On Giants' Shoulders

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Is There a Common Thread Here?

I am pondering a question that has haunted me for some time. What is it that is the common characteristic of the writers I like? I am terribly opinionated about authors. There are some others, generally recognized as fine authors by the canon, whom I really don't enjoy. For example, I found Dreiser's Sister Carrie to be flat and unrealistic, Hemingway not generally worth my time, and James Fenimore Cooper a drudgery to read. Yet there are other authors that I gladly read and re-read and re-read yet again. Chesterton, Tolkien (we've literally worn out a whole set of LOTR and had to buy a new one), C.S. Lewis (ditto for being on a second set of Narnia and the Space trilogy needs replacing), Dorothy Sayers, Charlotte Bronte, Hawthorne, L'Engle (on our second copy of a Ring of Endless Light), Alcott (I re-read Little Women and Little Men endlessly in junior high), Christie,Dickens,Flannery O'Connor,some, but not all, of Stephen Lawhead, Michael O'Brien, Jane Austen, Dante, some of Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset, some, but certainly not all of Twain (sorry Atticus!). Well you can sort of see there isn't any particular thread, probably. They come from different time periods they don't all write explicitly Christian fiction, although most of them would be seen as Christian in one sense or another. Now to throw in a couple of oddities, I acually enjoy some, although not all, of Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and Helen McInnes, none of whom would be particularly linked with Christianity at all. I also like a bunch of other mystery writers, some of whom are pretty explicitly secular.

So why do I like these folks and yet find so many of the so-called greats to be not worth bothering with? Are they all romantics who pit good against evil? Perhaps. Perhaps there really is no thread. Some people would look at my list and see it as not quite high brow enough. If you looked at my book shelves (the fiction ones at least) you would see that they are far fuller of English than American authors. That's partly because the English authors cover a wider span of time, but it's not the only reason. I have simply found fewer American authors that I truly enjoy. There are some pieces of American literature like Catcher in the Rye that I read once (probably for some class or other) and have never picked up again. There are books like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice that I read for the first time as a teenager and have re-read more than once as an adult, finding new things to love each time. Of the American writers that write before 1900 only Hawthorne, Alcott, and small amounts of Twain, would fall into the same category. Even in the twentieth century American short fiction captured me far more than most American novels. Yet I continue to discover, devour, and re-read British, Canadian, and other nationalities fiction.

So those of you who are literary and love people like Hemingway and Twain, and either loathe or love Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, et. al. What do you think? Is there a common thread here? Do I just dislike "guy books," in the same way that I sort of dislike what I see as "guy movies" (which my son by the way tells me aren't just "guy movies" things like, oh say, war movies and a lot of westerns)? It can't be deeply developed and "real" characters or I wouldn't enjoy Chesterton's fiction or Waugh's satirical stuff. It can't be happy endings, because many of the books I'm thinking of don't have happy endings. They certainly aren't all mystery stories.

Do any of you have a similar list? Have you found a common thread. Do you find Sister Carrie to be flat and unconvincing? Are you less than enthralled by Hemingway? Would you avoid inflicting Moby Dick on your teenaged daughter? Would you insist that your kids must read Brave New World, but could skip Catcher in the Rye? Who do you love and loathe and what sort of a must read list would you promote?


At 9:33 PM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

You might be pleased to hear that the theatre dept. is not the only place to learn about sewing; in the visual arts realm there are 5 "fibers" classes, so we frequently see very interesting quilts and creatively constructed art cloth art. I know of someone who is a Vis Arts major with an emphasis on fibers, and she's having a display of her quilt series this week. Furthermore, they place an emphasis not only on sewing, but printing and "construction techniques" which sounds like spinning and weaving to me.

Unfortunately, I can't work those things into my schedule. Still, I feel good about the foundation my mom gave me.

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

I'm not sure I've found a common thread in my reading, either. My taste is pretty eclectic.

I've never been a huge Hemingway fan, though I did like "The Sun Also Rises."

As for James Fenimore Cooper, I have to confess that I'm with Mark Twain there, who said in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":

"They [rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction] require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the Deerslayer tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together."


I must further confess that I don't like *all* of Twain, either, but I like him loads more than Cooper, if only for the above comment.

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Liz said...

I'd never seen that particular quotation from Twain, I also must admit that I never tried to read the Deerslayer, although if memory serves it was another of the Natty Bumpo books and I hated the only one of those I attempted. I'm not sure whether my professor for early American novel didn't do more to establish a loathing in me for early American novels rather than a love for them. I loved Hawthorne before I took that class, but the guy did absolutely nothing to inspire a love of any of the others in me.

I have to say that my college instructors in general did very little to inspire a love of literature, and very nearly killed what love I had for it. I think I probably had only three that I look back on with any fondness at all. One of them nearly undid the fondness I had for him after two semesters of sophomore lit (which include Dante, and Cervantes along with a bunch of Brit lit) when I took his Romantic literature class. He also turned me off most of the Romantics for years. The Shakespeare prof, whom I now realize taught me far more about English history than I had learned elsewhere, depended so much on one source that I stopped going to class most of the time and just read the book. The best prof I had was for modern short fiction.

So, consequently,the literature I love is mostly the literature I DIDN'T read for college classes. Even when I was in college I seemed to always be reading something that I wasn't actually studying.

I have gone back and re-discovered Chaucer and Shakespeare, only to find that there are far different "takes" on them than what I was taught. It's actually pretty discouraging when I look back on my college English classes. The creative writing class nearly destroyed my desire to write. The Structure of the English Language class was obtuse, confusing, and just plain boring. I thought it was just me until I took Teaching English in the Secondary Schoo a few years later at another college. I should the professor the text we'd had for structure and he deemed it the most confusing and poorest presentation of the subject he'd seen. After getting a D+ in Structure, I got an A in the second class and found the material super easy (the transformational grammar was so easy to understand, yet that was responsible for the D at UVM). So I didn't have the best experience with English classses.

Fortunately, things appear to have changed, at least a bit. My daughter loved her English classes with a couple of exceptions. Of course, she wasn't an English major, so she could pick and choose. In our day, though, there was no Tolkien class, and some of the things she read would not have made it onto any course reading list.

I do want to go back and re-read For Whom The Bell Tolls, if only to put it into perspective with some of the more recent stuff I've read about the Spanish Civil War (most notably Joseph Pearce's biography of Roy Campbell). I doubt it will make me love Hemingway any more though, it may even increase my dislike for him.

My most recent annoyance with Twain came after reading A Connecticut Yankee, simply because Twain's anti-Catholicism was so blatant. I think I probably still like Tom Sawyer, but I haven't read it in decades.


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