Circular Cruises/Melville Classics and Me

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21 May 2009 - Melville doesn't actually come into this essay until fairly late. It's mostly about my reading tastes and the way they were shaped, and is (upon rereading) a lot more personal than I remember. (See also "A Childhood in Libraries.") But I think the point made in the final section (where Melville comes in) is still important.

By the by, I am gradually concluding that I've been overly harsh on Dickens. Yes, he writes like someone who got paid by the word, as a friend of mine likes to say. But when I was in school, no one bothered to tell me about his sense of humor, or his acute eye for social satire. It's still hard wading through his swamp of words sometimes, but now I can see what the swamp would look like if it were drained.


Melville, Classics, and Me

12 March 1999


Until about a month ago, if you were to ask me the name of the "classics" author I hated the most, I probably would have said "Herman Melville." But it would have been a very close race.

You might say I resisted the canon. Of all my teachers, the one I most often had fights over policy with was my literature teacher; and of all the literature she forced down my throat, American literature was the branch most likely to offend.

My opinion, however, has recently undergone a shift. But before I can tell you what has changed, I must explain my biases and my past.

- - -

My dislike of the "classics" is not the kind of dislike which stems from ignorance. I have tried to enjoy many of these books (sometimes making multiple attempts) and failed. I may be a Philistine, but I am a well-read Philistine.

I have a problem with what I consider to be the excessive verbiage of most works written before 1900. It's similar to the way that all silent films look unintentionally humorous now because of the acting styles of the day. I realize that's the way people wrote then, but I don't like it. I adore a well-turned phrase, but many of the older "classics" are simply too much to take. It doesn't matter if it's too much of a good thing (Henry Fielding) or too much of a bad thing (Charles Dickens) ... if I find myself mentally crying "come to the point!" more than a few times, the book is obviously not going to be an immersive experience.

A rather large caveat here. My own writing is too verbose - I admit it. However, I'm not verbose about the same things I'm complaining about. I overstress dialogue, character interaction, internal monologue of the characters, and their emotions. I am not especially interested in 10,000 words about the way the wind-swept moor looked, nor 5000 words on the lineage and nature of Squire Allworthy. (Let us instead deduce Allworthy's nature from his actions.)

It may not surprise you that one of the most frequent criticisms I get is that I don't describe my characters' physical appearance enough. Often I don't give them a name or a gender (and I always have to go back and put one in when the readers scream). It's not important to me - I am interested only in their actions. So clearly personal taste is a large factor here.

I like plot-heavy books, where something is always happening for the characters to react to. (Having an essentially normal person react to unexpected events is to me the single most important part of all fiction.) I like pithy, Oscar Wilde-ish dialogue. Clearly the 1930's screwball comedy is my ideal, and that's difficult enough to find in this century's writing, let alone the last one.

- - -

This problem began when I was very young. I was a precocious reader. In my battered "Children's Classics" collection - which I have since donated to my little cousins - I remember reading Tom Sawyer with enjoyment, and the various folktales from different places (I later became a serious student of folklore), The Water-Babies, Five Little Peppers, and anything by Louisa May Alcott. (For every set of tastes, there is a blatant exception. I like to think this was an early warning signal of my gender dysphoria - I learned later that every right-thinking young girl wants to be Jo. But I even liked Under The Lilacs.)

Everything else in the set - some twenty volumes - was a chore. I waded through Kipling and Dickens and Hans Brinker and Captains Courageous and Two Years Before the Mast and all that ick, and dismissed it all. Where were the good books for kids?

It turns out I wasn't looking in the right place. All the Caldecott winners were a good bet, even the ones about topics I didn't think I'd be interested in. (I got more out of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch than either of the two nautical potboilers noted above.) I also discovered SF juveniles - and SF non-juveniles; I was shopping in the adult area of the library at a fairly early age. Say what you will about Heinlein, but Farmer In The Sky was the first real SF I read, and it made a big difference.

I discovered O.Henry and Saki and learned that short stories didn't have to be either folktales or meaningless descriptions of a single event which went nowhere. I remember a story in one of my school readers called something like "Pedro Goes To Market." It was about - yes - a little boy named Pedro going to the marketplace. I found this less than thrilling.

When I read contemporary short stories (and sometimes novels) that aren't F/SF or mysteries, I generally learn that they're just "Pedro Goes To Market" in disguise. It doesn't matter how well-told they are - to me they don't do anything. I understand the idea of the "art object" - something pretty that you just look at - but I don't keep many around the house; I prefer a less passive relationship with beauty.

Obviously, I am occasionally interested in the details of someone else's life, or I wouldn't read web journals. And sometimes I am interested in the single well-told mundane event. But it all depends on the "well-told." For every journal I read, there are hundreds I don't read, and for every Bridge of San Luis Rey (which I adore) there are hundreds of Bridget Jones' diaries (which I won't touch).

I wrote several thesis papers on James Joyce in high school and in college. I liked his words as a study; I'd never read them as entertainment. I tried; I wasn't able to. I'd work too hard on trying to figure out what he was saying - cracking his code - and when I'd decipher it, more often than not, I'd say "Was that all?" I am the kind of reader who frustrates "mood writers" - I am apt to ask "what is your story about?" They get unhappy and try to tell me that's not the point. It is the point. If nothing happens, you're not telling a story. What is "The Dead" about?

- - -

In high school, my early prejudices were reinforced by my new-found knowledge that as soon as something becomes old, it acquires luster.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote the worst potboilers, and sometimes got called out for it - see Mark Twain's hilarious dissection of the Leatherstocking Tales, which he called "The Broken Twig Series." Really, if these books appeared today, they'd be treated as the low-rent things they are. Cooper steps on every broken cliché in the book. Natty Bummpo, the acclaimed hero, is purest cardboard. And it's not one of those cases where these things seem trite now, but Cooper gets leeway because he got there before they were trite. No, they were trite even then.

