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Fiction for Men

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Richard Doster considers the reading of fiction, an activity he dubs "the pursuit of a peculiar pleasure." There's a lot to like in the article, but I'm not sure the goal of all novels is "to please." I don't think authors set out to displease potential readers, but I do think not all authors have the reader in mind, primarily, when they write. Many do, but not all.

Writers: Do you agree? I don't mean to make writing sound like a selfish activity, but neither do I want it to sound strictly consumer-oriented, which is what Doster (unintentionally?) implies:

Novels, like poetry, are written to please. Writers take the raw materials at hand: words, irony, cadence and rhythm, simile and metaphor—and with them create something new and, they hope, as they tweak, rewrite, and restructure their 10th, 15th, and 20th drafts—something beautiful. Readers may become involved in plot; they inevitably come to love and hate a story's characters, but the final product, the bound book they hold in their hands is, as Frost said of poetry, "a performance in words."

We relish the performance. We choose novels for their seductive power. We eagerly become engrossed in stories because we are, writer Simon Lesser says, indefatigable seekers of pleasure. There's no denying that Harold Bloom, the distinguished literary critic, is right when he says that the strongest motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.

Consider the when, where, and why of reading fiction. We read novels when we want to relax. We read in recliners, not desk chairs. We read in the den, cozy before the fire. We read in bed, or on the deck with our feet propped on a stool. We pack good books for the beach, lake, or mountains.

That's an excerpt. The article isn't long, so you should read the whole thing before responding.

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At Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, there's a guestpost up about the need to assign more nonfiction reading to students. I don't think it covers much ground that we haven't already covered, but he ends it with this question:

If it were up to you, what works of non-fiction would you assign to be studied as literature?

There are lots of comments, the first several of which mention Michael Lewis and Joan Didion. But the first book that came to my mind was Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. Stephen Prothero's last couple of books, too. But their books deal with religion and dare to be specific, which means students might actually be able to draw conclusions about say, the roots of Islamic extremism, or the stark differences among world religions. Which means those books won't be taught.

Edited by Christian

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I thought the talk of nonfiction in this thread made it an appropriate place to stick this. It's the kind of subject where, if you start a new thread, someone posts that we were talking about that over here. :)

Edited by Christian

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At the book club I joined this year, there was one guy at the first meeting. "It's good to see another guy here," I said to him, because, as you noted in an earlier post, book clubs are often dominated by women.

That guy hasn't shown up since. (By the way, he's the one who chose <i>2066 </i>for the book club -- pretty clearly a guy's choice, although he chose it, he said, because of Michio Kukitani's (sp?) rave in the <i>N.Y. Times</i>, and because it ended up atop the Times' best fiction of 2008 list).

The club sometimes has been me and one other woman, who's the backbone of the club. She's always there, even when there's only one other person (often a woman; she e-mails out a report after each event). When I saw the list that three of them had settled on for most of the 2009 meetings, I braced for a list of woman-friendly titles, and with the exception of Bolano's book (which I'm mixed-to-negative on, based on the half of it I've read), that's what's on the list. However, two of those choices -- Wally Lamb's <i>I Know This Much Is True</i>, and Lalita Tademy's <i>Red River</i> -- have been stellar in many ways, and I'm happy in retrospect that I was encouarged to read them. I'm not so sure I'll conquer the next selection -- a Ken Follett behemoth that was an Oprah's Book Club selection, but which appears to be, from my slight knowledge of it, to be some epic historical wartime story -- but I'll take it to the beach in a couple of weeks and see how far I progress.

Then I think about our book discussions here at A&F. Good thread on <i>The Road</i>, for example, but my <a href="http://artsandfaith.com/index.php?showtopic=16723&hl=junot" target="_blank">thoughts</a> on Junot Diaz's <i>The Brief, Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao</i> -- an outstanding literary story about a guy, and with many guy-friendly elements -- generated one response from another A&Fer, despite my feeding of the thread several times. So, maybe it's just me? Maybe I'm not good at encouraging discussion. But for heaven's sake, the book won the Pulitzer frickin' Prize! Has no one here read it, or do those who have find it unworthy of discussion? Maybe. It's coarse in several spots, but it's really quite something. Now, we did have some good discussion about <i>Tree of Smoke</i>, so all is not lost.

That previous paragraph sounds like I'm exasperated with A&F, but that's not really a legit gripe. To the extent that I engage with other men about literature, it happens <b>here</b>! Otherwise, it can be like pulling teeth. Even the guy in the book club who chose Bolano's book told us his guy friends don't read and aren't interested in reading. ...

EDIT: One of the thing that most excites me about A&F's transition to under the Image family is that the literature discussion here might grow. I suspect many women will be part of that growth, and that'll be a "Hallelujah!" moment for A&F. But, fingers crossed, more lit-friendly men probably will also join these discussions, and that can only be a good thing.

Oh, BTW, just finished that 4-disc Denis Johnson story, <i>Nobody Move</i>. Girls, guns, crime, corruption, gambling. Highly unsavory. The crisp writing wasn't enough to overcome the utter lack of meaning in the story, atlhough I sometimes think lack of meaning is what defines "pulp fiction," which, in case it hasn't been clear from these discussions, isn't a genre that has really ever appealed to me. Not that I've given it a serious chance. (I don't consider Price, or even Pelecanos, "pulp" writers, but if someone wants to make the case that those writers fit the definition, I'm all ears). Funny how film noir, which shares elements of pulp stories, strikes me as more thematically rich, perhaps because the visual devices used in that storytelling resonate emotionally in ways that comparable literary devices -- and I'm not sure what those are -- might not.

After looking for a Robert Bolano-related thread and finding and re-reading this post, I decided to resurrect this thread. Although e2c isn't actively participating at A&F these days, she wasn't the only one bothered by this thread. So I'm a little hesitant to wade back in. I will probably launch a separate Bolano thread for the comment I came to A&F to make.

In the meantime, several things about the above post struck me anew in re-reading it. First, those who do tend to contribute regularly to the "Lit" forum here are ... men! Of course, most of the participants here are men, so what else should I expect? However, I want to reiterate that comments in this thread -- or other Lit threads, or any other A&F threads -- from women are highly encouraged.

I'm still a little disappointed that, under Image, we don't have more participation in the "Lit" area. (Maybe threads like this one scare women away? That's not my intention.) I'll take whatever discussion I can get here, but I'm open to ways I might engage people further, draw out some more comments in this area. What's it gonna take? Anyone have a suggestion?

I've been reading Johnson again, and have just started another Bolano book. I'll put my comments about those books in author- and book-specific threads.

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I'm still a little disappointed that, under Image, we don't have more participation in the "Lit" area. (Maybe threads like this one scare women away? That's not my intention.) I'll take whatever discussion I can get here, but I'm open to ways I might engage people further, draw out some more comments in this area. What's it gonna take? Anyone have a suggestion?

I've been reading Johnson again, and have just started another Bolano book. I'll put my comments about those books in author- and book-specific threads.

I heartily agree that we need to get the Literature section of the threads more active. I think the largest explanation for less participation is that, in our modern day culture, people just read less than they listen to music or watch films. Years ago I decided to forbid myself to ever buy more DVDs than I do books, but I'm afraid I probably see more films these days than I read books. This is not good. I'll admit I need to turn the television off more often and open up a book instead.

Another hindrance is that there are still far more books out there than there are movies or TV shows. The chances of our having read the same books are less likely than our having seen the same films. So, in order for us to have more discussion, we'd have to form some sort of commitment, in spite of our personal tastes, to read more of the same books - or to read each other's book recommendations. A commitment (at least of some sort) that I'm willing to make. I recently purchased Marilynne Robinson's Absence of Mind because of an A&F thread, but I still need to get around to reading it.

Honestly, I only read about 4 books a month right now. But I'd be willing for one of them to start being A&F discussion books.

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Thanks, Persiflage. "Only" four books a month? You put some of us to shame! ::blushing::

I'm not sure I agree with your rationale for why we don't read more of the same books (too many books out there). There are a lot of CDs and music tracks out there, but the Music section tends to be pretty robust here, with people gravitating to similar artists and sounds. There's still lots of diversity there, too.

I think the major obstacle is time commitment. Reading just takes a while, and it's hard to jump into a discussion about a book you haven't read.

As I've mentioned elsewhere recently on the board, nearly every time I pull up new posts and see a book title I recognize, the thread turns to be about the film adaptation of said book! That bothers me a bit (unless it's about James Patterson adaptations, which suck; who knew THAT thread would inspire a few comments? :) ). Heck, I'd even take some J.P. discussion in the Lit thread. Not sure I'd join the discussion -- I could never read more than a couple pages of Patterson, and the one audiobook of his I listened to is a memory that I'm still trying to bury.

I'm getting off-track. You mention some shared titles to read. We've tried that here in the past. Search on "Book Club" and you'll see past attempted discussions of books that didn't generate sustained interest. So I'm reluctant to go down that road again. Another thread has wondered why we don't have a Top 100 Books list here at A&F. I'm afraid that seems unlikely, because, judged on participation, I don't think such a list would bring in many participants -- for nominations, and or for the final vote.

Sorry if this sounds despairing. I appreciate your interest. But I feel like some of what you've mentioned has been tried in the past, and hasn't really taken off.

