A Slow Books Addendum

cloudsI just read an article from The Atlantic online called A Slow-Books Manifesto and wanted to add my addendum to it.

Writer Maura Kelly refers to The Slow-Book Movement whose “sole purpose is to reawaken modern society to the pleasures of slowing down to read, and savor, good literature.”

And there, we have the problem. What’s “good literature”? Slow-book movement founder Alexander Olchowski says he knows, although it looks as if he only knows that his own book is worthy. But the idea of slowing down to read a book instead of going to a movie or watching television while it isn’t new is valid. The idea that the only book worth reading is “good literature” isn’t.

Let’s skip the arguments by feminists and racial groups that the Literary Canon is too male-dominated and go to the heart of the matter: What makes a book worthy of the title “literature”?

The basic seems to be that the work transcend time and culture, and must be based on and capture human experience. Love, it seems, unless it’s thwarted, is spurned, or pitilessly stomped out, is not a human experience especially if it’s feminine, hopeful, or enduring. Love must create darkness, not light, to be literary.

Back to slow books, this means to read “good” literature, a person must steep herself in doomed love affairs. If the heroine throws herself under a train, all the better. But if she lives happily ever after, she’s not living in “good” literature.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Rochester doesn’t have to be blind for Jane’s love to be true. (His wife does need to be dead, however.) Maryanne doesn’t have to settle for Brandon because her heart has been trammeled. And the unnamed heroine doesn’t have to be unnamed to find love while her predecessor Rebecca is on everyone’s lips.

So my addendum is simple: Let’s adopt a slow-book manifesto that has us reading books that make us feel better, more hopeful when we finish them. Let’s read books that make us examine relationships not in darkness, but in light. Let’s read books that may seem too optimistic to be believed, but books that make us optimistic when we finish reading them.

Let’s try to put our finger on that most elusive of human experiences: love.

In other words, let’s rename “good” literature “optimistic” literature. Let’s let romance legitimately into our reading lives and rejoice.

- Pat Henshaw

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20 Responses to “A Slow Books Addendum”

  1. Tee says:

    How about good literature is in the eye of the beholder? There are some books that were required reading in school that I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole today. Yes, many of us here have admitted that not everything we read is written well. But I think the books and authors we continue to read consistently are writing well for us. We’ve discovered them and they work for us.

    As far as slow-reading to enjoy them, I do that already. There came a time (epiphany?) when I realized I raced through all the books, even the ones I loved. When I was finished, I knew I didn’t really get to enjoy all the nuances of the story. Since I’m not a habitual re-reader, usually that story was done. So I decided to slow down and take the amount of days I needed to finish and truly savor it. At first it was difficult because I wanted to plow through. But then it became a habit and that’s where I am in my reading now. However short or long it takes, I use the time. That also means taking less or no time with the books that fall short for me. How liberating. :)

  2. Lynnd says:

    The continued popularity of Shakespeare’s commedies and romances (400 years and counting) and Jane Austen (200 years and counting) should be enough evidence to the “literati” that optimistic stories about love are and should be a significant part of great literature. Tragedy should also have a place but it should not be the defining characteristic of what is good literature. Unfortunately that seems to be the case today. My philosophy is that we should read what makes us happy and leave the determination of what will be “great literature” to posterity. My suspicion is that the optimistic stories will be around long, long after many of the tragedies have faded to obscurity.

  3. bungluna says:

    The passage of time is necessary to determine wheather something can qualify as ‘good literature’. The indispensable thing, imo, is a good story. It can be tragic or happy or adventurous, but it has to engage the imagination of humans in the long rung. A lot of the garbage that gets crammed down our throats as ‘good’ nowadays will be out of “print” and long forgotten before the century is out. The good stories that connect to people regardless of the current fashion will endure.

    In the meantime, I’ll continue reading my romances and ignoring the so-called experts. Hey, I get to vote with my money now; let history take care of the rest!

  4. Lynne says:

    “Love, it seems, unless it’s thwarted, is spurned, or pitilessly stomped out, is not a human experience especially if it’s feminine, hopeful, or enduring. Love must create darkness, not light, to be literary.”

    I agree, I don’t understand why so called literary novels have to depict people living in miseryand gut-wrenching painful to read situations. Why is nobody happy in literary land?

