statements, and the fact that I am ultrabusy with work and school, are probably why I haven’t read anything new in a while. The last books I read, ones that left me with a need to close my mouth and remember to eat dinner, were Margot Livesey’s The House on Fortune Street, Spring Warren’s Turpentine (a ‘Twainesque’ novel), and Water Ghosts by Shawna Yang Ryan (a unique little morsel that treats ugliness and raunch in a raw sense).

    Of course the latter two writers are my long time friends and past colleagues. I’m probably biased, but I can promise their works won’t make you feel guilty or add more strife in reaching that alarm clock.

  2. On April 12, 2010 at 8:31 am desireeh Said:

    I just finished A.S. Byatt’s magnum opus, The Children’s Book, and what I found so transfixing about it was all the ways it played upon and yet defied narrative convention. Many people have criticized the book for not having a “plot” or indulging in too much historical summary — but I thought that feature of the novel was eye-opening to the possibilities of literary narrative that goes far, far beyond the familiar plot of contemporary fiction that you are describing in this post: the individual narrator who faces funny/tragic/absurd trials and develops new insights/appreciations as a result. Right now, I’m looking for novels that do something a little different.

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