Scenes of Unsolicited Literary Criticism

This post was original published on Peachleaves blog.

Last fall

My GP is usually an in-and-out kind of guy, which I appreciate; no need to hang around getting to know one another once I get what I came for.  But while I was undergoing the first round of thyroid tests, I guess he realized we’d been seeing a lot of each other, so he started asking me about what I do for a living.  At that time I was between paid employment, so I told him about being a grad student of literature.  This sent him off into a reflection of a book he had just recently read and loved, Catcher in the Rye.  It just seemed so truthful, he explained: “I think there are books that really get at truth, and that is one of them.”

I remarked mildly that truth is subjective and steered the conversation back to my prescriptions.  I didn’t remark that  Catcher in the Rye doesn’t really speak to my truth.  I read it years ago, in New Orleans one summer when I had too many hours to fill and almost enough high school required-reading books on my shelf.  I remember being unimpressed.  Kind of annoyed.

In the doctor’s office, I thought silently that there are books that people say such things about – that they get at the truth, that they speak to universal experience – and these books are usually not by women.

Early spring

I was at work at the art museum with a coworker who was reading All the King’s Men, another book I haven’t read for years.  I asked him if he liked it, and he said it was Great.  Not just great, but Great – like, one of the Greatest.  I did not pursue this line of conversation, as I remember being underwhelmed by this book too.

Not long afterward, I saw a copy of the book lying in the coatroom, which it was my turn to mind.  I flipped open the book; the first word that leaps off of the first page I see is nigger.  The narrator uses this word as a descriptive noun, usually to describe characters who labor in the background, and he gives you no hint that he might see something wrong with it.  A few pages later, the narrator introduces the character Sugar Boy with a preamble of quoted dialect and idiosyncratic behaviors – and then jokes that the reader most like assumed that Sugar Boy was a “nigger.”  I confess that I don’t really get the joke. . .  unless the joke is on Sugar Boy, a poor man of Irish heritage who possesses the same qualities that the narrator finds contemptible and colorful about the myriad background “niggers” of the story.

A few more random page flips brought me, oddly, to the scene of failed sex between the main character and Anne, and to a scene of a presumably octoroon girl on display for men like a horse.

When we say a book is a Great Book, we usually mean Greater Than Other Books.  And when a book unambiguously fails to see certain humans as human – when the world’s injustices are reenacted without discernible critique – I start to worry for all of the books that this book supposedly surpasses in bookly value.

Late summer

I’ve been trying out an online dating site.  I am not embarrassed to say that book lists matter, both as a criteria for interest or as a dealbreaker.  Before I consider meeting anyone, I want to talk about things that interest me: books, food, yoga, whatever.  The books you list as your favorite tell me what you want me to know about you.  They may also tell me a few other things:  for example, have you read a book since college?  Did your favorite authors build their fame on depictions of violence, particularly toward women?  Thanks for letting me know.

Awhile ago I got to chatting with a man whose username was inspired by the narrator of Lolita.  I asked him what he found compelling about this character.  He said that the depiction of unrequited love was heartbreaking.  I thought, Uh oh.  And also: eyeroll.  “Out loud” (read: in type) I expressed doubt that what is depicted in that book could be classed as love.  He said that it grew into love by the book’s end.  I said that would make love something a lot more monstrous than I am willing to believe that it is.  He said, He really cared for her!  I said, I’m sure many abusers care for the people they abuse.  He said, He is redeemed by the end.

I said, Good night.  I did not say, Thank you for warning me to never date you.

Last week

I was sitting in the coatroom again, reading my Kindle.

I heard: “Put that thing down, girl!  What’s wrong with you?” I looked up to see one of our guards, a small grizzled man who used to chitchat with me about what his wife packed him for lunch.  I hadn’t seen him around recently, but that’s not odd, since the museum is vast and there are many things in it that need to be guarded.

I was happy that he remembered me.  ”What else am I supposed to do in here all day?” I asked, all mock petulance.

“Oh I know,” he said.  ”Not supposed to, but I brought my book today too.”  He knocked the front of the navy vest he wore under his navy jacket.  It thudded.


1 thought on “Scenes of Unsolicited Literary Criticism”

  1. […] There is literally no reading of Lolita that makes sense unless you understand that the narrative, seductive and curlicuing and hilarious though it may often be, is a narrative about a predator who stalks, traps, and imprisons a young girl. If you’ve somehow lost sight of that, you’ve lost, period. Bad reader. You’re basically the brewers of tart pink Lolita beer or the guy who thinks Humbert Humbert is a tragic romantic figure. […]

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