When I finished The Marriage Plot, I felt similarly to the way I felt after Sentimental Education. “It’s interesting. They’re all terrible people.” Even though I didn’t enjoy The Marriage Plot as much as Eugenides’ other books, man, do I marvel at his abilities.

They’re not terrible people. They are only flawed. I cracked up on early on in the novel at “Madeleine’s love troubles had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love.” Reading and expecting what you’re reading to hold all the answers to the questions buzzing in your life. Then there was this perfect summary: “So many people at college were jacked up on ambition, possessors of steroidal egos, clever but cutthroat, diligent but insensitive, shiny but dull, that everyone felt compelled to be upbeat, down with the program, all systems firing, when everyone knew, in his or her heart, that this wasn’t how they really felt.”

These characters had been sitting with me when I read Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose.  I chose this one because it was $2 on Kindle, because I love books about writing, and because it’s that annual-resolution-to-write-more time of year. (Instead, I’ve been reading more.) In the first chapter, she covers a literature class: “I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born.” In the last chapter, she discusses meeting two young writers who were often urged to “rewrite their characters for greater likeability.”

It’s one of the things that writers are most commonly being told these days: their characters should be likable and sympathetic so the reader can care about them. And what does care mean, exactly? Too often, I’m afraid, it’s being used as a synonym for identify. But what’s even more unsettling is the possibility that, in order for us to identify with them, characters in modern fiction are supposed to be nice people, like us, having the exact same experiences that we have had…
In fact, most writers would you to identify and sympathize with their characters, even if you don’t particularly want to.

I also liked:

Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you.

I couldn’t sleep on Tuesday night, so I got out of bed and started reading a book that moved me, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I started crying when Junior starts crying because his teacher urges him to leave the reservation. I loved this book. And Gordy, Junior’s nerdy friend, has his own Prose-like advice: “You should approach each book—you should approach life—with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”

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