Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baby Just Believe Me, Don't Try To Read Me

By Kevin Guilfoile

I was on my book tour and had an interview scheduled with Janet Taylor, an extremely intelligent and thoughtful host for Oregon Public Radio. When it started, the discussion was delightful. And then Janet said this (more or less):

“In your novel, the character of Justin Finn, the child Davis Moore clones from his daughter’s unknown killer so that Moore may one day see what the fiend looks like, is an obvious Christ figure. And as such I find it interesting that you chose to give Justin’s mother the name Martha. Of course it would have been very obvious and over-the-top if you named her Mary. But in the Bible—as you are obviously aware, Kevin, but I’ll explain for our audience—Martha of Bethany was a frequent host to Jesus and his disciples. And while Martha rushed around cleaning the house and preparing food and washing feet and so forth, her sister Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him teach. Finally Jesus had to call out, Martha, stop what you are doing and come sit next to your sister. These other things you are doing are not important. The only important thing is what I have to say. And in Cast of Shadows, Martha Finn, like Martha of Bethany, is so worried about being a good mother to Justin, about caring for him and watching out for him, that she never sees who he really is or understands what he is trying to tell her.”

It was brilliant. It was sophisticated. It was meaningful. And I wish I had thought of it myself.

But here’s the important thing: Janet was right! Her analysis was terrific. And if we had never met she would always believe that the name Martha Finn was an intentional and clever allusion to the biblical Martha of Bethany. I’m not really a relativist when it comes to critical theory but that observation made the book better for Janet, and a writer has to recognize that each person who reads his novel reads a different book. Readers bring their intellect to the page just as the author does and each reader brings different knowledge and experience and history and bias. Each reader understands the book a bit differently. Each reader asks the novel different questions, and as a result each reader gets different answers. Some readers get better answers than others.

I was thinking about that a couple weeks ago as I read a newspaper review of a much anticipated novel. The critic raved about the book, calling it a "major work of art," a creation of "surpassing greatness" and compared the author favorably to Dickens, Nabokov, and Joyce. His review also included the following passage:

To read this book with anything like comprehension, a person has to be, like its polymath author, both intellectual and hip, a person mature and profoundly well read and yet something of a true marginal, a word-nerd with the patience of Job. In my charitable estimate that would describe about five out of 500 people that I know.

I'm not a nitpicker so I'll ignore the fact that people who actually want to be understood usually say "one in 100" instead of "five out of 500." This particular critic's inability to reduce fractions isn't my main concern.

I haven't read the book in question and I don't mean to imply that it's unintelligible. It might very well be a delicious literary burrito made from equal parts Lolita and Great Expectations and Ulysses. In fact, while his books don't fit the traditional definition of beach read, I think the difficulty of this particular novelist's writing is overstated by many critics. Certainly, I think the author himself believes he's writing for more than just 257 out of every 25,700 people. But even the most carefully constructed novels are relatively messy affairs. Much of what a writer puts in his novel is intuitive--he includes it because it feels right or it sounds good or even because it's a bit of a joke. A novelist doesn't always know how every element of his novel fits into some integral whole and as a reader, you shouldn't be made to feel stupid because you can't figure every bit of it out either. Novels aren't crosswords and the answer isn't printed on the inside back cover. Interesting novels have many mysteries, just the way interesting lives do.

The fact that you don't completely understand the latest celebrated literary novel doesn't make you an idiot. On the other hand if you really believe that a particular novel can only be understood by one percent of all readers, and you nevertheless call the book a creation of "unsurpassing genius," that does make you an idiot.

I know people who really believe that, though. I think they've been conditioned to believe that good books are ones they can't understand so they've stopped trying to read any of them. It's sad. In the future so few people might bother with "elitist novel-reading" that this super-intelligent reviewer and his five friends will be the only ones who get around to reading certain novels at all.

The ones written for .00000005 out of .000005 people.

(Note: A portion of the above appeared previously in an essay I wrote for the website of Penguin UK, most likely to make an entirely contradictory point.)


