Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

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I read ‘Rebecca’ once, years ago, in high school, and I remembered nothing about it save the general tone and premise. I had conceived an idea, however, that ‘Rebecca’ was a maligned novel. While very famous, it is not usually included among the Great Books – people tend to think of it as sort of romance novel-adjacent. I have always assumed that this was an injustice: that if ‘Rebecca’ had been written by a man (instead of by a woman with the absurdly romantic name ‘Daphne du Maurier’), it would be a great deal better celebrated.

‘Rebecca’ begins with our narrator, a young and painfully shy woman who will never be named (we will know her only as the second Mrs. de Winter), working as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. One day, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome man twice her own age. Her companion tells her that he is the owner of Manderley, a beautiful English estate, and that he is a widower. His late wife, Rebecca, drowned tragically only a year ago and Maxim, our narrator is told, has been deranged by grief ever since.

After a perplexing and whirlwind romance, our narrator marries Maxim and returns with him to Manderley. Once there, she finds herself reminded constantly of the late Rebecca, stifled by her vanished presence. Rebecca, who ran Manderley, who commanded the love and loyalty of the servants (especially Mrs. Danvers, the head of the household), who threw the best parties in the neighborhood, who was brave and witty and elegant and exceptionally beautiful. Slowly, the second Mrs. de Winter will become obsessed with her predecessor, with her marriage to Maxim, and with her strange death.

As someone who has always felt that there are many more great books than Great Books, I have always been a little bit indignant on behalf of ‘Rebecca’. We have tended, as a culture, to relegate novels by women about women to lesser status – they are Entertainment, not Art. Chick Lit, as a named genre, is both real and offensive. It may that there are books which, due to their subject matter, are more likely to appeal (on a population level) to women than to men, but that should not exclude them from Category: Literature.

In my opinion, greatness transcends subject matter. We do not consider books Great because their contents appeal equally to all people. Think about ‘Moby Dick’, with its endless passages about the processing of whale oil. Think about ‘Anna Karenina’, and that middle section where Levin just threshes wheat for a dog’s age. For god’s sake, think about Proust! ‘In Search of Lost Time’ is considered one of humanity’s great artistic works and it contains within itself whole novels worth of esoterica! Given this literary landscape, I fail entirely to see why romance should be considered a niche interest (women only!).

On the other hand, if I am being fair, I should mention that perhaps ‘Rebecca’ is Not-Great for reasons other than its feminine perspective. It is a true Gothic Romance, with all the requisite elements: a mysterious marriage, a rambling spooky house, creepy servants, dark aristocratic family secrets. Romances (Gothic or otherwise) are often sneered at, in part because they tend not to be terribly sophisticated, from a literary perspective.

And while there is more perhaps atmosphere and less bodice-ripping in ‘Rebecca’ than in other romances, it’s not sophisticated, nor is it subtle. Romances don’t aspire to plausibility, and they do not intend to instruct. They are meant to be absorbing rather than enriching, and, certainly, I do not feel enriched by ‘Rebecca’.

Lack of moral nourishment does not make a book bad, obviously, but I’m not convinced, having reread it, that ‘Rebecca’ is good so much as it is entertaining. But it is entertaining, and to a degree that required serious skill on du Maurier’s part. It’s difficult to build an entire novel around a character who never appears, especially if that character is cast in the role of villain.

Villains have to appear in stories, because they need either to vanquish or be vanquished, which they cannot do off-screen. You can spin them out, keep them in the wings for a long time, but eventually, we need to confront them. I don’t know that I can think of a single other story where the villain never makes an appearance.

Part of the reason, I think, that villains must come into the light is because, if they don’t actually appear, they can’t hurt us. And if they can’t hurt us, they can’t scare us. A menacing but unrealized presence hovering off-screen might be creepy, but it isn’t a villain. A villain must exert force, must act on other characters, and it must act, at least once, with the audience for a witness.

Daphne du Maurier

What ‘Rebecca’ does beautifully, though, is cheat that requirement on a technicality. Rebecca herself is a marvelous villain: perfect, beautiful, malicious, and dead. And her deadness is a strength, not a weakness. As our narrator herself says, “If there were some woman in London that Maxim loved, someone he wrote to, visited, dined with, slept with, I could fight with her. We would stand on common ground. I should not be afraid. Anger and jealousy were things that could be conquered. One day the woman would grow old or tired or different, and Maxim would not love her any more. But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And she and I could not fight. She was too strong for me.” (p. 234)

There are two reasons why I think it works to have Rebecca be a villain from beyond the grave. The first is that, while Rebecca might be dead, Manderley is still inhabited by her avatar, Mrs. Danvers, her devoted and psychotic servant. If Rebecca is dead, Mrs. Danvers can still act on her behalf.

The second is that our narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is so terrorized by the memory of her husband’s first wife that Rebecca feels very present to the reader. She may not be alive, but she dominates the novel as completely as she dominates the second Mrs. de Winter.

These two mechanisms allow du Maurier to achieve what might otherwise be impossible: to make a dead villain into an active and effective villain. And effective villains, really effective villains, are artistic achievements in their own right. No work of art is perfect – perhaps work can achieve greatness through one of its facets. We give Oscars for aspects of a film: acting, directing, sound-editing. So while ‘Rebecca’ might not be Great Art, it does have a Great Villain. Surely that earns it a slot in the Literature Hall of Fame.

The Memoirs of Two Young Wives

By Honore de Balzac

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I always have the same experience when I read Balzac.

I love Balzac – I think he’s brilliant. His best books (‘Pere Goriot’, ‘Cousin Bette’) are masterpieces of cynical observation, of moral punishment. He is bleak and unforgiving and magnificent – I really admire him.

However, even knowing his excellence as I do, I always struggle when I begin a new Balzac book. The first thing that always strikes me, strikes me like a blow in the face, is how extremely French he is. French, but not in a good way.

I’m not here to trade in French stereotypes, as much as I may love them. But national literatures have a national character. That can, of course, work to national advantage: often, our literatures represent our best traits. Think of the linguistic precision of English novels, the garrulous descriptiveness of Irish novelists. Think of Garcia Marquez’s lyrical romanticism, or Mann’s unflinching existential anguish: these are national authors who embody their national characters to the strength of the art. For god’s sake, who else but a Russian could have written ‘Crime and Punishment’?

But, of course, our national characters are also sources of global derision. No American who has ever covered their face in a restaurant abroad while listening to their countrymen shout, inexplicably, at wait staff in English could fail to understand this. Often, we turn out to be exactly who the rest of the world expect us to be.

Of course, it’s not that all French people are fruity and histrionic. Obviously not: it’s a stereotype. But, like the Americans shouting in restaurants, it’s a stereotype for a reason. French authors are often, well, pretty French. Sometimes it’s glorious, and sometimes its arduous. And sometimes, as with Balzac, it’s both.

‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is an epistolary novel about the relationship between two young women who met at a convent. Louise and Renee are two French noblewomen living in France. Civil laws passed during the Napoleonic era required French nobility to divide their estates equally among their children, instead of leaving the entirety to the eldest son. In effect, this would have meant the division and dilution of great estates over several generations, and, to avoid that, parents often put their otherwise marriageable daughters into convents, where they were not eligible to inherit.

Eventually, Renee and Louise’ families find it politically expedient to remove their daughters from the convent. It is at this point that the novel begins, as the two women, separated from each other for the first time in eight years, write letters describing their now disparate lives. Renee moves to the country, where she is shortly married off to a loyal husband whom she does not love, but with whom she will have several cherished children.

Louise, on the other hand, moves to Paris, where she achieves brilliant social success and eventually seduces and marries a dispossessed Spanish nobleman. Two very different lives: one devoted to love, passion, social success; the other, to duty and to family.

If that sounds like a fairly pedestrian morality play to you, you would be right. I’ll be honest: ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ isn’t Balzac’s best. If I’m being completely honest, I think it was pretty bad, actually. There are no moral surprises here, nor subtleties. Everything goes exactly as expected; the story is heavy-handed, lame, animated by not one spark of complexity. The two women are as unappetizing a pair of protagonists as I have ever encountered.

And the prose, yikes. It may be that prose construction in this novel is, in French, very beautiful. I try not to judge prose in translation – you just never know. But it is very difficult to imagine how these paragraphs might have been other than garbage, in any language:

“Ever since that morning when you smiled like a noble girl on discovering the misery of my lonely, wronged heart, I placed you on a throne: you are the absolute ruler of my life, the queen of my thoughts, the divinity of my heart, the light that shines in my rooms, the flower of my flowers, the perfume of the air I breathe, the richness of my blood, the glow in which I sleep. That happiness was troubled by one single thought. You did not know you had a boundless devotion to serve you, a loyal arm, a blind slave, a mute agent, a treasury, for I am now only the caretaker of all that is mine; you did not realize, in other words, that you owned a heart in which you may always confide.” (p. 81)

“That darkness was soon brightened by a sensation whose pleasure surpassed that of my child’s first cry. My heart, my soul, my being, an unknown me came into life in its once gray, aching shell, just as a flower erupts from its seed on hearing the shining call of the sun. The little monster took my breast and sucked, and with that, fiat lux!, suddenly I was a mother…There is inexpressible love in his lips, and when they cling to it, they cause a pain and a pleasure at once, a pleasure so strong as to be pain, or a pain that becomes a pleasure…Oh! Louise, no lover’s caress can rival those little pink hands gently roaming over us, clinging to life.” (p. 145)

This one, above, goes on for pages like this, by the way. About how breast-feeding is the highest sensual pleasure a woman can possible experience. Pages.

Honore de Balzac

“To find in a man a mysterious harmony between what he seems and what he is, to find a man who in the secret life of marriage displays the kind of innate grace that cannot be given, that cannot be learned, that the ancient sculptors deployed in the chaste and voluptuous marriages of of their statues, the innocent abandon that the ancient poets put into their verse, and which seems to find in nakedness still another adornment for the soul, the ideal that springs from us and derives from the world of harmonies, which is no doubt the genius of all things, that immense problem pondered by every woman’s imagination – well, Gaston is its living solution.” (p. 215)

The whole novel is like that. Seriously. It’s overwrought and exhausting and, when, eventually, one of our young wives wanders into a lake on purpose to contract consumption on purpose in order to die of her broken heart on purpose, well, it’s honestly a relief.

Part of the problem may be that Balzac won’t say anything in five words if he can say it in five hundred. Part of the problem is that, in this novel, nothing is ordinary and fine; it is only transcendent or tragic. It is these traits that, unfortunately, resonate with Frenchness to unfortunate effect. The incessant purple-prosed fruitiness; the self-serious melodrama: to read ‘The Memoirs of Two Young Wives’ is to feel yourself battered with French stereotype. I’m surprised the French haven’t had it banned, given how much it plays into their worst reputations.

But the biggest part of the problem is that Balzac, for all his imaginative prowess, doesn’t seem to be able, at least in this case, to imagine the world as seen through the eyes of a sheltered young woman. Though he has an otherwise stellar mind, he is apparently completely unable to imagine that women might care about anything other than their husbands, their babies, and the envy of other women.

So, no, between the pedantry, the grim assessment of my gender, and the absolutely mind-numbing French prose, it’s safe to say that I did not enjoy this novel. Though I love Balzac, I simply endured this one.

Luckily, it’s short.

Middlemarch

By George Eliot

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It’s always stressful when you fail to love a Great Book. It’s disappointing – you know something is askew, and the consensus critical opinion suggests that it is you.

I don’t love ‘Middlemarch‘. I know that I’m supposed to love ‘Middlemarch’ – everyone loves ‘Middlemarch’, especially women. Women seem to love ‘Middlemarch’ to an almost uncanny degree – the ubiquity of the appreciation is rivaled, in my opinion, only by love of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

But I’m a woman, and I have never loved ‘Middlemarch’.

I’ve read it three times in the past twenty years. I’ve never liked it, but I keep rereading it, partly because everyone loves it and I’m trying to figure out why, and partly because I can’t ever seem to remember what happened in it.

So it’s time to tackle ‘Middlemarch‘, fresh from this latest rereading and before I forget it again.

Let me begin with the obvious: it is beautifully written. My copy of ‘Middlemarch’ bristles with flags from all the passages that I’ve marked. The language is gorgeous, the insights profound.

“To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” (p. 266)

“Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best.” (p. 229)

“Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” (p. 349).

That I am in the presence of a great mind as I wade yet again through this book is obvious to me – Eliot is a magnificent writer. With her writing, I have absolutely no quarrel. But, alas, I loathe every single one of her characters, and I don’t care at all about what happens to any of them.

For what it’s worth, I am aware that this is the shallowest possible level of analysis. Characters in novels aren’t your friends – it is not their responsibility to be likable to you. The idea that the merit of a book is how much you root for the characters, or how much you see yourself in them, how much you connect with their situation, is, in my opinion, sophomoric garbage, weak thinking for weak minds.

Partly, this approach to novels offends me because it doesn’t even apply to life. People have many paths to demonstrate worth: they might be brilliant, or funny, or brave, without being at all likable. Plenty of people have accomplished great things, lived interesting lives, without being the sort of person you can relate to, with whom you’d like to grab a beer. Often in the world, the best lives, the most moving or interesting ones, are lived by weak, repellent, or wicked people. Novels, which are essentially just stories about people, shouldn’t be held to a narrower standard than the people themselves.

But, in my defense, I don’t loathe the characters in ‘Middlemarch‘ because they are weak, repellent, or wicked. I loathe them because they are boring. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t loathe them in real life – in all likelihood, I only loathe them because I am being forced by consensus opinion to read an 800-page book about them. Again.

The plain, embarrassing truth is that I don’t really understand why people love this book. But I have a sneaking suspicion that loving ”Middlemarch”, rather like hating ‘Middlemarch’, is really all about Dorothea. I don’t think anyone loves ‘Middlemarch’ for Fred Vincy, or for Will Ladislaw – Dorothea is fulcrum upon which the novel pivots and turns – it is Dorothea, rather like Elizabeth Bennet, upon whom readers pin their attachment.

Certainly, Dorothea is the obstacle which I cannot get past. Much of my irritation with her, I think, stems from my sense that I am supposed to like her, my sense that George Eliot liked her. She is not drawn as a perfect character, but her flaws, stated clearly in Eliot’s beautiful, precise prose, have the aspect of Trojan flaws: putatively added to give realism and depth, but actually draped across a character to flatter them, make them more lovable. The novelistic equivalent of being asked your weaknesses in a job interview and saying, “I care too much about my work.”

George Eliot tells us that Dorothea is idealistic, lofty in aspiration and naive in execution, and earnest to a fault, as befits a person pure of heart. But that is not who I see. The character I see is a fatuous twit: a stupid, pretentious woman who’s virtue is driven as much by her own vanity as anything else. And while I think it is entirely possible to love a stupid, pretentious character, I think it is very difficult to love a stupid pretentious character whose author doesn’t see her the same way.

As I write that out, it suddenly occurs to me that it is obvious. Of course my problem with ‘Middlemarch’ isn’t that I don’t like the characters – very few books are peopled by characters I actually like. The problem is that I don’t like them, but everyone else, most importantly George Eliot, does.

Maybe it’s not possible to really love a book when you substantively disagree with the author about its characters – I don’t know, I need to give it some more thought. But it is the problem here: George Eliot is charmed by her characters, and I am not.

George Eliot, portrait by Samuel Laurence

A story needs something to justify itself to readers. All stories are acts of persuasion: the readers are offering their time; the story must provide a continued justification for that time. Different kinds of stories provide different justifications: action heroes aren’t well-developed characters because they don’t need to be, no one is there to watch them grow and mature. Hero’s journeys are the opposite: if the hero doesn’t justify the story, nothing will. Likewise, when a character is meant to be disliked, the story is built to accommodate that repulsion. Repellent characters are often charming, but they are made to be – effort is made to attract readers to them despite themselves.

In this context, a mismatched justification is no justification at all. George Eliot wrote a hero’s journey: good and lovable, though imperfect, people find happiness through tribulation. The virtuous are rewarded; sinners are punished.

But I don’t find her heroes heroic – I find them pointless. And pointlessness doesn’t work in a hero’s journey; in a hero’s journey, it’s hero or bust. Worse, when the hero is pointless, all the apparatus of their journey becomes burdensome, and you, as a reader, resent it.

Or at least I do. And I know that it’s just me, it’s my problem. Everyone in the world seems to find Dorothea enchanting, worth journeying with – I’m clearly the exception. And I wish it weren’t so; I don’t feel superior when I fail to love something everyone else does. I feel…unsettled, as though I am missing something obvious.

I would love to love ”Middlemarch‘. But if we could choose to love, the world would look very different. And I have read this book three times now, and I don’t like it any better for it. It might be time give up, agree to disagree, and move on from ‘Middlemarch’.

Giovanni’s Room

By James Baldwin

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Years ago, a handsome young man, with whom I had never had sex of any kind, told me that our relationship reminded him of ‘Giovanni’s Room‘*. When I asked, “Which of us is Giovanni?” he said, “You are.”

(*I still haven’t had sex of any kind with him.)

Giovanni’s Room‘ is a novel by James Baldwin, who is probably the best American writer who has ever lived. It’s a story about two men who fall in love in Paris: David, an American, who is waiting for his fiancée to return from her travels, and Giovanni, an Italian bartender. They spend a summer living in Giovanni’s decrepit room, where David’s crisis of identity deepens as Giovanni comes more and more dependent on him. When David leaves Giovanni and returns to his fiancée, Giovanni has a slow-motion breakdown, which will eventually culminate in his imprisonment and execution.

It’s a beautiful novel, but I was offended by the comparison, because Giovanni is many things I do not find myself to be: he is clingy, passionate, romantic, melodramatic, and a drunk. According to my personal value system, it’s basically better to be a murderer than to be clingy and emotional, and so I deeply resented the implication that I was the Giovanni in any relationship. On the contrary, I have spent most of my relationships feeling very much like David: interior, ambivalent, cold, held back from normal human intimacy by profound self-loathing. I have held the comparison against that young man for almost twenty years now.

But I reread ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ the other day, and I see now that, in my outrage, I misunderstood what it is really about. I suppose I thought that it was about how destructive passion can be, about how a nature, consumed with love and without other ballast to steady it, could spin off into madness. I was fooled by the oldest trick in literature: I was paying attention the wrong character. I thought that ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was about Giovanni.

‘Giovanni’s Room’ is about David. It isn’t a novel about passion, or madness – it’s a novel about alienation, about the destruction of the possibility of love by hatred. David, who has spent his life in full flight from his very self, hates himself so completely that the love of other people, which he needs like water, feels like chains to him.

Baldwin doesn’t explicitly frame David’s self-loathing as internalized homophobia, and, though that is clearly part of it, I do not think he intended that David’s condition be that simple. David has been warped by a feeling that certain of his longings are “wrong”, yes, but he is also economically, culturally, and familially alienated as well. He is lost, trapped being a person he despises and unable to break free.

What David comes to know, what I have also come to know and the reason that I identified so strongly with David when I first read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, is that, when we truly hate ourselves, we are unable to sincerely love anyone else. And when you are incapable of loving other people, the love they offer you will always feel like a hair shirt: irritating, painful, constricting, external. You will seek it out – you are lonely, after all – but when you receive it, you will immediately feel straight-jacketed and embarrassed by it. The people who love you are so earnest, so intense, that it is difficult to look them in the eye. David flinches from Giovanni (I flinched from Giovanni) not because Giovanni is so extra, but because Giovanni is whole-hearted and David, who’s own heart is consumed by hating himself, is mortified by that.

