Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fay Weldon on "frivolous fiction"

These days I divide novels into four convenient groups — the good good novels, the bad good ones, the good bad novels, and the bad bad novels. The good good books are the ones that have stood the test of time: the mills of literature grind slowly, as they say, but extremely sure: they're the classics. It's no penance to read them. Madame Bovary or Vanity Fair or Tom Jones: as with a Shakespeare play, you may resist going, you may fidget while you're there, but you're glad you've been. If only because you join in the communion of your common heritage: by some kind of osmosis, absorb the resonance of the past, make the present seem the richer.
It is the bad good books that are unendurable; that, posing as literature, can put a reader off forever. A novel? Oh, I once read one of those. The ones that aspire to literature, that defy you to read on: these are the writer-centered not the reader-centered ones, which say to the reader, "Look at me the writer, what a clever writer I am, how sensitive, how perspicacious, how much better than you the reader." Or the ones, written by a good writer—such as Walter Scott— who seems to have somehow lost his knack and be writing on, and on, and on —
That's from "The Reading of Frivolous Fiction," the essay by Fay Weldon that caps off Fay Weldon's Wicked Fictions, Regina Barreca's 1994 anthology of essays on this zingy British satirist. Below is an excerpt from an essay by Barreca on Weldon in the academy that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education last summer. For ten years I was the steward of a literary book review called Belles Lettres, and I can attest that in that time we reviewed many a novel by Weldon, with relish. Thank you, Fay Weldon, for bringing me and the world so much reading pleasure! Do you treasure any authors whom you believe are slighted because they write "frivolous" fiction? Please share in the Comments.
I've been justifying a couple of my own reading-list choices for almost the whole time I've been teaching. From 1984 onward, some colleague or another has asked me, "Fay Weldon? Why on earth do you teach her?" As the reputation of this author has changed over the years, so has my answer.
In the early 1980s, when I discovered her, Weldon was stigmatized in academic circles as "too commercial" to be taken seriously. Her frequent appearances on television and radio, in print magazines and even tabloids, were apparently at odds with her increasingly respected literary work. A laudatory review by James Wilcox of her 1988 novel, The Hearts and Lives of Men, taking up the entire front page of The New York Times Book Review, would still leave her defending herself against critics who saw her as someone "who writes as if she is skateboarding—in a whirling rush and clatter, always, it seems, in imminent danger of coming adrift from the narrative that is her unstable vehicle, sustained only by her own speed." (The Times of London, 2004)….. The academy prefers writers who are perversely obscure and aggressively contemptuous toward their readers. We often value authors who write wisely but, in fact, not terribly well. Authors who write well and achieve popularity are therefore not as consistently rewarded by the faint praise of scholarly focus…. Weldon's writing lingers and lasts, and remains open to interpretation and debate, but never at the cost of obscurity or ostentation. That's why she's great; and it's because she's great that I teach her.
More of Weldon's "Frivolous Fiction"
photo by Chris Barham
Remember, always, as you embark on a novel, the rights of the reader. One: you are allowed to skip. There is an art in skipping. The more you read, the better you get at it. Just as when a friend talks and you switch off because you know what's to be said next: that's all skipping is. Two: you are allowed not to finish novels. There is no duty here. I meet too many people who say, "I'll read this, but I have to finish that first." And then they sigh. Why? If it's  a pain, why finish it off? It is the writer's failure, not yours, if you don't want to. Throw it away, give it away, leave it on the train. You've probably got hold of one of the bad good ones, masquerading as a good good one. Enough to put you off forever.
Be Not Ashamed, that is the other thing I keep wanting to say to the culturally nervous. The good bad books can be terrific…. It's true they take you out of the real world, but what's the matter with that? The real world isn't so hot. Read the bad good books while you gather strength for the good good books: the illumination of the vision, the shift of focus in the psyche that the good good book provides is strong stuff. You can't be open to it all the time. But every book you read, every book you enjoy, and in enjoying assess, makes the relationship between you and the printed page easier, more natural, until it's like breathing.

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