Other potboilers: The Bronte sisters would be writing romance novels if they were writing today. (I have nothing against romance novels, by the by, but I don't generally read them. I can find better plots and sexier erotica.) Jane Austen probably wouldn't - Jane would be in Hollywood, trying in vain to bring back the screwball comedy. Jane would be Nora Ephron done right. She'd also be very depressed right now.

Dickens is the worst of the pot-boilers. Dickens, bless him, wrote only to pay the bills, and he cannot be accused of not giving the public what they wanted. He wrote mostly in serial form, and he knew how to go straight for the heartstrings - with no subtlety whatsoever. A Dickens book is a soap opera with about 2000 extra words per page.

It seems to me - returning to the point of this section - that these books are only "classics" because they're old and they've been read so many times. What other writing was taking place during this time which has been forgotten? Were there good books that got unfairly excluded? Hard to believe. Or was the standard of writing so bad that these actually are the standout books of their time? Even harder to believe.

- - -

In fact, something is clearly statistically askew.

I was fed a variety of books throughout high school (I tested out of the lit requirement in college, so escaped - I told you, I may be a Philistine, but I do the homework) and they were all bad, as far as I was concerned. More importantly, this ratio hasn't improved much since then.

Of contemporary books I read, nine-tenths of the ones I enjoy are SF, mysteries, or "fantasy." Here I use the quotes because "fantasy" is a term badly in need of a reclaim. I do not mean elves-and-dragons. I mean works which have an element of the fantastic, the Quirk of Events, in them somewhere. Borges is fantasy. All O.Henry stories are fantasy. No, there's nothing in O.Henry that couldn't actually happen in the real world - but what are the odds?

Similarly, "mystery" is a broad word to me. I consider Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, one of the last mainstream novels I enjoyed, to be a mystery, or at least a courtroom drama. Plenty of quirky in that book. "A Rose for Emily," one of my favorite short stories, is another mystery with lots of quirk. An Instance of the Fingerpost, which will probably be the next mainstream novel I tackle, is a mystery to me. Rashomon is a mystery - the mystery is figuring out what really happened.

And, now that I think about it, I like SF books because they tend, more than others, to be dilemma-and-resolution oriented. If someone did a Day In the Life of someone in the Far Future - just daily events, nothing else - it'd probably be considered SF ... and I'd probably consider it tedious.

Defining these terms so broadly - i.e. I need the Quirk, the Dilemma, or the Riddle - helps understand why I reject so much literature. It doesn't help explain why Quirk, Dilemma, and Riddle books are so seldom considered literature - why SF plot-driven novels, for example, don't usually make it into the canon in the first place.

In short, the reason I have bad odds with "literature" or "classics" is partially my tastes, which are choosy, and partially the way those two words are defined - which is exclusionary.

And there is a third factor - the new one which led me to write this whole screed in the first place. (And here's where Melville finally earns his position in the title of this piece.)

- - -

I recently got into an argument which covered many of the biases I've described here. The focus of that argument was Moby Dick.

Until recently I never met anyone except my high-school English teacher who would defend that book. It was probably, as I said, the number-one book on my list of dislikes. Oh, I read it - but for once I cheated. If I came to a chapter about cetology, a chapter about the shapes of whale skulls or the details of distilling and purifying whale oil, I'd just skip that chapter. I ended up, in effect, following Richard Armour's advice and avoiding the whole middle third of the book. Ahab was fascinating - even I admitted that - but he was surrounded by so much other dreck that it was hard to keep paying attention.

Only in the past few months have I met people who not only defend, but actually like the book - and some of these people are folks whose opinions on literature I take seriously. So I did the logical thing. (Hit me over the head with it enough, and sometimes I'll actually be logical.) I dug out my battered copy and had another look.

None of it was as bad as I remembered. I scanned through it, and the upshot is that sometime in the near future I plan to buy a better copy - mine tends to scatter loose pages all over the place - and read it again, start to finish. [2009: Which I eventually did, and although there is a little more twilight-of-the-soul hand-wringing near the end than I care for, on the whole I found it good readin' - even the cetology.]

Just as a test, I had another look at Bartleby the Scrivener - a story I remember from high school mostly as the phrase "I would prefer not to" repeated about fifty times. It still doesn't work as a story for me - no Quirk, Riddle, or Dilemma - but the prose rhythm is clearly trying to do something that went completely over my head when I first read it.

- - -

This makes me wonder. Although the Leatherstocking Tales are still going to be trite, I'm sure, and Nathaniel Hawthorne will still be an intolerant little sin-obssessed hypocrite ... how many of those other "classics" did I reject just because they were not something my brain was ready to appreciate?

And if there's a real case here - that I was just Too Young - then what are other high-school kids feeling? Remember, I was way ahead of my peers in vocabulary and comprehension. If I couldn't stomach it, then surely they couldn't. Are we still feeding these books to kids too soon? In a time where it's hard enough to get kids to read for recreation anyway?

The thing to do, obviously, is to give the kids more accessible books first - the SF and the plot-intensive novels. Let them have the books where the words are doing something more subtle later. Yes, this will mean that some of them canalize their tastes early on, but it's better than having them not read at all.

Each book has a proper age to be read - that's the new regime. I myself will be putting this theory to the test. When I'm forty, I will once again attempt to read Shakespeare's history plays, and perhaps I'll finally appreciate them. And if I live to be sixty, I'll attempt "King Lear."

Although I'm told that if you have kids, you can appreciate Lear earlier than that.


Copyright © March 1999. All rights reserved.

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