Monday, August 22, 2011

To Read or Not To Read: A Roundtable Discussion

My husband and I are avid readers, and so are our daughters. Our son was too. I'm delighted to have both my daughters as members of the book club I started 2 1/2 years ago. We enjoy the same types of novels, so when my
youngest, Deanne, recommended Room, I borrowed her copy and dove in.
The best I can say about it, is that it's disturbing. I wanted to give up on it a dozen times, but hung in because Deanne assured me it would be worth it to keep going. After three long nights of reading, I reached the "Aha!" moment, when I was indeed glad I'd stuck it out. I called Deanne the next day to tell her exactly what I just said here, adding, "It's a lot of pages to wade through to get to that all-important revelation." "But,
Mom," she said, "didn't you read the back cover copy?" This from a reader who will never, ever read the back cover copy; who wants to know absolutely nothing about a book she intends to read. "No," I said, though I usually do. "I went solely on your recommendation." She laughed and said, "I bet it's on the back cover copy." "No way," I said. "They'd never give that away. It's a stunner! It just comes too far into the book. She and her editor took a huge risk of losing lots of readers by at least not hinting that there was a stunner on the way." "Go get the book," she said. "I bet it's there." So I did ... and it was. I was blown away. "Well, didn't you feel like I did, wading through the first quarter of the book?" I asked. "No," she said, "I knew it from the start." "No way. You did not figure that out in the first few pages." She confessed that she knew because her daughter Katelyn had to read it this summer in advance of her sophomore English class -- which I also find disturbing -- and Deanne read Katie's report.

So, here's my question: Say you're like my daughter, and you go into a novel knowing absolutely nothing about it. How willing are you to stick with a novel that is disturbing, dark,
grim, oppressive -- you fill in the adjective. Does it make a difference if someone you trust recommends it?

Perhaps you're like me. I have my trusted restaurant friends. If they recommend a restaurant, it moves to the top of my must-try list. From listening to the wrong people, I've also scratched some restaurants off my list. Movies are the same way. And, of course, so are books.

I recently read a book on the recommendation of a highly regarded friend. I read and read and read. I didn't like any of the characters. The plotline was comatose. The author certainly has a gift for description, so she describes the same thing three different ways, repeatedly. And then something happened in the story that was like stubbing my toe in the dark. I like surprises, the kind that give you an "A-ha!" moment, but this was a sucker punch, as if her editor said, "Something has to happen here!" And it did, and I put the book down. I'm reading another book recommended by the
same person. We all deserve a second chance. It's fascinating! Title? The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It greatly depends on whether the story gives me bad dreams or not. I've put down a few for that reason. (The Historian, for one - and I'd bought it in hardback - grrrr) If an acquaintance gives me the heads up about a slow beginning or "just get past the blah-blah-blah" then I'm more likely to stick with it. But I feel cheated if it never improves. I'm willing to go along for the ride if I'm promised a satisfying resolution of some kind, but that doesn't always materialized. I don't need a Pollyanna ending, but there has to be some redemption or character growth.

My latest brush with the dark side of fiction was when I picked up a YA novel by Robert Cormier, entitled In the Middle of the Night. The low page count and the fact that it was a YA made me think it would be a quick read.

So quick that I never finished it. It had an interesting premise (a young boy is the son of a man who unintentionally caused the death of some 20 people and is contacted by someone who wants revenge). Halfway through the novel I read a Cormier bio which spoke of his pessimism and the fact that his protags don't "win" -- and I tossed the book.

I must must admit I can't handle dark YAs. I tried to read Catcher in the Rye and couldn't stand the protag there. Sorry.

There are places I know I don't go when it comes to story--not simply because they are dark, but because they are dark in a specific way or on a specific topic. For example, I don't read novels about children dying. Fiction is personal. When I recommend a novel to a friend I do so with trepidation; love me, love the books I love, right? Some of my favorite books were handed to me by a friend: The Bean Trees, Cold Sassy Tree, In the Skin of a Lion, Life of Pi to name a few. Other books I have grown to love were recommended to me by the women on this blog: The Book Thief being among the top recommendations.

When it comes to 'dark' subject matter, I find the lines are not easily drawn. A story can be dark in a human sort of way and I will find the novel un-put-downable (I recommended Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald's novel Fall on Your Knees to the Novel Matters women because of it's rich and brilliant writing even though the subject matter was so dark the reader is often tempted to look away while a scene plays out). My personal rule is thus- if it is dark in a "humans can be so dark" sort of way, I'll give it a look. If it's a dark "there's a man with a knife in the closet" sort of way, I pass.

I'm certainly with Latayne on that one. I can't handle dark YAs either. And I've never read Catcher in the Rye. I don't feel like I've missed much. What about you? Where do you find yourself in this discussion? We'd love to hear.


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

I'll stick my neck out here and say that I love dark literature. I LOVED, loved, loved Room! I've recommended it to everyone.

