Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confronting vs. Comforting Books (A Response)

Simon over at Savidge Reads is one of my fave bloggers and podcasters, and he recently wrote a fantastic post on the lure of comfort reads vs. reads that confront us. This was a timely discussion for me, as I recently tried (and failed miserably) to read Alissa Nutting's short story collection, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls. I even tried to draft a post about my gigantic reading fail and utter hatred of the book to no avail, but I'm here to give it another go.


You might remember that Alissa Nutting is also the literary wunderkind who wrote the button hole that makes me blush. 

Ahem! Anyway. Simon's post, as I mentioned above, is about whether we read confronting books or comforting books, and in general this question relates to the how and whys of our reading. Do we read to escape? To learn? To be challenged? Do we like to be challenged by form? By content? By controversy? 

I would say that as I've gotten older (especially into my 30s, and now more than ever), that I enjoy the confronting books. University (undergraduate and graduate school) was one of the best times of my life because I was constantly intellectually challenged.  While I don't know that I'm ready to jump back in for a PhD, I do know that I crave the mental challenge of literary analysis. Maybe not the hardcore, write-a-20-page-paper kind of analysis I did then, but flexing my analytical muscles feels super fly. I do find myself analyzing the themes and tropes and symbolism and narrative form within the books I read more than I have in many years. And I find myself seeking out books that present that challenge. For example, I'm specifically spelunking through some of the most promising and lauded books from my TBR, and I've set the goal to read more diversely in 2014 to learn new things and spread my wings a bit.

There's also the problem of what one considers confronting. There's the obvious confrontation of reading about a topic we find personally distasteful: abuse, neglect, divorce, and a host of other terrible things. There's also the confrontation of reading a book that is hard because of its writing style or its form. It's different for everyone--as is what one finds comforting. All I can do is speak to my personal tastes and definitions. 



So If I enjoy and even seek out confronting books, why did I have such a piss-poor reaction to Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls? First, I have to say, there's rarely a topic that will drive me completely away from a book or constitute a book I would not pick up. I've read about pedophilia in Lolita, abduction in ROOM, and I found those books difficult but rewarding. I found something worthwhile and thoughtful and challenging in both. 

So WHY not Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls??? There were some admittedly distasteful topics that eeked me out. Lots of bodily fluids. Lots of weird sexual situations for the women in the stories. Given, there's also a very apparent unreality, so it takes some of the edge off. I think the bigger deal for me, and the basic reason for my revulsion, was that I had a hard time connecting with the book and feeling like it was authentic. I felt like it was more of an experiment in the grotesque--full of shock factor, lots of flash--on the verge of sensational. But for what?? To what end? To what purpose? Lolita weirded me out, too, but the beauty and nuance of the writing SPOKE to me. 

In reading Nutting's stories, I could've figured out some analytical rationalization. She's experimenting with taboos that female writers haven't often confronted? Sure! That sounds good. But it'd be a crock. I didn't feel any authentic connection, any deeper purpose, any nuance to the sensationalism and grotesqueness. And that crap pisses me off. I couldn't see her artistry! Bottom line. 

At the end of the day, whether we prefer the confronting books or the comforting books, there will always be novels on either end of the spectrum that just don't work for us. Sadly, Nutting's book falls into this category for me. 

Now, what do you think? Do you prefer to be confronted or comforted? Or maybe it's a pretty event split? 









34 comments:

  1. I used to like being confronted, but now that I'm a mom I like being comforted. I can't read anything where anything bad happens to kids. I know books like The Room were amazingly popular, but I couldn't even go there.

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    1. I do understand that. Issues dealing with children bother me in a way that they never did before I became a mom. I would absolutely not read ROOM until friends told me that everything would be ok and actually assured me ahead of time that the child ultimately came to no harm. Otherwise I might never have picked it up.

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    2. I've felt the same way since becoming a mom, too... as far as books where things happen to kids. Andi, if I remember correctly, you have a post from a while ago about how your reading has changed because of that, right? I remember loving that post (pretty sure it's one of yours).

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    3. You know, the whole kid thing DOES make topics about terrible things happening to children, but like you said in your post if the literature SPEAKS to me, then... well, it's better.

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  2. Interesting topic! Having just gone back to school after 17 years, I get what you mean about flexing brain muscles. I like to read challenging books, but I'm not sure how often I really read "confronting" books. Like you say, a book about a distasteful topic may be beautifully written, or not. But I wouldn't say I seek out topics that bother me. Definitely something to think about. Happy Thanksgiving!

