There are two novels on my nightstand: an already-finished paperback by a popular male author, and a half-read hardcover by an equally popular female author. As a creative writer with a busy day-job, I’m mostly a nighttime reader. After a hectic day and commute, there’s nothing I love more than to switch on the bedside lamp and prop up my pillows and lose myself in a good story. It’s a coincidence, not literary bias, that both of my current nightstand novelists are British. Both are contemporary tales set in the U.K., and both books are about modern families in crisis. Each has something significant and universal to say about 21st-century life. The paperback is yellow. The hardcover is orange. So let’s call the male author Mr. Yellow Jacket. And let’s call the female author, Ms. Orange Peel.
Although I can’t wait to see how things turn out for Ms. Orange Peel’s family in turmoil, I don’t really want this 231–page novel to end. When I treat myself to one of this author’s books, I’m never ready to say goodbye. But no worries. Two or three months from now, I’ll pick up another of Ms. Orange Peel’s books, in which I will immerse myself in her characters’ squabbles and infidelities and uncertainties.
Ms. Orange Peel is among that small group of authors who appears again and again on my night stand. I’m a loyal reader. When I fall for an author, male or female, I fall hard. I commit to the long-term relationship. By contrast, I had to force myself to finish Mr. Yellow Jacket’s book, all the while wondering why I didn’t just quit and abandon. In fairness, I read it while I was in bed with a bad winter cold. So I wasn’t really looking for anything too deep. And truthfully, I did skip over some of the longer parts.
This is my second go-round with Mr. Yellow Jacket. Lured by the reviews and a particularly long author-interview on National Public Radio, I gave him a second chance. His books are cleverly plotted, and the writing is deft and witty. But as I add his book to the library’s booksale donation pile, I couldn’t tell you the name of one character in there. So this is goodbye for Mr. Yellow Jacket and me. We’re all through.
Why are some competent and well-reviewed books so forgettable? And, as readers, why do we commit to some authors and not to others?
So much of reading fiction is about personal taste. I’ve lost count of the number of New York Times bestseller books that I’ve found boring or shallow or confusing. And of course, there’s the issue of literary versus mainstream. Fast paced versus ponderous. Funny versus serious. And there are times when even our favorite authors disappoint. Or, depending on what’s going on in our own lives at the time, our tastes evolve or do a complete 180-change. But even within our preferred genres, our preferences are all about how an author uses language. It’s about the author’s subject matter. It’s also about the book’s setting (I despise books set in suburbia, USA), and the writer’s distinct narrative voice.
In my author-school days, Rule Number 1 was to never insert yourself between the story and the reader. Yet, I believe that too many modern fiction authors eclipse themselves completely from the work. As we read their books, we cannot sense the presence of an author-ghost behind the pages. While the story is clever or exciting or readable, the narrative provides no window into that author’s sensibilities or philosophies or attitudes. Quite simply, there’s no author there.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no great fan of the tell-all memoir in which we know every sordid nuance of a writer’s (and her family’s) life. And I hate those manipulative, tear-jerker stories that are really just literary gum-ball machines. Insert money. Get emotions. Equally, I don’t shy away from fictional or non-fiction stories about tough things. In fact, some of the world’s best writing has emerged from repressive regimes (A Thousand Splendid Suns) or bloody world wars (Pat Barker’s fabulous World War I novels) or genocidal atrocities (Elie Weisel’s works). But whether the topic is light hearted or harrowing, I want more than a story. I want more than an author’s extravagant vocabulary or his ploy to gain the critics’ attention or a larger publisher’s advance.
In a February 2011 post at the Guardian’s book blog, Gabriel Brownstein’s compares the critical response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom versus the response to Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. Although both novels were released by two American authors on very similar themes, and both are “ambitious books that examine America before and after 9/11,” Franzen’s book reached instant stardom. His was the automatic shoe-in as the “great American novel.” Brownstein acknowledges Freedom’s scope and amplification. But he points to the difference in the reader-author relationships: “Franzen is dancing with you, sure…but his characters exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader; it’s addressed to judges and crowds.”
As I sit there propped against my nighttime pillows, I’m not a literary judge or critic. And as a reader, I’ve never, ever belonged to the “in” crowd. So I want an author who’s with me. Who subtly reveals himself to me. I want a deep, thoughtful writer. Someone I can still respect in the morning.
Aine Greaney is an Irish-born author and essayist now living north of Boston. Her latest novel, DANCE LESSONS, was released in April 2011, while her instructional book, “Writer with a Day Job,” (Writers Digest Books) will be released in June 2011. She’s also published short fiction, personal essays and feature articles, and she teaches creative writing workshops to adults and teens.