James Baldwin

Like most truly great books, ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ is even more beautiful upon rereading. I have always found James Baldwin breathtaking, one of those authors who make me feel that reading their words is a privilege. He has always possessed a special insight into human suffering, no less clear-eyed because it is merciful, and he has the writerly power to express his insights with devastating effectiveness. And I discovered, upon rereading, that Baldwin tells us exactly what it means to be Giovanni:

“Perhaps, everyone has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.” (p. 25)

Giovanni goes mad through remembering; David goes mad through forgetting.

It’s funny, getting older. I was furious when that young man told me I reminded him of Giovanni, but I know now that he wasn’t insulting me at all. Quite the contrary, I believe he knew, young as we were, what Baldwin knew: that it is better, in the end, to be Giovanni, because Giovanni at least knows his own heart. David knows nothing.

I also know that, sadly, that young man was wrong about me. I am not Giovanni – I am David, I always have been.

Ringworld

By Larry Niven

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As I’ve said before, I have different standards for different kinds of fiction. Literarily, my standards are lowest for science fiction and fantasy: those books are about plot, about ideas – I don’t expect them to exhibit Jane Austen’s prose.

My standard for the prose of science fiction is merely this: I need the writing to not be so bad that it distracts me.

That’s it! I think that’s a pretty low, pretty reasonable bar: just don’t write so badly that your garbage writing distracts me from your story.

Here is an example of writing that is so bad that it is distracting:

“”Aren’t you going to let me out of here?”

The puppeteer considered. “I suppose I must. First you should know that I have protection. My armament would stop you should you attack me.”

Louis Wu made a sound of disgust. “Why would I do that?”

The puppeteer made no answer.

“Now I remember. You’re cowards. Your whole ethical system is based on cowardice.”” (p. 8)

This is bad writing. It’s bad on a couple of levels: first, it’s a freshman-creative-writing-class violation of ‘show, don’t tell’. Second, it doesn’t in any way resemble dialogue that people would actually have, ever, under any circumstances. It’s cheating out, explaining for the audience, like high school drama nerds: “Oh, right, your whole ethical system is based on cowardice!”

I believe that it is fair to say that the only good thing about ‘Ringworld‘ is its premise, and, frankly, the premise is not well-utilized. On the contrary, the set-up of the novel feels like a wasted opportunity (which is not uncommon: good scifi premises are a great deal more abundant than good scifi executions):

Louis Wu is a two hundred year old human man. Bored during his two hundredth birthday party, he goes wandering via teleportation around the globe, only to be highjacked by an alien from a species thought to be extinct, the two-headed Pierson’s Puppeteers. This puppeteer, named Nessus, offers Louis a chance to join him on an expedition, a member of a four man crew, though where they are heading, Nessus won’t say. The payment will be a ship with hyperdrive capability, which only the puppeteers have, and blueprints for same. The two other members of the crew are a member of a catlike warrior species, the kzin, named Speaker-to-Animals, and a human female, Teela Brown, who has been born with a genetic gift for luck.

This crew sets off for their unknown destination, which will, of course, be revealed to be the Ringworld, a 186 million-mile-wide ring orbiting an unknown star in distant space. The ring is, ostensibly, an answer to a problem of over-population: with a livable surface which is over a million miles wide and almost 600 million miles in circumference, the Ringworld would comfortably support the populations of many worlds. A marvel of engineering, nothing is known of its creation or inhabitants. The puppeteers have been observing it, of course, but they have not even been able to observe whether or not there is any life still occupying it.

OK, so, yes, the character set-up is a little furry, I admit. But the Ringworld itself: a technological marvel, discovered in deep space, abandoned and uninhabited? A construction with more living room than most solar systems, unknown to its nearest neighbors and empty? It’s a great premise for an eerie space mystery!

But ‘Ringworld‘ is not a great space mystery. The Ringworld itself is merely a backdrop for what is, at its heart, an feel-good romp with a zany ensemble cast, and it’s stupid. All the possibilities of the Ringworld are wasted; its mystery is asked and answered, barely, almost as a side note, and as boringly as possible.