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    1. Thanks! And there are so many ways to be "confronting." It's such a personal thing. I definitely don't seek out books that are going to freak or gross me out. lol But they're not out of the question until the point at which they become gimmicky or I can't connect with them. Ahem, Unclean Jobs!

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  3. I do like confronting books, most of the time, but books that are just about shocking the reader with no purpose come off as gimmicky. I don't like that.

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    1. YES! Gimmicky is THE word! Books that fall into this category for me: Unclean Jobs (of course), The Other Typist, Gone Girl.

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  4. I definitely lean toward "comforting" books, although to be honest, I didn't find Gone Girl "confronting." I liked it...and in its own weird (well, I'm weird, I guess) I found it comforting, because I like suspense thrillers. I don't want to be confronted by real life in my reading, and I think that's why I tend to steer clear of nonfiction.

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    1. Haha! For me, Gone Girl was way out of the zone. Just because I rarely read thrillers. I got that same feeling of gimmickiness because I just felt like she was trying to throw in ALL the twists imaginable and ALL the deplorable character traits she could figure out. And I can appreciate not wanting to be confronted by real life in one's reading. I go through phases.

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  5. I like both! I do believe that it depends on my mood or what is happening in my life as to which I will pick up though. BUT, like you, I like the feeling of being challenged with my reading. I was one of the weird kids that loved school and am even considering going back to get my PhD (because I'm crazy like that!). I like being challenged and my mind opened to things that I was not fully aware of before. BUT, I also just love to dive into a book that is candy for my brain or just plain comfortable.

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    1. Amen sister! I do go through periods of time when I'd rather be comforted, for sure. I always have some of those books on my TBR, but the majority of what I've accumulated in the last several years is more of the confronting (or at least challenging) ilk. Go you! I can do my PhD for next to nothing as a university employee, so I'm sure it'll happen one day, but Greyson will have to be a bit older.

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  6. This is a constant struggle within my book club. Many of my friends and fellow club members prefer not to read anything that makes them "sad" or "depressed," which pretty much means they don't want to be confronted. But others of us read in order to step out of our own worlds and comfort zones. I agree a combo of both is good, but I certainly want to be confronted some of the time.

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    1. Simon mentioned that in his post. I'm very fortunate that our book club is pretty open to whatever. We've read everything from Gone Girl (brutal) to Naked (hilarious) to Me Before You (sweet). Cheers to confronting books!

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  7. I like both types of books, but I have been turning more towards comfort reads for awhile now. It's what I need in my life right now most, I think, and so I am just going with it for the time being. Occasionally a more confronting book crosses my path and I'm always glad I read it. Someday I'll be in a more confronting phase again--just not yet.

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    1. I hear ya, Wendy. It really does come down to what we need. And I'm a slave to my moods as a reader, so I can completely relate.

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  8. Such a good question! I think it's true about the connection/authenticity piece you mentioned -- regardless of what I'm reading, but more so with confronting books for sure.

    I especially like confronting reads when I know I'll have the opportunity to discuss them with at least one other person. Before I moved a few months back, I had a great IRL book group. I could slog through any tough read because I knew I'd be able to talk about it with other people. I would actually love to get back into doing readalongs again for that very reason. I think I get more out of a book that way for sure.

    When it's just the topic (and not the format) that's confronting, I'm usually ok on my own. I do like reading books that push my own boundaries a little and tend to gravitate toward ones that give me a perspective outside of my own life experiences.

    But I do still like comforting books. I like just being able to sit back and enjoy a good story for the fun of it. I often gravitate toward these kinds of reads when I need a new audiobook. I find confronting reads of both kinds tougher to tackle without being able to see the printed words on the page.

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    1. Thank you! And you provided such a wonderful, thoughtful response, Erin!

      I am right there with you when it comes to discussing confronting reads. That's what's pushed me to read more of them this year: readalongs, book clubs, discussion groups here and there. It's been exhilarating!

      What are some of your favorite confronting books?

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    2. Hmm, let's see. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Jose Saramago's books. Lolita. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I'm not big on venturing too far down the path of violence or that kind of thing -- definitely not a mystery reader, or a watcher of graphic movies, or anything like that. I like books that don't shy away from heavier topics, but at the same time don't lean on those topics solely or primarily for their shock factor. If that makes sense.

