A Bookish Q&A
In keeping with the tradition of the week I sent my feelers out into the world seeking questions and the world (or you know Facebook) responded with some exceptionally interesting bookish questions, I’ll try my best to answer as many as I can.
So here we go!
Matt (@mrmatttorres on Instragram): In Fahrenheit 451, do you believe that Guy Montag stood for some something?
It’s been a suuuuuuper long time (like two years) since I last read ‘Fahrenheit 451’, but I’ve always believed that Montag represents potential. That even if Bradbury wasn’t writing about censorship, or totalitarianism, Montag stands for every person’s often times untapped ability to change and grow no matter how entrenched in a system they may be. But he also serves a warning that while change is spiritually rewarding, you can’t force others to do it with you, so it can often times be extremely alienating.
What Character in The Great Gatsby do you feel had a major impact on the story other than the main character and Gatsby himself?
Jordan Baker. While, like Nick Carraway, Jordan seems to float around the periphery of the story just being kind of rich and snotty, she’s literally the reason that there is any story to tell at all. She introduces Nick to Gatsby and she suggests that Nick arrange the tea with Daisy and Gatsby and without these two moments this would be a story about a guy who hung out on Long Island for a summer and occasionally hung out with his awful cousin, her even worse husband and their invisible baby. Jordan’s also interesting because she seems to be the only character who is truly upfront with how awful she is.
Opinions on Stephen King and Horror Novels?
A Horror/ Thriller Novel that is well written is an utter joy to read. Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’ come to mind as horror stories that are exceptionally well written and legitimately terrifying. I usually steer away from horror in my books because I’m often let down by the fact that they don’t affect me in the same way a really good scary movie would. As for Stephen King, I find him to be an interesting writer. I mean his turn out is so exceptionally staggering it’s impossible for him not to have so really fantastic books out there. I dig his older books a lot more than the newer ones—he kind of lost me on ‘The Cell’—because they seem a little more grounded in the horrors of personal experience. This could be because King battled a lot of demons IRL back in the day, but ‘It’, ‘Pet Sematary’ and ‘The Shining’ are books that really chilled me, whereas the newer stuff just leaves me room-temp. All that said, I actually take his reviews of books very seriously, because while his writing is hit or miss, his taste in books is impeccable.
Jennifer: What do you think of [books that are] "spinoffs / extensions"?
I actually think that this is a fascinating trend in fiction, and has been for the past ten or so years. A lot of authors obviously draw from the books that have inspired them in the past… Some fairly subtly: ‘Little Women’ is Louisa May Alcott’s loose interpretation of John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ and ‘East of Eden’ is Steinbeck taking a crack at the first few chapter of the Book of Genesis and that’s just naming two. But, what we see today is almost like a sort of legitimized Fan Fiction. Writers who are so enamored with certain worlds (from what I see and you mentioned a lot of people are nuts for the Regency England of Jane Austen) and don’t want to leave them. I think it’s an interesting phenomenon and if I were to ever go back to get my PhD, this is a literary movement I would be extremely interested in making the center piece of my research.
What do you think led to this?
Short answer: love.
People love their fictional worlds. They love their favorite characters, and they want to imagine the kinds of lives that they lead after the original author puts the pen down. Some people feel like certain characters get the short shrift by the original author and so they set out to correct that (good examples of this are ‘March’ by Geraldine Brooks, which tells the story of ‘Little Women’s Mr. March while he’s away at war and ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’ by Gregory Maguire which gives a rich backstory to a largely unformed villain). Some writers can’t stand for the notion that the original author won’t fill in certain details about what happily ever after actually entails and so set to work filling in the blank spaces. And finally, a big reason this subgenre cropped up is sex. Readers and writers alike want their favorite characters to have real and relatable lives, and one real and relatable thing that classic novels don’t dip into is how it goes down on Lizzie Bennet’s and Mr. Darcy’s wedding night. There is a sense of titillation that drives some of these newer stories, a guilty little thrill that accompanies imagining our favorite characters getting vulnerable and intimate.
I also have a long winded answer to this question that delves into feminist reclamations and world-building… but I won’t bore you with it.
Do you see a current author having the same effect within next 100 years? Who? Why?