It's interesting how tastes are so subjective. I wouldn't have thought of "Room" as particularly dark. Unsettling, yes, but to me that had more to do with the important questions the book raised about the nature of reality - i.e. why do we believe what we believe? I have a philosophical bent and this age-old metaphysical question has always fascinated me and crops up as a thematic thread in everything I've written thus far. I think it's a key question that needs to be faced by believers and seekers alike.

I thought the beauty of "Room" was the innocence of the child's perspective. The author took a subject that could have been quite horrifying, but brought warmth and humanity to the book by focussing on the love between mother and child.

Megan Sayer said...

I'm with Karen; I'm a big fan of dark literature too. I enjoyed Room, but for me it lost the beauty of tension after that mid-point shift. I would have loved to have that as the climax, and spend more time exploring the issues in the first half. It probably wouldn't have sold anywhere near as well, but I've often wondered if the author originally intended it that way.

I do struggle with book recommendations, but it's not the disturbing/dark/grim ones...quite the opposite. I struggle with books that feel too sanitised. Funnily enough a lot of my friends recommend to me books that they've hated, for the very same reasons I love them.

I LOVED Catcher in the Rye. Maybe it's a book you either get or you don't. I also LOVED 13 Reasons Why, which I read over Summer. Dark YA at its very best, and one of the best books I've read this year. Don't worry, I'm not about to recommend it though : P

Marian said...

I read Catcher in the Rye twice a long time ago. If you ask me what it's about I don't have a clue. I tend to forget things that I can't relate to.

Anonymous said...

Recommendations: I take few, because my tastes seem to be quite different then most people I know. However, I have had some good recent recs from a few authors that led me to some books.

RE: Dark--I'm not a big fan of dark literature--or if it is dark, there has to be a strong bright protag to make it all right in the end. This is my big beef with the modern western film---westerns of old, at least the ones I'm familiar with, used to be filled with hope and potential, but any more they are grim, tasteless affairs.

BK Jackson

Latayne C Scott said...

Actually, some of what I write could be considered dark, I guess -- or at least gritty. I think my discouragement with In the Middle of the Night and Catcher in the Rye was the darkness and rebellion that were intended to be read by minds still under formation. Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I've been told my writing is "dark" and "gritty". It made me happy. Strange bird as I am.

I can handle a book that is dark. But it has to GO somewhere. I can't stand stagnant literature. And I want it to challenge me, keep me thinking. I want to chew the cud of a book. Not just breeze through and have a warm fuzzy feeling. I'd much rather a heavy, gritty book that moves me than a cotton candy book that does nothing for my soul.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I HATE dark books...I don't read anything scary or icky (haven't since I read some awful thrillers in middleschool and suffered for months with horrible nightmares)...however I will read a controversial, hard-to-read book every now and then at the advisement of a good trusted friend. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers was like that for me...that book was SO hard to read in the beginning...but the friend who had recommended it is a lovely Christian friend with a very sweet I knew if I held in, I'd be glad I did...and O boy was I glad I did! Though, I haven't picked the book up again since...
My Daddy tells me I watched too many Disney movies as a child...and he's probably right...I like happy endings...I don't mind hard trials and tribulations...but as Debbie said...I need to see some kind of redemption and hope in a story...even if it's not what I would have expected or wanted to happen. I actually prefer books that relate to my every-day life. Things that inspire and motivate me. I love Janette Oke or Little House on the Prairie or anything like that that describes the "doing" and "workings" of everyday life (currently I'm reading Lessons At Blackberry Inn by Karen Andreola)...boring to some...but those books spur me into fresh action taking care of my family and loving it. Cheesey? Maybe...but that's my style! I am so completely and overwhelmingly influenced by stories, that like good friends; I have to be very careful which ones I allow into my life. Those dark books make me feel depressed and overwhelmed for days...and I can't handle that. I also like light contemporary fiction that isn't too dreary but that the character learns something very important and real like Ray Blackston's Flabbergasted or Miss Patti Hill's Garden Gate series ;D
As a side note...can I say that I am one of these silly people that pays attention to recommendations? As a matter of fact, that's how I often find new authors or books...I type in one I like and then look at their recommendation list, read the reviews. I often will buy a book based on recommendations from my fave bloggers as well...because I can tell if these people will like the same lit as me. I don't have the benefit of a book club...and many of my friends aren't big readers, so these are ways I've found to help open my literary adventures. I've seldom been disappointed.

Nicole said...

Book recommendations are tough. I only take them from like-minded reading friends. Some of my reading friends can read any genre. I stick to very few. If we're talking "dark"/"horror", I love Steven James' and Mike Dellosso's work. If we're talking thrillers, I love Robert Liparulo, Vince Flynn. Adam is my favorite of Ted Dekker's, but I've only read three of his newer ones and am looking forward to Forbidden with Tosca Lee.

I write love stories but read few romances anymore because they're fairly formulaic in CBA.