      Also, nonfiction books that nudge me outside my comfort zone by exploring topics that are hard for me to open up to. Most recently, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, all about the importance of vulnerability. Definitely not a comfort read for me, but one that was absolutely worth confronting :)

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  9. This is a terrific post and you bring up a great topic. I think the comfort vs. confront theme is a split for me. I enjoy being challenged by what I'm reading and the author's writing and I don't have topics or issues that I won't read a book because of. But I don't like a book I cannot connect with in any way. A book that seems to have been written just to shock readers or gross us out or for no other reason than to write about "taboo" subjects wastes my time and ticks me off. I'll take Lolita, Bastard out of Carolina or A Child Called "It" before reading something like "Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls". I guess it'd be better if I tried reading it first, uh?!

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  10. I don't mind being confronted... but I think what you put in bold is exactly what HAS to happen. It must come across to me, as the reader, as authentic. If that doesn't come through, I can't get past my own discomfort and really take the book in for what it is vs. what I wish it could be. (hope that makes sense)

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  11. Confronted!!!! Shake me out of my comfort zone!

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  12. I'm all about the confronting reads, there is so much to learn and experience in a confronting book and you can do it from the comfort of your own house. I love to get into the minds of an anti-hero and see what motivates them

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  13. I mentioned this on Simon's post, too, but I definitely like books that take me into all kinds of crazy situations. Though I haven't encountered it yet, I imagine there must be some subject that would rally shake me and make me want to put a book down.

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  14. I like both too. I especially don't mind well thought out philosophical pieces that contradict my worldview.

    I totally get what you mean about flexing the intellectual muscles, it just feels so good! I've been listening to Tess of de'Urbervilles on my sojourn through the country... it's a frustrating read.

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  15. I think I read to be engaged. Whether that winds up being comforting or challenging depends on the book, but I sure as heck don't want to be bored.

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  16. I like to be confronted. I like books that shake me up and make me think about something in a new way. But there are things I won't bother with. I have no interest in Tampa, and I did enough shock-value reading in my 20s to not need that, either. I like to be shaken up in service of learning something, seeing things differently, changing perspective. But a bunch of swear words and violence isn't enough to do it!

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  17. I'm split, although lately I seem to read fewer comforting books (which I consider fluff I read just for the heck of it). This is a great topic to write/talk about! Good review.

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  18. Great post! I like intriguing, weird books, so maybe I'm a bit on the confronting side, but I also like reading comforting books (as long as they're not shallow). Thanks for pointing this out. I'll be sure to look for more confronting books, because I do think the books I read are just a tad confronting haha.

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  19. >>Do we like to be challenged by form? By content? By controversy?

    I love that you asked this. I don't know exactly how to define what I would call a confronting book; the best way I can say it is that I love for books to try something. It's what bothers me so much about an author like Jodi Picoult, who is a gifted writer and writes about painful subjects, but who has completely settled down into her comfort zone. Much more interesting to me than writing on controversial topics is writing on any topic in an unexpected way. Does that make any sense?

    Anyway. I like a mixture of confronting and comforting books. Depends on mood, I think, but even that's not a great measure -- sometimes I think I'm in the mood for only comfort books, and then I end up reading something strange and wonderful and new.

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  20. I'm definitely someone who avoids books that force me to confront tough social issues, especially if they involve a lot of unhappiness. I'm far more comfortable with intellectual issues, genetic engineering for example. Sure these issues can be related back to human emotions in both sci fi and non-fiction, but they're hardly ever as hard to read about as something like rape or domestic violence. I would very much like to push myself as a reader though, so next year I might make an effort to read more issues books, especially if I can find some that aren't too heartbreaking.

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  21. Excellent post! I find myself evenly split, but when I am confronted by a difficult book I usually have to follow it up with something comforting.

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  22. I think I gravitate toward "confronting books." I just finished a kind of "comforting" book, and I was actually kind of annoyed by the happy ending! I like having to think and expand my understanding of the world.

    I felt the same way about Unclean Jobs. I read a few stories before reading Tampa, and I found them darkly funny and amusing. But after reading Tampa, I've barely been able to pick up Unclean Jobs. I've only read a few more stories because I just feel queasy the whole time I'm reading them. Usually that's not a problem, but like you I started to feel like the stories were grotesque just for the sake of being grotesque. I haven't finished it, either.

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  23. I love to be comforted by someone I know is smarter than me. We are still talking books! Maybe I need therapy?

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