Anonymous said...

Hey Kevin, any chance you can say what the name of this "much anticipated novel" is? Sounds like something I might want to read.

I read your book by the way - throughly enjoyed it and has already been loaned out plenty of times.

Dana King said...

That might be the most thought provoking blog post I've ever read. I thought of a comment to post, then the subject shifted and I thought of another, and another, and another. I'll not waste comment space with all of them; I may just post my own blog comment, and refer folks back to yours. Great job, on multiple levels.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Sounds like something I might want to read.

You and me both, Rob. I actually like the author and didn't mention him by name because I was sure that other fans of his would descend on this post from some automated Google-alert and assume I was trying to dump on him, which I wasn't at all.

Let me put it this way--if that description made you want to read the book, you almost certainly already know about it. It's not at all obscure and I'm pretty sure it was released in the UK and the US at the same time.

If you're still not sure email me and I'll be happy to pass the title along.

And thanks for spreading the word about WICKER/CAST OF SHADOWS. I much appreciate it and I'm glad you liked it.

THO, thanks for the kind words. I'll look for you post.

Anonymous said...

Or you could grab a chunk of that review and throw it into Google yourself. I bet at least eight--if not ten--out of five hundred people guess it right.

Reviewers are like your interviewer, only moreso; they [inadvertently? unconsciously? purposely?] reveal quite a bit of their own interpretive process and experience and state.

I think of someone like Michiko Kakutani, for example--or the reviewer you quoted--who seem to have a compulsion to locate themselves in that 1% Who Gets It group. Vs. your interviewer, who seems excited by making connections and enjoys interpreting things.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Hey Greg,

Yeah, I think that's exactly what interesting literary criticism is supposed to be about. Who cares if one particular person you don't know likes or dislikes this particular book? Criticism is akin to memoir. It's supposed to reveal more about the critic than the author. And occasionally what's revealed is kind of unpleasant.

As you say, in the case of the interview, I thought what it revealed was a thoughtful and engaged reader. In the case of this review I thought it revealed condescension and a lack of generosity. And then with little evidence to support the extrapolation, I made a connection between that review and the state of reading in general.

This is a blog after all.

Michiko Kakutani, incidentally, called Cast of Shadows "gripping" and "creepy" and was, so far as I know, the only critic to use the word "panache" in a review of my book. So here's where I must create a little separation between you and me.

Back off, brother!

Michael Dymmoch said...

A sentiment pertinent to the discussion was quoted in Pomp & Circumstantial Evidence: "Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators." Albert Camus

The greatest works express enduring human themes brilliantly while providing compelling entertainment. Shakespeare was, after all, the Steven Spielberg of his day.)

Authors fequently put more into thier work than they are consciously aware of, but all the elements of the story still come out of some part of their heads. Kevin may not have thought deeply about the symbolic meaning of the name Martha, but he surely heard the story at some point in his life. Does it matter that it was an intuitive rather than a plotted choice to use it?

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Well said, Michael. I also put a lot faith in happy accidents. They only work in the context of a good novel, I think, but it's terribly exciting when someone points out something new to me in a book I wrote three years ago.

And if I can go back to Greg's comments again. Let's pretend for a minute that Michiko Kakutani has trashed my next novel and I'm now ambivalent about her. She's still the most interesting critic out there, not only because she incites such passion (and hatred), but because we know almost nothing about her outside her reviews. I don't know the reasons she's decided to be so private, but she's created this public existence that's contained entirely inside her work and I can't think of another critic whose managed anything similar. It's almost like Thomas Pynchon.


Dana King said...

Kevin, I posted the thoughts you provoked to my blog. Feel free to comment if you feel I missed the point.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

THO didn't post a link to his excellent, extended addition to this discussion but I will.

lulu said...

I think it's funny that the NYTBR called the same novel his "funniest and arguably his most accessible novel"

So which is it, something accessible, or just for a precious few?