Ringworld‘, to give it credit, doesn’t wiff quite as badly on the second most interesting question it poses: what would happen if a person were bred for luck? What would luck look like if it could be relied upon? What would your life mean if you could know, could really trust, that everything that happened to you actually happened for the best, the best for you? What if your luck was so powerful that you could apply it to other people, warp their lives and their destinies, to further your own luck, that you had this effect simply by being near them?

Ringworld‘ is one of those scifi “classics” from the 60’s and 70’s (it was published in 1970), and it shows, not only in the bad writing, but in the bad politics. The women are particularly ghastly: they are (both of them) beautiful, overly sexualized, and stupid. Explicitly stupid – their male counterparts wonder at their stupidity, and marvel outright at their occasional ability to solve problems. One of them is, literally, a ship’s whore.

Whatever – basically, to read any literature written before 2008 (and half written after) is to encounter problematic depictions of women. You learn to stop taking it personally. My issue is that these characters aren’t only problematic, they are clunky and problematic.

This is the reason for my not-so-bad-I-notice rule for prose in genre fiction in the first place: bad prose amplifies every other sin a book may possess, and books, like people, are never perfect. As you wade through garbage writing, you tend to notice every single flaw that passes you by, and they irritate you more than they normally would, they grate on the nerves. Beautiful prose might not hide flaws, but it does make them easier to swallow. Why should I read about shallow, stupid characters if they aren’t even written well?

Ringworld‘ was bad. The prose was bad, the characters were shallow. The premise, the problems, are interesting, but they are abandoned: never answered, never explored.

Larry Niven

But ‘bad’ is not necessarily boring. ‘Ringworld‘ isn’t really boring: it hops weirdly along, you keep up. But it isn’t good – it’s probably the worst Hugo and Nebula winner I’ve ever read. But science fiction is often uneven, that’s almost a characteristic of the genre. Sure, a book’s characters might be thin, but the premise is thought-provoking, even profound. Say the dialogue is stilted – it might be redeemed by incredible world-building. I think, ultimately, my problem with ‘Ringworld’ is that it doesn’t do anything to redeem its badnesses. There aren’t really any upsides to weigh against the downsides of the bad prose, stupid characters, wasted premise.

One should always keep in mind, though, that books are due credit not just for how good or bad they are, but also for their effect on the genre. Some of ‘Ringworld‘s sins (like two-dimensional women) might not have been so damning in 1970. Whatever the reason, people remember ‘Ringworld’ as a classic, and it has had its impact on the genre. That legacy belongs to it – a work deserves some recognition for what it inspired, not just what it is.

So I’m not saying that ‘Ringworld‘ should be pulled from bookshelves, wiped from the cannon. I read it, and I’m glad. It informs my knowledge of the genre, and I’m grateful for that.

It’s just bad, is all.

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Bronte

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Sometimes I wonder why we even bother to make teenagers read.

Specifically, I wonder why we make teenagers read the classics. In middle and high school, we drag them, mostly unwilling, through the Great Books before they have had most of the experiences which would allow them to connect with the material therein, and insist to them that these books represent the best of human literary effort.

I understand the arguments in favor: we are using these books to teach children how to think critically about literature, teaching them how to approach and, hopefully, to love it. Of all the teenagers alive, I was perhaps the one most likely to approach the material with reverence; if I was not smarter than anyone else, certainly I had a character inclined, even at that age, to love great books, to embrace them with an open heart.

But even I misunderstood most of them. So often, in my adulthood, I have picked up again a book I read in high school only to discover upon rereading that I have completely misremembered it. That the book that I thought I loved all these years bears little to no resemblance to the actual book.

I did not love ‘Wuthering Heights‘ in high school. I remembered it as a great love story, and I was not often moved by love stories in high school. I remembered it as tragic, overwrought, but essentially romantic: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the moors. Catherine and Heathcliffe loved each other cleanly, I thought, were kept apart by their families, died. There was much lamenting, I thought, and Healthcliffe I remembered as dark, and brooding, but essentially appealing.