Edited by Christian

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Thanks, Persiflage. "Only" four books a month? You put some of us to shame!

Four books a month, or one book a week, is not that much reading. That's still reading under 50 books a year. Do that consistently over 2 or 3 decades and you're not going to have read very much. It's pathetic really. The more I read, especially the more good or great works of literature I read (instead of just mass market bilge, Christian or non), the more I'm convinced reading is vitally important for the health of the soul, not even to mention the intellect. I probably only sit down to read a significant amount 2-3 days out of the week. I have some other friends who read more than I do, but that's because they're reading books by authors like James Patterson.

You mention some shared titles to read. We've tried that here in the past. Search on "Book Club" and you'll see past attempted discussions of books that didn't generate sustained interest. So I'm reluctant to go down that road again. Another thread has wondered why we don't have a Top 100 Books list here at A&F. I'm afraid that seems unlikely, because, judged on participation, I don't think such a list would bring in many participants -- for nominations, and or for the final vote.

Sorry if this sounds despairing. I appreciate your interest. But I feel like some of what you've mentioned has been tried in the past, and hasn't really taken off.

Yes, the Top 100 Books list was my question actually. Looks like Image gave it a try once, but it would be amazingly edifying if we could ever pull that off like we do for film. And yes, I've seen the "Book Club" thread corpses laying around here. But it looks like they haven't really been tried since 2006? You think A&F might be a little larger after 4 years? If you ever want to try it again, I'll commit to it, even if it's just the two of us. We'll just have to make our discussion of the book provoking, stimulating and interesting enough to attract more participants. If we start one up again, we can always start slowly. Like, say, 6 books a year? Committing to reading and discussing 1 book every two months shouldn't be too hard.

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I have some other friends who read more than I do, but that's because they're reading books by authors like James Patterson.

Ah, Mean Jim. One of the reasons people blaze through his books is that they're probably closer to novella length than novel. His books have a bazillion chapters, too; they're usually one or two pages long with a little bleed over, making another page necessary. Patterson books are about 1/3 blank space, as a result.

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I used to be in a North London book group. That ended when I suggested to the comrades that we read 'Intimacy' by Hanif Kureishi.

Good book, though.

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Thanks, Persiflage. "Only" four books a month? You put some of us to shame!

Four books a month, or one book a week, is not that much reading. That's still reading under 50 books a year. Do that consistently over 2 or 3 decades and you're not going to have read very much.

Four books a month is a pace I haven't been on ... maybe ever? But I admire your commitment, to the point where you consider that level of reading unserious.

And yes, I've seen the "Book Club" thread corpses laying around here. But it looks like they haven't really been tried since 2006? You think A&F might be a little larger after 4 years? If you ever want to try it again, I'll commit to it, even if it's just the two of us. We'll just have to make our discussion of the book provoking, stimulating and interesting enough to attract more participants.

You've seen my posts in those threads. Had they been provoking, stimulating and interesting, maybe the threads would've gone somewhere! :)

If we start one up again, we can always start slowly. Like, say, 6 books a year? Committing to reading and discussing 1 book every two months shouldn't be too hard.

I don't know. See, I have a stack of books on my end table from Christmas 2009 that I haven't knocked out yet. I'm actually proud of how much progress I have made, but a few of those books remain on the table. I've read only about 150 pages of the horror anthologies and 100 pages of the film criticism anthology. Then there's that Thelonius Monk biography. I need to read those before I commit to other books (not including the Haruki Murakami book club I joined for 2011 -- but that obligates me to only one book of his; I'm leaning toward his book on running).

I don't want others to feel obligated to read what I'm reading, but I feel obligated to make it through the books I've acquired and had intended to read.

Edited by Christian

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Just spitballin' here, but what if a group of us committed to reading and discussing each others' recommendations. We could do a book a month. Anyone who's "in" can pick a book, we list them all out in advance and everyone who holds up their end of the bargain will have their book read as well.

Of course, anyone else can chime in any ole time.

Thoughts? Or improvements to this to suggest?

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Just spitballin' here, but what if a group of us committed to reading and discussing each others' recommendations. We could do a book a month. Anyone who's "in" can pick a book, we list them all out in advance and everyone who holds up their end of the bargain will have their book read as well.

Of course, anyone else can chime in any ole time.

Thoughts? Or improvements to this to suggest?

Every time I think I'm out -- they draw me back in! I'm open to this possibility but not guaranteeing a commitment. But given the type of books we've been discussing recently, I think I could be drawn into this.

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I'd be interested. How about Michel Houellebecq's Platform to kick off?

Just to get something started again, I'm almost up for anything. We could easily just take turns making recommendations every couple months.

