Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Literary Choices

I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a fan of lightweight fiction. It's true that The Sun Also Rises is my favorite book and that I adore C.S. Lewis. I'm currently reading a book of short stories by Shirley Jackson, and I recently bought a collection of Updike stories and two of Orwell's novels to revisit. But the kind of books I've just described make up, perhaps, 10% of my reading. I devour disposable fiction at the speed of light. Despite the fact that I have a full time job and a child to raise, a new Janet Evanovich or Robert Parker novel will be devoured in two days--one if it's a weekend. I'm not above stretching out a bubble bath long enough to finish an entire paperback.

While I've occasionally felt a little guilty about buying these $8 candy bars, I've never had any qualms about reading them. A well-turned phrase is a well-turned phrase regardless of the complexity of the story, and sometimes you just don't want to work at it. But this week I started trying to update my Shelfari shelf and I was in for a surprise. Since I started reading adult books in my early teens, I would conservatively estimate that I've read 3,000 books. There have actually been long periods of time during which I averaged about five books a week, but I calculated using an average of two per week. And after a lot of work, I've managed to get my Shelfari list up to roughly 400. And it's those little books I've been inhaling on the fly all my life that I can't seem to recall.

I know exactly which of Orwell's novels I've read; I remember the misplaced commas in Atlas Shrugged and the way Jane Austen used apostrophes in "hers". Ray Bradbury springs to mind, along with Salinger and Steinbeck. But do I know which James Patterson novels I've read and which I haven't? Can I even tell when I read the descriptions which of Lisa Scottoline's books I actually read and which I just scanned the jacket copy? No.

As a reader, that raises one set of questions, but as a writer it raises another. What is the goal in publishing a book? To make money? To gain fame? To achieve critical success? To bring people enjoyment? To change the way people think? To leave a lasting impression? Some authors, I suspect, would say "all of the above", while others (myself among them) might say that it was none of those things. The more important question in my mind is, "Does it matter what we set out to do?" That is, does the author who writes the kind of fiction that slides across my brain and then is gone set out to provide a delicious snack? Can one decide to write something more meaningful, or is that a question of insight and talent and whatever other intangible factors might have an impact? Should we even be asking these questions, or is it better just to write and take the result for what it is?

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