I don't like horror films or general market horror/dark stories.

I try to be careful how I recommend novels to friends and in reviews. Knowing the right audience for a novel in writing them and discussing them makes for more appreciated novels.

Anonymous said...

Good comments from everyone, though most of you talked about your feelings toward "dark" literature. Room wasn't "dark" in my view, but as I said, to me it was disturbing. Once I got to the "aha!" moment and I understood what was going on, it was no longer disturbing in the same way. That's when the tension began for me and I expected an amazing story from that point on. But like Megan said, that's exactly the point where the tension fizzled. There were some interesting points, but the story went steadily down for me and never picked up again. I actually had to go back and re-read the ending this morning because it was so flat it didn't even leave an impression on me. So, it wasn't dark, it was disturbing until I understood what was going on, and then it completely fizzled. Just sayin' ...

Anonymous said...

Well, on the subject of disturbing...well, that is different. It takes a very sensitive writer to accomplish the disturbing with dignity, hope and redemption.

I found "Running With Scissors" to be incredibly disturbing (I know it's memoir...but still). There was no dignity, hope or redemption. It felt like it was going for shock value.

I'm not a big fan of that.

Judy Gann said...

This youth services librarian is so with you on the subject of dark YA novels. We need more teen novels written with humor & messages of hope.

Should any of you need one, a librarian friend of mine made "Get Out of This Book Guilt Free!" bookmarks. :-)

PatriciaW said...

I'm not a fan of dark literature. I'm a book blurb gal. Gotta read the blurb. If the blurb grabs me, I read. If not, I don't, even when highly recommended by others. (Someone would have to convince me that the blurb was all wrong and that based on their deep knowledge of me, I really, really would enjoy the read.)

I don't do excerpts, though. Makes the eventual read feel like "been there, done that."

Anonymous said...

Judy, what great book marks. I'd love some.

Patricia, I'm mixed on back cover copy. Sometimes I'll read it, but I usually find it either really doesn't do justice to the story, or it's too much of a spoiler. I love to open a book to the first page -- even online (so many books allow you to read a few pages) -- and I know by the bottom of that page if it's a book I want to invest my time in. I can usually get a sense of the voice, the tone, and the writing style, enough so that I know whether or not the book is for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Sharon...I often read that first page as well...def. a quick reference of the author's ability. I remember being drilled in school that it was so important to have a catchy beginning...I think a good author will suck you in and make you want to keep flipping right from page one! I really pay attention to word usage too...I like authors who write in unconventional grammar.

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne, thanks for sharing what you thought about Catcher, too. I've often wondered about why it was banned. I read it some 40 years after it was written, knowing nothing at all about it (I read it after reading Shoeless Joe). What you say makes a lot of sense.

Megan Sayer said...

Latayne, thanks for sharing what you thought about Catcher, too. I've often wondered about why it was banned. I read it some 40 years after it was written, knowing nothing at all about it (I read it after reading Shoeless Joe). What you say makes a lot of sense.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Ugh - yes, Susie, I am so with you on "Running with Scissors". The only book I have ever thrown in the bin after I finished it, because I felt so strongly that I didn't want it to be read by anyone else. Ugh.

Dark is all well and good, but we're not dark in the same way the world is dark. There's redemption in the darkness.

I think we all have different definitions of dark in any case. I love Bonnie's comment, which I didn't see the first time I posted because Blogger was doing something weird and it didn't show up. But I agree - fiction is personal. Reminds me of that passage in the Bible about the farmer and the dill.

(Had to look it up): "The farmer knows just what to do, for God has given him understanding. He doesn't thresh all his crops the same way. A heavy sledge is never used on dill; rather, it is beaten with a light stick... Bread grain is easily crushed, so he doesn't keep on pounding it. He threshes it under the wheels of a cart, but he doesn't pulverize it. The LORD Almighty is a wonderful teacher, and he gives the farmer great wisdom." (Isaiah 28:26-29)

I love that God treats us each so individually. Tenderly when we're frail, firm when we need correction. I'm thankful that God's gifted us as writers so uniquely as well - that we have such different tastes and preferences - because we need a variety of approaches and styles to reach the human heart.

Don't even know if that makes sense - kids crying - gotta run!!

Latayne C Scott said...

Karen, thank you for sharing that scripture! The translation you used made it fresh and new to me.

Megan, last week I needed to catch up on emails and decided to watch a movie that I'd heard about when I was growing up, called Giant. It featured James Dean, the movie symbol of teenage angst in the same manner that Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye was portrayed. (Both are antiheroes, might be a better way to say it.) After seeing the movie and knowing about James Dean's portrayal also in Rebel Without a Cause, I have a better handle on the role of such antiheroes. But I still wouldn't again try to read Catcher in the Rye. I don't want to live inside that kind of head again. I've got enough problems in my own head. :)

Anonymous said...

Karen, you are so wise. That is so so true!