Every day and throughout the year, I spend a substantial amount of my time reading about reading. From scholarly articles to academic books to chronicles of reading and reading memoirs. I am going to post a series of short observations on the books (and the occasional articles) that I have been reading particularly reflecting on the presence (or lack thereof) of romance fiction, and on how I feel my perceptions of reading aline with the authors.
Why I read: the serious pleasure of books by Wendy Lesser
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2014
In her book “Why I read” Wendy Lesser writes that she has tried to have a broad definition of literature, including plays, poems, essays and novels, “from traditional literary forms to mysteries and science fiction, memoirs and journalism” (p 5). In describing such broadness I was hopeful. A female author, the wave of attention that romance has received over the last five years and a claim to wide reading. However, I was disappointed that, with the exception of a brief mention of fairy tales and the marriage plot (Lesser p37) Lesser does not include any romance fiction in her book. However, she does lauds Henry James’s female characters and says that they “do not come ready-packaged with a character that accompanies them through life, like a kit-bag of charms carried by the generic hero of a fairy tale”. She says that these women “become their characters – they develop into them – by facing up to the various things that life throws at them, some as a result of chance and others stemming directly from their own actions.” (p 13) Implicit in this, like a backhanded compliment, is that fairy tales do have generic hero and that the female characters in fairy tales are not developed, that they are passive and unable to make their own decisions. This is not a statement I agree with. Perhaps I am reading too much into Lesser’s praise of James but it made me grit my teeth (not that I have any issue with her enjoying James but I do have an issue with her elevating him at the expense of fairy tales). I felt like I was re-experiencing the criticism that romance often receives from people who have not read romance, who have no experience of the genre and certainly do not have an understanding of romance fiction’s place in literary canon.
At this point, my reliance on the author to discuss pleasure reading in a broad, contemporary fashion ceased. To be dismissive and unknowledgeable about “generic” characters, as though those fairy tales are incapable of character depths and character development. I continued to read and found though her discussion of genre fiction – crime and science fiction (acceptable as they are male interests) but by this stage I was disinterested. I skim read the rest of the book which had a structure that was interesting. I dipped into chapters that promised me new ideas such as “Grandeur and Intimacy” and “Novelty” but I remained unenthused and unable to engage. The content dragged, it was more of the same 20th century literature pondering that was further cemented by her reluctant acceptance of electronic reading. I found the writing that she extols was limited to a 20th century literary tradition of reading in aim of improving oneself. The authors she discusses appear in most English lit curriculums and critiques and I did not feel she introduced me to any new or different approaches to reading.
I do, however, appreciate that the is a self-indulgent book (and I say this in a good way. I would adore having the chance to write and have published a book on my reading pleasure. Top marks for her scoring this gig). This is a book about what gives Wendy Lesser pleasure, where she finds her delightful reading and in framing the book to be about her own reading needs, I think it is a successful book. This is an insight into her reading life. I am just not a fan of her style of reading. This is not a book that requires me, the reader, to take on her reading style and she clearly makes this statement. To paraphrase her: this is about personal taste. If the book bores you, quit and move on. This is not an exam.
With sadness, I quit reading. I put down a book extolling reading pleasures that has given me little pleasure.
The copy of the book I read was borrowed from my university’s library. I discovered it by browsing the library shelves.
* I first posted a shorter version of this observation on my Goodreads account.