  5. dick says:

    I agree that the passage of time determines what should be considered “literature,” but at the same time, I believe that very few books labelled genre literature will ever achieve that accolade. I read them with considerable enjoyment, find them well-written, sometimes instructive, but somehow they lack that je ne sais qua of taking in the whole of human experience that “literature” seems to impart. I know it’s inadequate as explanation, but the purpose for writing genre fiction differs considerably from the purpose for writing “literature.” Literature reveals more completely.

    • Hannah E. says:

      dick: I agree that the passage of time determines what should be considered “literature,” but at the same time, I believe that very few books labelled genre literature will ever achieve that accolade. I read them with considerable enjoyment, find them well-written, sometimes instructive, but somehow they lack that je ne sais qua of taking in the whole of human experience that “literature” seems to impart. I know it’s inadequate as explanation, but the purpose for writing genre fiction differs considerably from the purpose for writing “literature.” Literature reveals more completely.

      Interesting. I must say, I take the opposite view of genre fiction. When well done, I feel like it reveals aspects of the human experience that “literary” works overlook. For instance, a good work of science fiction can say as much about the human condition, societal norms, politics, prejudice, and love as a work of “literary” fiction, because it can reshape those issues in ways that allow readers to see them from an entirely new perspective. Similarly, romance novels can reveal emotions, expectations, and yes (gasp!) a daring optimism that is so often lacking in so-called “literary” fiction.

      It’s much too vague to simply say that “literature reveals more completely.” It all depends on what is being revealed, and for what purpose. The “whole human experience” is vast, and not all of it is depressing, or even deep. Hell, a stand-up comic can often reveal as much about certain aspects of the human experience as “good literature” can.

      Additionally, I take issue with the idea that “genre fiction” and “literature” are considered mutually exclusive terms. The idea that genre fiction, by definition, is not literary is so ingrained that it has been argued that novels such as The Time Machine or Frankenstein can’t really be science fiction because they’re “too good.” Similarly, you’ll never find the works of Jane Austen or the Bronte sister shelved in the Romance section. Why? Because they’re literature, not romance. But why can’t they be both?

  6. Marjorie says:

    It must be said, imho, that some of the “great literature” that has proven itself over time was dark because it reflected the angst of its time period. Dickens, Melville, and many others were exposing the issues of their day. Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters eloquently bespoke the large and small injustices women and children endured.

    The darkness of many novels, and the voices of the characters protested the status quo of the times. When civil protests were capital offences, literature and art were safer media of awareness and protest.

    Our present society offers greater opportunity for public discourse. I’m thankful our ideas of literature can be more light-hearted and free-thinking than in the past. In fact the proven literature to come from our era should reflect better health, greater confidence and happier endings.

    I’m also glad to see more novels finally reflecting female concerns, the female voice. The romance genre reflects this… but is widely panned as a result.

  7. xina says:

    Even if a book is not considered great literature, and I very much appreciate the angst in some literature, why can we not savor a good story just as much?

  8. Ell says:

    Too often what is handed to the rest of us poor shmoos by the critics makes me think of the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, and of course, I want to point and say, “Wait a minute! That story’s not so great!”

    Charles Dickens was paid by the word, and boy, does it show. The Great Gatsby, may or may not have been a powerful indictment of America in the 1920′s, but it didn’t mean anything to me when I read it in school, and it didn’t mean anything to my kids when they read it either.

    Literature should be something that resonates, that speaks to the human condition, and beyond that, it shouldn’t be a misery to read. It is art, after all, made up of words.

  9. Ell says:

    Sorry, I got side tracked, meant to speak to Tee…..I speed through books myself, and find that some books are like popcorn; they’re better quick. On the other hand if a book turns out to be one I love, then after whipping through it, I’ll go back and reread it slowly to soak up every single word. Love it! Good books are better than chocolate.

    • Tee says:

      Ell: Sorry, I got side tracked, meant to speak to Tee…..I speed through books myself, and find that some books are like popcorn; they’re better quick.

      Oh, I know about those kinds of books, Ell. :) But it’s good you don’t mind re-reading the stories immediately afterwards that you ended up loving, even through a quick read. I won’t re-read a book that quickly after finishing it, so I’ve learned to just slow down in the beginning if it’s grabbing me.

  10. Ann Stephens says:

    Optimism and romance are two of the best reasons to read.

    I’ve read a lot of the ‘classics’ and even re-read some of them. (Yes, on purpose.) Others, as one comment above says, “I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.”

