MUSING: Completing the 50-Book Goodreads Challenge
Me on my thirteenth birthday, super excited to have the Anne of Green Gables collection.
I fell in love with dance for the second time when I started writing about it. Unlike the torrid and tortured affair I’d had with it in my youth, the second time around, I approached dance as a grownup — aware of my limitations when confronted by its. I wondered if the same thing would happen with reading when I started writing fiction. I’d always been a big reader, but as the years ticked by, novels had begun to feel dated, irrelevant, more invested in the author’s experience than the reader’s.
It wasn’t because I wasn’t consuming words. I was — just in forms outside of novels. Journalism was easily and cheaply accessed, with a variety of mind-expanding viewpoints at my fingertips. As for my craving for narratives, that could easily be sated with prestige, character-driven television. (And trashy reality TV, but that’s just between you and me.)
But I’m writer, and that means I should read the product that I myself also produce. To ensure that I maintained a voracious consumption of books, I signed up for the Goodreads 2017 50-Book challenge. Writing fiction, though, makes reading it worse. Way worse. I can’t go through more than a couple of sentences without a mental red pencil slicing through extraneous words, correcting nonstandard punctuation, and rewriting clumsy phrasing.
EVERYTHING annoys me: filtering (my number one pet peeve), lapses in point-of-view, random tense changes, clunky dialogue, paper-thin characters, massive dumps of exposition. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book.
Getting through fifty books was tough going, dear reader. In August, I’d completed two-thirds of the challenge, and I wanted to quit. Not because the books I read were bad. But because they were boring. It felt like there were no good ideas left.
I’d committed, though, so I signed up for a review group where I was assigned books regardless of whether I wanted to read them or not. This pushed me over my hump as I read outside my normal literary/women’s/book club fiction. I learned a lot doing this. I don’t know, nor does anyone else, how the New York Times comes up with its bestseller lists, but I can tell you that the books people like to write and to read are about sex and love — from sweet college romances to screen-steaming erotica and every type of sub genre in between. I can’t state unequivocally why these books are so popular, but I have a hunch. As we become more isolated and expendable due to technology, the need for human connection asserts itself. People want to want others and to be wanted by others. People want to touch others and to be touched by others.
In women (the bulk of readers), these wants can be acute as we struggle to figure out what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. Romance and erotica keep the definition simple, enviable. To be a woman is to be desired — intensely, acutely — by another. Romance (and its various mash ups) is the genre of the 21st century. For as enticing as first kisses and graphically described butt sex may be, reading any genre is an exercise in intimacy. Fiction is one of the few arts to provide access to another person’s headspace. Narrative functions as a powerful tool to educate both the head and the heart. Reading makes us more moral.
If a writer avails him- or herself of the instruments of fiction, they are unparalleled for creating a meaningful and pleasurable experience — the latter of which should be equally on par with the important things a writer wants to say. Plenty of the books I read, though, appear to lack an awareness of what creates a pleasurable experience — a grave issue considering the many other amusements petitioning for people’s time and money. Too much of the craftsmanship is shoddy with excessive filtering, point-of-view lapses, endings that have no relation to anything that came before it, multi-protagonist structures where everyone sounds the same, and no movement by the characters through time and space. Literary fiction is the worst, the emperor’s new clothes of books. While original and/or big-idea content exists, most of it feels like the province of white-male mediocrity with boring prose, faux intellectualism, and personal vendettas disguised at novels. This isn’t a dig at white men; most of the best nonfiction I read in 2017 was penned by white men with David France’s How to Survive a Plague the very best book I read this year. Maybe it’s because I’m a dance writer and the job requires me to write beautifully and evocatively, but pretty words in fiction leave me unimpressed. Writing fleshed-out characters is hard. Writing an original plot is hard. Writing lively, well-paced prose that keeps the reader turning the pages WHILE illuminating profundities may be the hardest of all. After having read 60 books (I didn’t finish a couple plus I read a few brief writing manuals; thus, feeling guilty, I added books, so I could claim to have fully read fifty books), I’ve concluded that boring is worse than bad. WAY WORSE. I will take grammatical errors over excellent punctuation. I will take weird plots and incorrect usage of dialogue tags and ignorance of setting over no plots and correct usage of dialogue tags and knowledge of setting. Reading is usually the last thing I do before I go to sleep. As the clock ticks closer to my bedtime, this is the question I ask myself: Do I want to read another chapter? As a writer, my goal is to make the reader say YES.
For this year, here are the five novels that kept me turning the pages.
Muriel Avenue Sluts by Maggie Hasbrouck
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (a reread that held up)
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Coming Out by Seven Slade
The Most Beautiful Book in the World by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt