Valentine's Day is a most appropriate occasion to proclaim my love for literature. And although I am one of those lovers of the written word whose desire to know one's beloved means reading widely across the genres and as deeply as possible into each, there is one that delivers especially satisfying rewards to those who would pledge their troth.
More below the fold ...
I was one of those geeky kids (before there was the word "geek" in pop culture nomenclature) who headed for Edith Hamilton, L. Frank Baum, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Jules Verne in grade school before beginning to inhale Jane Austen, Dickens and the Brontes during junior high. The foundation led naturally to many genres and I spent many years happily burrowing into mystery, SF, fantasy and historical fiction. Happy as I was, there remained, however, something missing. It's like wanting the occasional lobster while usually being happy with stew or macaroni.
Fortunately for my appetite, while living in a small North Idaho town, a friend said she felt she had the best of both worlds by living in a naturally beautiful area but subscribing to The New Yorker. This was during Mr. Shawn's last years as editor, and his tensure introduced me to a completely different world. Subscribing has been my lifeline to the greater world of ideas out there beyond my door, as I've never lived in a big city.
The fiction of that era was a magical introduction to contemporary literature. Cheever, Updike, Munro, Trevor -- they whetted my appetite for exploring worlds not my own. Over time, stories such as Alice Munro's "The Albanian Virgin" and "Carried Away" awakened my belief in the power of fiction to put me in someone else's experience. Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" remains one of the strongest reading experiences of my life, and I'll be forever grateful to The New Yorker for publishing it. That final image of the two coats on one hanger made me gasp out loud, then bawl my head off. What love. What loss. What power.
Before those stories were published, however, I did venture beyond the magazine's short fiction to full-length novels. The power of a cover -- if it is the right cover -- I cannot deny, because A.s. Byatt's Possession appeared in U.S. bookstores with “The Beguiling of Merlin,” by the pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, on the cover. The colors, the mood they set, the looks Nimue and Merlin are giving each other. I had to have that cover. The story immediately drew me in and got better and deeper and more complex as it went along.
That did it. I was hooked. And what a joy it has been to be addicted, because otherwise I would not have discovered:
Don DeLillo and the magnificent Underworld (especially that glorious opening sequence at the game where the Shot Heard Round the World was hit),
the heartache and love in Larry Watson's Montana, 1948, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, Per Petterson's work and Alice McDermott's Charming Billy,
the sheer beauty in Michael Cunningham's The Hours and Martin Booth's The Industry of Souls,
the exuberance of Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and Zadie Smith's White Teeth,
the darting can-we-believe-the-narrator play of Kazuo Ishiguro,
the multiple ways to tell a story in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin,
the resilence in Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,
the fables in novels by Colson Whitehead and Richard Flanagan,
the skewering social commentary in Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park,
the longing for home in Bo Caldwell's The Distant Land of My Father,
the big messiness of Salman Rushdie's stories run amuck,
the unknown made known and combined with the familiar in the work of Diana Abu-Jaber and Jhumpa Lahiri,
the quest for the real in Peter Carey's novels,
the quirkiness of Hilary Mantel and,
above all for me, the magic of Haruki Murakami. Oh the stories that sweet soul weaves. Just read his work. Any of it. All of it. I'm taking my time with his latest, 1Q84, siimply because I want it to wash over me and become absorbed instead of inhaled.
Contemporary literary fiction may draw the scorn of those who do not see its treasures. But it's a genre that extends, reworks and plays with its boundaries even as it delves into the depths of the human heart and the scope of what people are capable of dreaming, destroying, grieving and creating.
Exploring the various ways in which literary fiction can go deeply personal or convey a broad swath of societal folly or achievement is the focus of this diary, which will be published every Tuesday evening. It's a focus that I think matters deeply in these crazy times. Literary fiction is one way to examine the world today, to get one's bearings about the way of things and what matters to oneself and to one's greater community.
Contemporary fiction can start a way (as Abraham Lincoln credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with doing, regardless of how accurate that may have been), open people's eyes to a societal safeguard needed (Sinclair Lewis, anyone?) or spark a controversy about freedom to express oneself that has cost lives and has continued for decades (Rushdie's situation revived in India). Although I've never written a diary before (and I thank Limelite for the encouragement to do this), it's the love of literature that informs my becoming a Kossack and anchors the beliefs that spur my political involvement.
Discovering, delving into, debating the ideas and merits of recent literary fiction is what I hope we will seek out together each week. Whether it's a book you've read or haven't come across, whether it's something that you plan to read or would never touch, let's talk it over.
If you would be interested in contributing a diary about a novel or collection of short stories you've read recently, I'd love you to write a diary in the series too. The only qualifications are that it be literary fiction (although I celebrate great genre fiction, that's just not the focus in this series) and that it be published within the last two years.
Upcoming diaries will looks at Thomas Mallon's Watergate, families in recent Southern novels (Amy Franklin-Willis's The Lost Saints of Tennessee and Rick Bass's Nashville Chrome) and Midwest noir as written by Alan Heathcock in his connected story collection, Volt. And before summer, I plan to finish 1Q84 and look forward to sharing about it.
Here's a proposed schedule, which can always be amended to include your contribution:
The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis and Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass
Watergate by Thomas Mallon
The Baker's Daughter by Sarah McCoy
Volt by Alan Heathcock
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
What is contemporary literary fiction to you? How does it enrich and inform your life? What would be other works worth exploring?