Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Through a glass eye, darkly: listening to the Alternavoice

Flavia has good a post up about a book that she read and that, quoting Dorothy Parker, she says she wants to hurl with great force out of her house.  It's a book about a guy having a mushy, lukewarm crisis of faith. She also says that she doesn't necessarily finish books any more once she's given them a fair (100 pages, more than fair) chance.

Finishing books? Not necessarily, any more.  I recently tried a modern classic, but after reading the preface about how it would be challenging, frustrating, and confusing, even a little boring with all the digressions, but that the 1000+ pages would be totally worth the effort, I let the Kindle app quietly return it to the library without forging ahead.  Maybe I'll try again in twenty or thirty years. If I'm going to work that hard, I'd rather work, if you see what I mean.

No, the thing that worries me a little is that in rereading some classics, including my recent stretch of visiting the mid-century males, my first reaction is often no longer "This is a Timeless Classic with Enduring Themes and Universal Truths," the gospel I was taught, but "Oh, great--more twentysomething guy problems."  As Mark Twain once said of James Fenimore Cooper in a very different but totally hilarious context, I'm seeing through a glass eye, darkly.

I can't tell whether this is a gender issue or an age one, since I've read so many more novels since first encountering those classics. I can still appreciate all the formal stuff and even a little stylistic fancy footwork, but in the big Crisis of Faith moments, a still, small voice in the back of my head is saying something like "Dude. You are worrying about this, really? Get a grip."

The Alternavoice hasn't always been there when I read. I think reading all the junk on the web has cultivated it, from listicles to the faux questions at Slate and HuffPo and now all the news sites.  It's not there with everything I read, which is a good thing.

And the Alternavoice isn't all bad.  It slips out in class sometimes, in some almost-snark pointing out problems in a text. I don't want to go all trollish on a piece of writing, of course, but it's good for the students to see that what we're reading isn't holy writ and that there's another way to look at the hero's dilemma.

Maybe I need to write up an assignment where they can let their Alternavoices loose, but once it's out of the cage, as evidenced in my brain in the last year or so, it's out for good.

Do you have this voice when you read literature? Is there some situation or plotline that especially brings it out?

12 comments:

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

10 bucks says your 1000-page masterpiece was Infinite Jest. Am I right? I love David Foster Wallace's essays and short stories, but I couldn't even get 20 pages into Infinite Jest. I can't abide writing that involves sports in any way.

I do have a voice when I'm reading that rejects a lot of what's before me. That developed over a long time. In high school and college when I didn't like a book, I thought there was something wrong with me. Now I think that there's something wrong with the book's style (or whatever) that just doesn't fit my taste. I have a right to taste. Everyone does. It just took me a long time to figure that out.

pat said...

My alternavoice wakes up in the presence of ideology, or when I decide an author is too fond of a character and is slanting the book in his/her favor. It then feels it must provide the needed counterpoint; and since I don't read to listen to my alternavoice, what's the point of going on with the book?

I just filled two bags with books I never finished reading. I will stack them outside my office for unsuspecting students.

nicoleandmaggie said...

That is and was my experience with pretty much the entire high school literature oeuvre. "Oh great, more teenage boy angst. They need to get lives." (In middle school we read a few books about real people with real problems, like Roll of Thunder... but in high school it was all rich whiny white boys trying to find themselves. Oh, and Shakespeare, which was a nice break. Except when it was rich whiny heroes trying to find themselves. But nobody remembers the historical plays for long.)

One nice thing about being a social scientist is that all my fiction is pleasure-reading so I can stick to likable main characters and humorous situations and well-developed female characters.

And I can read the bolded parts on listicles and not the paragraphs underneath. And then only lightly kick myself for having clicked on the title-bait.

Flavia said...

I've found that quite suddenly, in just the last couple of years, I've become unable to not notice lame female characters in t.v. shows and movies, or inequitable treatment of those actors. I'm not just talking about Bechdel-test stuff--I absolutely can't not notice when, even in works with allegedly powerful women, it's always the men who save the day, or when the teenaged boys are allowed to look like teenaged boys (awkward, hints of acne, a little doughy) but all the teenaged girls look like movie stars, even the ones who are well-written as slightly nerdy.

I haven't noticed the alternavoice with novels, though there are definitely critically-acclaimed works that I avoid on principle--that principle being I'm pretty sure I'll hate it. All those young-angsty-man-in-Brooklyn novels fall into that category.

sophylou said...

I have a single book in my LibraryThing "books I've read" library tagged as "awful" because I hated the book so very, very much. You know the type -- dumpy middle-aged male professor character has all his fantasies, sexual and otherwise, come true. I finished the book because it had been well reviewed and I kept thinking it would get better, or at least have more about what it was ostensibly about. It did focus a little more on that subject, but not enough to make me glad I'd persevered.

profacero said...

I think I am the opposite. I used not to be interested in much classic literature because I was just not that interested in what most white guys have to say. Now I look at it and say hey, there is some skill here, this is fun.

Belle said...

There's a book in the canonical literature of post-colonial/nationalist lit that I threw across the room twenty years ago, and it's still on my shelves. I don't make students read it, but I do make them read reviews of it. And I explain very carefully what I discovered when I first read it: he gets credit for it being 'original' when, if we'd ever read de Beauvoir's Second Sex we'd know she said it decades before he did. She's dismissed; he's part of the canon. Infuriating.

undine said...

Fie--I plead the Fifth.

pat--Never read Ayn Rand, then :). Your comment made me wonder this: we're always making lists of books we like. What about books we couldn't finish or disliked?

nicoleandmaggie--Good advice about the bolded parts. I didn't feel that way in high school and don't now, exactly, but some books are certainly striking me this way.

Flavia--exactly! It seems as though now women are the one-note voice of truth to bust the chops of the male main character. True Detective and Ray Donovan are just two examples where the women have no interior life but exist to clamor for attention and harangue the men about their moral purpose on earth.

undine said...

sophylou--I wonder if LibraryThing has a whole category of these. I'd love to know what yours was.

profacero--I still *enjoy* some of them, but I am much more aware that what was palmed off to me as universal is in fact a very gendered and age-related perspective.

Belle--now I really want to know the books that you and sophylou are talking about.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Did you not feel that way in high school because you read books in high school that had main characters who weren't rich whiny teenagers (and Gatsby who I guess was an adult) trying to find themselves (and occasionally murdering their friends or sleeping with prostitutes in the process) or because you find value to that sub-literature?

Come to think of it, we read all the Shakespeare plays with strong heroines in middle school. High school was all historical plays, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet.

sophylou said...

Mine was Robert Hellenga, The Fall of a Sparrow. Still can't believe I read the whole thing.

undine said...

nicoleandmaggie--I can't remember what we read in high school, but I don't think we read Gatsby or A Separate Peace. We read Julius Caesar in 10th grade English and a few books of the The Aeneid in 4th year Latin. Beyond that, my mind's a blank. (Pretty sad to say, but true.)

sophylou--now the secret is out! And now we will know what to avoid.