    Ms. Kelly and several commentators at The Atlantic site seem to believe that Lit-tru-chuh with a Capital L bursts full blown from the writer’s brain straight to a ‘great book list’, like Athena from the brain of Zeus. Um, not really. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain all wrote, first and foremost, to make money. All were reviled in their time for catering to the low taste of the common consumer.

    I take pleasure in ‘The Odyssey’, ‘ ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘The Grand Sophy’, ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘A Secret Affair’. They all have characters that touch my heart, doing things that interest me.

    It’s a subjective list. Other people won’t like books I adore, but they should be free to discover their own list of books that offer them hope and encouragement. As long as no one makes me read ‘The old man and the Sea’ again, we’re good.

  11. dick says:

    @HannahE: Because genre fiction, romance fiction in particular, is limited by its required ending.

    • Hannah E. says:

      dick: @HannahE: Because genre fiction, romance fiction in particular, is limited by its required ending.

      I’ll grant you that the romance genre requires an HEA. That still allows for a lot of variation, but yes, it is a “required” ending. Mystery novels have certain ending requirements, also. This doesn’t hold true for other types of genre fiction, though, especially science fiction.

  12. dick says:

    at HannahE: You’re right; mystery and science fiction are less limited in their requirements and more of them have moved into the “literature” category, I think–Eco’s novel with “rose” in the title (brain scab) or some of Wells’ novels.
    But they do have requirements, and those limit the range of subjects they can deal with. “Literary” fiction, on the other hand, has no limits on either subject or treatment. It can treat everything, including itself or aspects of itself as in James’ “The Ambassadors.”

  13. [...] AAR discusses what the Slow Book Movement considers to be “good literature”. [...]

  14. Carrie says:

    @dick
    If you’ll forgive a food metaphor, genre fiction readers are tired of being compared to McDonald’s. The literary fiction groupie’s are sure they are the haute cuisine of the day, and genre fiction is fast food–limited in scope and taste. Let me suggest that while literary fiction may be gourmet, genre fiction is much more diverse and rich than “fast food.” Whether you’re talking about food, art or writing, personal tastes play a huge roll in the mix. It’s elitist to declare that one form of cooking, art, or writing is “better” or more sophisticated than another. A meal at a gourmet “cutting edge” restaurant and a meal at the local Momma Dips southern food restaurant both accomplish the same thing, they feed the body and just as importantly, they feed the soul.

    Reading genre fiction feeds the soul as surely as literary fiction. To deny that is to be an incurable snob. (I’m not saying you are.) Some books might be fast food or Twinkies (both of which have their place in life) and some genre fiction is vast and beautiful (I defy anyone to say Bujold’s writing can’t stand up to most popular and respected literary fiction writers of today).

    Your comment about literary fiction “revealing more completely” isn’t accurate, either. Genre fiction reveals and explores all aspects of the human existence as surely and as deftly as any literature, they just don’t end with the despair and hopelessness. In fact, I think they go much farther exploring the human condition, since they often include that most human of traits, hope.

    My mother-in-law (a published author) reads for the words. She loves language, the story is secondary. I read for the story, language is important but secondary. We read few of the same books, but we are both fulfilled readers. We are more complete, our lives are richer, and we are even perhaps better people for our reading. I fail to see looking at the two of us how her life is better, her worldview more complete, or her views more sophisticated than mine simply because she reads “literature” and I read genre fiction.

    Last but not least, there is as much trash “literature” out there as there is in any genre. The label doesn’t make it good.

  15. 聯合報 says:

    聯合報…

    [...]A Slow Books Addendum « All About Romance’s News & Commentary Blog[...]…

  16. Megg says:

    While I know this isn’t about adult books, exactly, I wanted to chime in on my thoughts about children’s books and the good vs. bad literature thing.
    My co-teacher loves to complain about the books the kids read in our classroom. (They’re in Kindergarten and first grade) Apparently she’s used to lovely children’s books with “beautiful pictures”. While I understand what she’s saying, I’m of the mind that if they’re reading, that’s great! It really frustrates me because even the squirmiest of kids we have will sit down for a good 5 minutes (which is excellent, for him) just to read a stupid lego book with pirates. Plus, half of them can’t read, or don’t read well enough to read a decent book. They just like the pictures, and who cares if they like looking at the Barbie book?? (I know this isn’t literature, exactly, but it kinda relates.)

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