Have you or do you want to read Michel Houellebecq's Platform, or are you just looking for something controversial? I've never read him, but a friend tried and didn't like it. He told me Houellebecq just tries to get more attention than he deserves by making his writing offensive. I rarely find much of anything offensive, but even Hunter S. Thompson's offensiveness makes sense and has a point other than just saying something for the sake of how offensive it is. Wouldn't be my first choice, but I have heard enough about Houellebecq as a "social satire" writer that I'm willing to give him a try.

Christian, the most interesting author on your reading list is Haruki Murakami (I've never read him before), but out of all the quite intriguing and philosophical looking things that he's written, I'm not sure if a book about running marathons would the best way to begin him. Why were you thinking of that one? You just like jogging or something?

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Hmmm, I was just thinking of re-reading one of my Murakumi novels - he might be a good writer for us to start with...

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I'd be interested. How about Michel Houellebecq's Platform to kick off?

Have you or do you want to read Michel Houellebecq's Platform, or are you just looking for something controversial?

Well, I'm not quite that shallow. I read Platform a few years ago when it came out. It struck me that here was an author who was brave enough to tackle the increasing gulf between fundamentalist Islam and the licentious West. That view has stayed with me and I'd like to tackle the book again.

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Christian, the most interesting author on your reading list is Haruki Murakami (I've never read him before), but out of all the quite intriguing and philosophical looking things that he's written, I'm not sure if a book about running marathons would the best way to begin him. Why were you thinking of that one? You just like jogging or something?

Hmmm, I was just thinking of re-reading one of my Murakumi novels - he might be a good writer for us to start with...

I'm up for it. The book on running was simply a suggestion based on what I'd written elsewhere earlier -- that I'm jogging for the first time in my life (at age 40!) and am training for some late-in-2011 runs. Nothing huge -- a 5K and a 4-miler -- but something I think I might actually be able to achieve. I wanted some encouragement. At the same time, I committed to the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge, which requires that I read just one Murakami book in 2011. What We Talk About When We Talk About Running seemed like a good fit -- kill two birds with one stone -- but I don't think it's one of Murakami's acclaimed works.

No, those would be the books that Andrew earlier mentioned he's already read (right, Andrew?). I can go digging back through the thread, but maybe I'll just ask you here, Andrew: Is there a Murakami book you were thinking of reading? You've recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Did you finish Kafka on the Shore?

My only concern now is that Murakami doesn't really fit the "pulp fiction" angle a few of us were taking. But since Jeremy suggested reviving the A&F Book Club, I'm willing to let him steer the ship for our first selection.

Any objections?

Edited by Christian

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Christian, I've read 4 of Murakami's novels: Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Wild Sheep Chase, and After Dark. The last two didn't do much for me (I can't honestly remember an awful lot about either one), but the first two struck me as beautiful, haunting, surreal tales to which I'd gladly return. My sense is that either one would be an excellent place to begin for those new to Murakami, but I'm certainly open to reading his other works. Looking at the synopses on Wikipedia, Norwegian Wood sounds appealing, while Hard-Boiled Wonderland might be a bit too far off the beaten path.

I also started his oral history of the subway terrorist attacks, Underground, which is masterfully composed, but I found it so repetitively horrifying (it was giving me nightmares) that I felt I couldn't continue with it.

Edited by Andrew

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I could be persuaded to go with NORWEGIAN WOOD. Regarding PLATFORM, I have to say it seems a bolder choice than Murakami, and the one thing that makes it ideal for this kind of group is that it seems certain to be the kind of book to incite passionate reactions. I wouldn't expect to like it--from what I've read about PLATFORM, it seems a bit too Palahniuk-esque for my tastes (for the record, I despise Palahniuk)--but were we to go for it, I'd certainly read along.

Were I to select something myself, my tastes would probably run to works a bit more established. Something by Nabokov, perhaps. Or Joseph Conrad's NOSTROMO, which I've had on my shelf for far too long.

And it occurs to me that, given the themes of faith running throughout his body of work, the works of Anthony Burgess might provide a fairly stirring starting point, too. Say, for example, EARTHLY POWERS.

Edited by Ryan H.

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After the damning NYT review of Platform posted earlier in this thread, I feel obliged to provide a link to Julian Barne's review in The New Yorker.

As Ryan says, Platform polarized the critics. I'd argue that's exactly why it's a such a good choice for a discussion. Whilst I don't object to re-reading a classic such as Nostromo it seems slightly pointless discussing books that are generally accepted to be of exceptional merit.

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But since Jeremy suggested reviving the A&F Book Club, I'm willing to let him steer the ship for our first selection.

Here, I'll at least take this rabbit trail to another thread.

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