Scenes of Unsolicited Literary Criticism

This post was original published on Peachleaves blog.

Last fall

My GP is usually an in-and-out kind of guy, which I appreciate; no need to hang around getting to know one another once I get what I came for.  But while I was undergoing the first round of thyroid tests, I guess he realized we’d been seeing a lot of each other, so he started asking me about what I do for a living.  At that time I was between paid employment, so I told him about being a grad student of literature.  This sent him off into a reflection of a book he had just recently read and loved, Catcher in the Rye.  It just seemed so truthful, he explained: “I think there are books that really get at truth, and that is one of them.”

I remarked mildly that truth is subjective and steered the conversation back to my prescriptions.  I didn’t remark that  Catcher in the Rye doesn’t really speak to my truth.  I read it years ago, in New Orleans one summer when I had too many hours to fill and almost enough high school required-reading books on my shelf.  I remember being unimpressed.  Kind of annoyed.

In the doctor’s office, I thought silently that there are books that people say such things about – that they get at the truth, that they speak to universal experience – and these books are usually not by women.

Early spring

I was at work at the art museum with a coworker who was reading All the King’s Men, another book I haven’t read for years.  I asked him if he liked it, and he said it was Great.  Not just great, but Great – like, one of the Greatest.  I did not pursue this line of conversation, as I remember being underwhelmed by this book too.

Not long afterward, I saw a copy of the book lying in the coatroom, which it was my turn to mind.  I flipped open the book; the first word that leaps off of the first page I see is nigger.  The narrator uses this word as a descriptive noun, usually to describe characters who labor in the background, and he gives you no hint that he might see something wrong with it.  A few pages later, the narrator introduces the character Sugar Boy with a preamble of quoted dialect and idiosyncratic behaviors – and then jokes that the reader most like assumed that Sugar Boy was a “nigger.”  I confess that I don’t really get the joke. . .  unless the joke is on Sugar Boy, a poor man of Irish heritage who possesses the same qualities that the narrator finds contemptible and colorful about the myriad background “niggers” of the story.

A few more random page flips brought me, oddly, to the scene of failed sex between the main character and Anne, and to a scene of a presumably octoroon girl on display for men like a horse.

When we say a book is a Great Book, we usually mean Greater Than Other Books.  And when a book unambiguously fails to see certain humans as human – when the world’s injustices are reenacted without discernible critique – I start to worry for all of the books that this book supposedly surpasses in bookly value.

Late summer

I’ve been trying out an online dating site.  I am not embarrassed to say that book lists matter, both as a criteria for interest or as a dealbreaker.  Before I consider meeting anyone, I want to talk about things that interest me: books, food, yoga, whatever.  The books you list as your favorite tell me what you want me to know about you.  They may also tell me a few other things:  for example, have you read a book since college?  Did your favorite authors build their fame on depictions of violence, particularly toward women?  Thanks for letting me know.

Awhile ago I got to chatting with a man whose username was inspired by the narrator of Lolita.  I asked him what he found compelling about this character.  He said that the depiction of unrequited love was heartbreaking.  I thought, Uh oh.  And also: eyeroll.  “Out loud” (read: in type) I expressed doubt that what is depicted in that book could be classed as love.  He said that it grew into love by the book’s end.  I said that would make love something a lot more monstrous than I am willing to believe that it is.  He said, He really cared for her!  I said, I’m sure many abusers care for the people they abuse.  He said, He is redeemed by the end.

I said, Good night.  I did not say, Thank you for warning me to never date you.

Last week

I was sitting in the coatroom again, reading my Kindle.

I heard: “Put that thing down, girl!  What’s wrong with you?” I looked up to see one of our guards, a small grizzled man who used to chitchat with me about what his wife packed him for lunch.  I hadn’t seen him around recently, but that’s not odd, since the museum is vast and there are many things in it that need to be guarded.

I was happy that he remembered me.  ”What else am I supposed to do in here all day?” I asked, all mock petulance.

“Oh I know,” he said.  ”Not supposed to, but I brought my book today too.”  He knocked the front of the navy vest he wore under his navy jacket.  It thudded.


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