I’ve got a confession to make…
Though I love to read and read all the time, I have read very little “great” literature for an aspiring writer. I often have ten books on my bedside table and start and read three or four simultaneously. Usually a “good” novel (by which I mean “literary” and well-reviewed), a collection of short stories, and then a book. By “book” I mean the one that I really want to read. Notice the discrepancy. And when it’s been a long day, full of work and phone calls and a screeching baby, guess which one wins out? I mean, who comes home from work and says, “I am dying to get into a bubble bath with my Reese’s Peanut Butter cups and get lost in Finnegan’s Wake?” Hint: not me.
I have noticed a division in the types of responses I get when discussing books based on whether I am talking to a “normal person” or an “aspiring writer”. I say “aspiring” because it’s not like I talk to Margaret Atwood or Jennifer Egan on a regular basis. Or ever at all. The only writers I know right now are like me, wishing and hoping and scribbling.
So ask a “normal” person what they are reading, and most will happily rattle off a list, without any thought at all. “Jodi Picoult, Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, James Patterson.” No embarrasment, no qualifying.
Now ask an aspiring writer the same question. You’ll either get “I’m deep into the new Salman Rushdie/Jonathan Franzen/Philip Roth” or “Oh, I’m just re-reading Paradise Lost for the 13th time, I just adore Dante”. You might, might get “Well, I’m reading a few books right now, Franzen’s new book and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. But I’m only reading the last one to see what all the fuss is about, it’s not normally the kind of thing I read, and honestly, it’s pretty terrible.” And don’t even mention Stephen King or any other “bestseller” because you will get an eye roll and something along the lines of how King isn’t “what I would consider a real writer.”
I admit that I can sometimes fall into the latter category. With both books and music, I feel a need to prove that I have taste. If I am buying something that is considered popular or cheesy, then I feel the need to also purchase something of quality, to prove that I have a range. Because you know the store clerk at Borders or Waterloo Records is totally judging you. So if I buy Justin Timberlake, I feel compelled to also buy Ray Davies or Jeff Beck or Tool. Or if I buy the latest Emily Giffin, I also make sure to pick up a copy of some stellar short stories by Antonya Nelson or Tobias Wolff. Pathetic on my part. But no more. Today I’m making my stand, standing up for good stories.
“Hello, my name is A—–, and I like Stephen King.” There, I said it.
I simply cannot believe that every person in my writing classes only read Proust and Joyce, and that they never read what I would call an actual good story. There is no way that one can truly enjoy Joyce’s books as stories. You might appreciate his writing, you might marvel in the context and his inventiveness, but you cannot tell me that you stay up late because you simply couldn’t put the book down.
Now that I live in Mommyland, I don’t have the luxury of time that I used to. So if I’m going to read something, it better be good. And I don’t just mean pretty writing. To me, a great book is one that is written well, that has developed its characters, AND that is telling a good story. Yes, it should make you think and be compelling and have something to say. But at the end of it, if you don’t have a great story, if I can put your book down, if I struggle to get through a chapter because I’m bored, then I’m sorry, it isn’t a great book. It may be beautifully written. It may be the novel that holds a mirror up to our generation. It may change the art form of novel writing. It may win every award. But if it doesn’t also have great characters and a compelling story, then it’s not a great book. To me.
So I am challenging myself to read a few classics here and there. I’m going to edumacate myself, so to speak. I’ve never read Wuthering Heights so that is first on my list.
My criteria for judging these books is simple: Does it hold up? Is it a good story? I have no context to Wuthering Heights. I never studied it in school, so I don’t know why it’s supposed to be a classic. All I know is that Heathcliff and Cathy are supposedly two of the most passionate and romantic characters in literature.
1. There is a lot of ejaculating going on at Wuthering Heights. The word “ejaculate” has been used an impressive number of times already and I’m only on pg. 82 As I don’t think Emily Bronte was attempting to write an erotic novel, I looked it up and it’s what I assumed. Turns out “ejaculate” also means “to utter suddenly and vehemently”.
2. Dialect- I have always been told to be careful with writing dialect phonetically. Well apparently, Wuthering Heights is the reason. There is a character named Joseph. I’m not sure what he does, but he is very religious. That’s about all I am ever going to know about him, because I’ve started skipping the paragraphs when he speaks. Sorry. Actually, no apologies. I can’t understand him. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example.
“They’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll nut open ‘t an ye mak yer flaysome dins till neeght”.
Yes, if you take your time, you can figure out what he’s saying. But imagine whole paragraphs of that. I’ve found it doesn’t matter. You can completely cut out all of his dialogue and it changes nothing.
3. Point of View- The first chapter or so is told from the POV of a rather annoying character, a Mr. Lockwood. As I’ve been told that WH is a great book, I kept going, though to be honest, if I had just picked this book up without knowing anything about it, I probably would have stopped reading by now. Even in the early chapters, there is something about Cathy and Heathcliff that I want to know, want to get closer to them and hear their story. This Lockwood guy is like the annoying person at a dinner party who is seated to your left and keeps ranting on in your ear, while an utterly fabulous and interesting couple is seated to your right and they are having the conversation you want to be having. So you keep trying to end the conversation with Lockwood, without trying to be rude, while at the same time trying to hear what the fab couple is saying. As a writer, I am wondering why this POV? Why Lockwoood? Why not just give us Cathy and Heathcliff?
4. POV again- Now Lockwood has smartly asked Mrs. Dean, a gossipy house-keeper, to fill him in on Cathy and Heathcliff. Now the POV switches and Mrs. Dean is telling us all about Cathy and Heathcliff as young children. Now we’re getting somewhere. Now I am thinking this POV works, and even might be more effective, because it is keeping our glam couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, just out of reach. We are hearing about them, and are getting tidbits of gossip, yet not really knowing what they are thinking, so we want more. It’s like meeting Brad and Angie’s nanny.
I’ll write my “review” of WH when I finish. So far, I’m enjoying it. I am not staying up late because I can’t bear to put it down, but I’m definitely intrigued and want to know what happens next.
Have a great weekend. And if you’re a closet best-seller lover like me, stand proud.