I don’t know why I decided to reread it now, decades later. I found a lovely old box set of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (by far my favorite of the two) at Second Story Books years ago, and I picked it up on impulse last week. And, upon rereading, I have discovered something interesting, something which completely eluded me in high school:

Wuthering Heights‘ is batshit crazy.

Wuthering Heights‘ is romantic only in the technical sense: it is about two people who experience a romantic impulse toward each other. It is not romantic in the actual sense: it is not about love.

It is about hatred, and rage, and madness: it is about obsession and the warping of the human soul. It is about perversion of the human heart, not in the sexual sense, but in the original sense of the word: it is about hearts which have been twisted from their original purpose. Corrupted by something else and made into something so ugly that violence is the only possible expression of the original human capacity for caring.

It is, famously, the story of the bond between Catherine Earnshaw and Healthcliffe. I remembered this about it: it is the story of two souls, facing obstinately towards each other but kept by circumstances apart in marriage. Lonely, therefore, and tortured, doomed to wander until they find each other, finally, in death.

What I did not remember is that both our protagonists are tortured, not by unrealized love, but by rage and spite. A terrible, driving, defining urge to hurt everyone around them. They are both unrelentingly vile, and in their vileness they torment not only every single other character in the book, but each other. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a novel of vengeance.

“Are you possessed with a devil,” he [Heathcliffe] pursued savagely, “to talk in that matter to me when you are dying? Do you reflect that all those words will be branded on my memory, and eating deeper eternally after you have left me? You know you lie say I have killed you: and, Catherine, you know I could as soon forget you as my existence! Is it not sufficient for your infernal selfishness, that while you are at peace I shall writhe in the torments of hell?” (p. 101)

I suppose, when I was fifteen, I assumed that, if characters in a novel were loved deeply, they must have been deserving of that love. If they were protagonists, they must therefore be sympathetic protagonists. I was not, I suppose, as a teenager capable of understanding that sometimes literature asks us to empathize with characters we are not supposed to admire. As a teenager, I must have thought that protagonists are only meant to reflect our better selves, whether they are true or total or not.

Emily Bronte

I was wrong, obviously, and I am particularly distressed to discover my mistake because I didn’t need heroic, sympathetic protagonists, not then, not now. I needed exactly the kind of protagonists that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was offering me: angry, tormented souls, souls who, in desperate reaction to their own psychic pain, would lash out at the world around them. Souls whose own agony would make them destructive, who carried their own suffering inside themselves, as part of themselves, but who nevertheless longed for a happiness that was an impossibility for them.

I mean, we all do, right? That’s what literature is for! I think, if you live long enough, you learn, inevitably, that heroes are thin on the ground, and literature is one of the ways that we cope with this. We need our flawed protagonists to help us play out our own worst traits, to see ourselves under different lights, from different angles. Literature is how we run experiments with aspects of our characters, how we try out different lives without paying the price for them.

There are moments of real poignancy for me in ‘Wuthering Heights‘, moments of sad human beauty. One moment, in particular, has stayed with me. Early in the novel, when Heathcliffe is told by the narrator that Cathy’s ghost (Cathy has been dead many years at this point) has been to visit her old room:

“He [Heathcliffe] got onto the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. “Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! my heart’s darling: hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being.” (p. 18).

It is a reminder that even wicked people are capable of genuine grief in loss, a fact which, as a wicked person myself, I was going to discover.

Wuthering Heights‘ and I missed each other, in time. It is too melodramatic for me, as I am now. I have become more placid in my adulthood, my dramas are adult dramas, I do not draw emotional sustenance from unquiet spirits raging without each other.

But when I was a teenager, I did, and I am grieved that I did not see the lesson when it was in front of me, then. The lesson of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that real love is not possible for creatures who are animated by hatred, no matter how much they want, or need, it, not in this life – that real love and hatred are antitheses – that was a lesson I would have to learn for myself, the hard way. I could have used a book or two to teach it to me – it might have shortened my sentence.

Ivanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott

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I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

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I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

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Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.