Is there some esoteric symbolism here you're just not getting?
As a novelist, the reader’s experience is foremost in my mind. I certainly admit it took a few goes to truly understand what that meant and how to go about muscling up my offerings, but now I’ve got a firm grasp, I do my best to make sure I never let go. How do I keep Joe Reader involved? In suspense? Emotionally heightened? Turning the page? Empathizing with the characters? And so, when the other day, my father-in-law picked up a gold-medallioned novel I’d purchased for our holiday, and said, “I’m always wary of Pulitzer Prize winners,” his disappointment stuck with me. Why should he be let down by a book granted such high honors? If a book’s at the top of the list, shouldn’t it above all else be a good read?
With that question in mind, and the hopes that yes, this reader expectation should be satisfied, that in fact the novel format doesn’t work without this basic premise, I forced myself through a novel that covered the same ground—grief—that I am consistently compelled to explore in fiction. By its very essence, the topic, by God even the word itself, is charged enough to evoke a reader reaction through the lens of personal experience alone. And so, for a Pulitzer Prize winner to tackle death the result should be a book that rocks the very core of what you thought you knew or felt about the end of life.
By the second page I was struggling to maintain interest, conjuring up all the accolades the book had come recommended with when my mind turned to dinner menus and mounting paperwork. I tried to reign myself back in, reminding myself how I hadn’t enjoyed Harry Potter, or Twilight, and that perhaps, there was something gravely broken about my tastes not only with commercial fiction, but with ‘literary’ (God am I starting to hate this word) fiction as well. The writing was articulate, the images crisp, I told myself…perhaps that should be satisfaction enough. And so I trudged on. For a slim volume, it certainly seemed to go on! Not once did I feel any emotional attachment, or personal heartstring tugged at the recollections of a father, and then a son’s admittedly harsh existence, which seemed to blossom with the creation of a new generation of family we for some reason couldn’t care less about, and their new way of doing things, albeit, sprinkled with some of the niggling, disinterested hangings-on of the past, which seem rather ugly through these last living days of the son—now father and grandfather, brother and husband.
And so, finished and more disappointed than if I’d left the book halfway with the hopes the best part was to come, I try to work things out. Is it the staid language that just doesn’t do it for me? No. No it couldn’t be. I’m a big fan of spare language, and believe that much pain and empathy—infinitely more, in fact—can be conveyed through economically showing rather than splashily telling. Case in point: The Road (a 2007 winner), For Whom the Bell Tolls, and anything by Lorrie Moore. With risk of sounding crazy, I’ll admit to my overarching suspicion: Sometimes the right balance of obscurity and symbolic use of an esoteric specialty skillfully articulated, can disguise the fact that a story doesn’t really do its job. The narrator sounds really smart, and the author must know what he’s talking about,as he’s highly regarded, and so, we’re duped into thinking it’s this fantastic tome that it actually isn’t. Go ahead. Throw tomatoes at me. Call me bitter. But if we’re being honest, I’m just curious. A writer deconstructs fiction as he reads, he thinks about the bones, the strategy, the language, the effectiveness of the conceit. And so I’m doing a bit of research here.
According to the Pulitzer’s website the online criteria for the Pulitzer winner is that the juries and board determine exactly what makes a work “distinguished.” Could this be the problem? Distinguished can mean many things to many people, and it certainly isn’t the same thing as engrossing, is it?
Which begs the question, so who is this board interpreting the distinguished from the undistinguished? Scanning the members of the last three years I didn’t find one novelist on the board. What I see are academics and newspaper editors, CEOs—intellectual, accomplished, and distinguished, I’m sure, but a bizarre choice for a Pulitzer board, no? To my mind, more representative of the kinds of people who take my fiction writing course at the ANU—they love to read, and even know how to write for the most part, but not fiction. So what makes this type more qualified than any other reader to judge a good book? This question smacks very much of the one I began with regarding my own qualifications for judging this tome. And if I’m forced to provide an answer, I’d have to say that to my thinking, if anyone knows whether a book has done something outstanding, something transcendent, it is a person who spends his life in the pursuit of trying to do exactly that.
From there, I turned to the decades-long list of winners itself. If I’m being honest and not answering a university application question, about a fifth of them are books I love, while the rest are books about important topics that I wished I’d loved but couldn’t quite bring myself to. I’d be pressed to recall the name of a character, or even the sketch of the character herself. The funny thing about this is that it always brings me back to the question of what must be lacking in me, what I must be missing in the text, or perhaps whether I just don’t have enough passion for the world’s really important topics. But I’m too old too get that far along either of those paths these days. In fact, I remember my initial suspicions when I was first informed about this book from a library program coordinator who’s programmed more first-rate fiction and authors than most people could dream to read in a lifetime. She said, “I had to read it twice, because I missed so much the first time.” Hmmm. I was circumspect of this comment then, and I still am. Rather than insinuate that she enjoyed it so much she wanted to go back and drain every last morsel from the language, it smacks very much of my own tendency to doubt my dislike of an award-winning industry favorite, and turn back to see if I wouldn’t be more pleased with a second go.
Now, before I get bombarded with arguments about taste being a personal thing, and who am I to say what’s good and what isn’t, let me say I agree with you—tastes are a personal thing, and the writer needs to be aware of this at all times to mitigate the possible fallout. But one thing I can be sure about is whether I am personally engaged by a book, and another is whether an author, from a professional storytelling standpoint, has done his job in the pageturnability arena—which no matter how many times I look at it, strikes me as the most important arena there is in storytelling, because let’s face it, if the reader doesn’t read the story, nobody’s going anywhere and your important message isn’t being delivered. So what does this all amount to? If a boring book wins an award, does this necessarily indicate some sort of deficiency in those of us who can’t find the enjoyment in it? Or should some “good” books be boring, be thought of as a lesson rather than a pleasure? Try as I might, I cannot subscribe to this idea; there are so many engrossing ways to tell a story—even an ugly or painful one, maybe especially those, that choosing one that puts off readers seems like a dumb move. Besides, would you buy a painting you found unattractive? Would you wear a dress you felt looked hideous on you simply because it was stylish? Perhaps you would. And perhaps there are readers out there so stuck in what they should be finding worthy in a novel that they forget that it was actually not there for them to find. And perhaps these people feel it’s best to leave the selection and critique of art to those in charge, but if that’s the case, I beg you to think about why, and what the book market might look like if more people refused to go with the common opinion rather than an authentic—albeit unpopular—one. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.