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? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blogger has been a beast lately, so I hope you do not have any troubles leaving your thoughts.

Images by Freepik