Yes. J.K. Rowling. People LOVE the Harry Potter Universe and it is overflowing with stories that people want desperately to read and write. I mean there is already a HUGE Harry Potter fan fiction community active on the internet and I don’t see it going away. The HP books have countless characters, each one positively brimming with potential to be the hero of their own story. The world that Rowling created is so distinct yet so much of it is left open for us to imagine and to build on to. I firmly believe that when we’re all dead, and the Harry Potter books have become dusty tomes that kids of the future will get to “discover” all over again, that someone is going to be inspired to write a novel that explores the life of and gives new depth to Professor Snape, or fully redeems Draco Malfoy (I’m also assuming that ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ will be rightfully forgotten). People will continue to be inspired by the Harry Potter universe and I have no doubt that writers of the future will make the most of the raw material that Rowling has left them.
Jeff: What bestsellers of the last 6 years do you think are most overrated? Most underrated?
Hmmmm… well my most overrated books would probably be:
The Girl on the Train is DEFINITELY an overrated bestseller… I remember being SUPER excited to finally get a chance to read it and then being so let down. I understood what the author was doing with Rachel’s character, but I couldn’t get into her. I couldn’t muster up enough interest or sympathy to really enjoy the story. I still can’t really understand why people enjoyed it so much when it was basically a watered down Lifetime Original Moviesque version of stuff Gillian Flynn had already done better.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume… this may get me exiled, but while I enjoyed the novel it was NOT as good as its press would lead people to believe. I felt like it was unfocused and really, really slow.
The Fault in Our Stars (or really anything by John Green) I’m not say that it’s a bad book, it’s not, and it’s certainly Green’s best work to date, however it is not revolutionary in any way. It’s a sweet book, but it’s also emotionally exploitative in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. It’s definitely a meh book that happened to land at exactly the right time for it to become extremely popluar.
Go Set a Watchman… IT IS JUST A BAD FIRST DRAFT OF A GOOD NOVEL! There is no reason that this should have ever seen the light of day… I could rant about this all day.
As for underrated books I would say:
The Diviners by Libba Bray. I cannot believe that there are people out there that have not at least heard of this book/series. It is lush and creepy and such a late night page-turner. I assume it flies under the radar because it’s not quite YA enough and not Adult enough to really fit into either camp, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been to advertise it… but it’s SO GOOD!
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender this is the book I will recommend to every human. It is one of the BEST books I’ve read in ages. It’s impossible to explain why it’s amazing… it just is. Read it, right now.
Night Film by Marisha Pessl. Unlike her debut novel, this thriller speeds along and drags you with it by your neck. If you like suspense and mystery this is a winner.
Do you prefer first person or third person narration? Why?
The answer to this entirely depends on the type of story being told. If it’s a deeply personal story, where the main objective is to sit inside the heart and mind of the protagonist then I prefer first person, but if it’s a story that is more plot/theme/concept driven then I think a work benefits more from being third person. This, however can change if the unreliability of a first-person narration is crucial to the experience of the story (see Nick Carraway in ‘The Great Gatsby’). So long answer short, I can dig it either way as long as it’s the best choice to serve the story.
If you start a book do you feel obligated to finish it no matter what?
I used feel obligated to finish a book no matter what. I used to suffer through books I hated just because I had paid for it… putting it aside would cause a crushing sense of guilt. But at some point in the last year and a half I realized that life is too short to finish books that are making you miserable. I rationalize this by reminding myself that every second I spend with a book I don’t like is a second that I could be falling in love with a book that I will like.
Sean: What quality/ies in Moby Dick make it something you esteem so highly?
This is actually a super complicated question to answer. It’s a novel that tells one simple story on the surface but is telling a deeply complex parallel story just beneath the first layer. It’s beautifully written, masterfully combining multiple genres and styles. It is utterly and completely original, no book before or since resembles it in any way. But I suppose that the quality that makes me esteem it so highly is its re-readability. No matter when I pick it up, it is a completely different book every time. I find a new story depending on who I am when open it. It somehow reflects the reader perfectly accurately… and I just don’t know how Melville did. I can’ begin to guess whether it was be genius design or mad fate.
Is there any other book that comes close, and if it does, why is it close and/or what makes it fall short?
Yes, ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern and Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ come to mind. ‘The Night Circus’ comes close to recreating that sense re-readability. Now, I’m not suggesting that there is any universe in which it is on the same literary level as ‘Moby-Dick’, but both novels are extraordinary examples of immersive, complicated narratives that beg to be re-explored. It’s a complex multilayered story that takes a slightly new shape every time I read it. It falls short though, in that is doesn’t reflect each unique reader, the stories that live on those pages are not your story, ever those stories belong to Erin Morgenstern. You can relate to them but you cannot ever be a part of them… if that makes sense. Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ also has a strong re-readability factor and it’s probably more on par artistically, philosophically and literarily, but again it’s reflective of the author not the reader.