Friday, December 12, 2008

The Wonder Spot and being all sorts of angry on a Friday night

Me again. This time about a book, and about a book I feel has been slighted.

I must admit up front that I haven't read anything by Curtis Sittenfeld, I just don't feel in anyway drawn into the plot summaries for her books. And that I'm sure is a sin in Ms. Sittenfeld's world, for I should be able to read beyond a book's cover and flap jacket. But really Prep is so not my thing even if I did go to school with kids who went to prep schools, and American Wife just sounds like I'd fall asleep. It's possible I could like her stuff, except I have to get beyond the summaries of her stuff.

But over the last few days, I've been thinking about my tiny list of books read this year and I was surprised to discover that I think my favorite is The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank. Now, this would seem to go against all of my professions of love for Neil Gaiman, but it doesn't. I love Neil and his books, but when I think about it and let myself feel an answer instead of just being logical, I realize that it has to be Bank's book. It's the simplicity of the story; it's the so very Jane Austen-ness of the story; it's the honesty. It's not a book that will shock you, it won't even ask you to look at it, it's a wallflower. It is waiting for you to see it and notice it and its intrinsic value. It's waiting for you to let it be everything it can be. And it's the most human book I read this year.

So, what does Sittenfeld have to do with The Wonder Spot? This. I just found it, years too late to be relevant, but it pissed me off. And not because she's calling Bank a chick-lit author because, damn it, chick lit is not the worst thing to happen to women's literature. It's this, from the end of the review:

"Undeniably, there were times when I laughed or winced in recognition as I read; I understood exactly what Sophie meant, and that's when I liked the book best. But this, ultimately, is the reason I know 'The Wonder Spot' is chick lit: because its appeal relies so much on how closely readers relate to its protagonist. Good novels allow us to feel what the characters feel, no matter how dissimilar their circumstances and ours. 'The Wonder Spot' contains real meaning only if we identify with Sophie enough to infuse it with meaning of our own."

Now, did she just say that in order for a novel to be good, the character's circumstances need to be unlike my own? Really? That's what divides a good novel and chick lit? Seriously? How do you determine that?

See, I get that a good novel should allow us to feel what a character unlike ourselves feels. There's a reason I loved The Road. But just because I walk alongside a character in a number of experiences doesn't make a novel less worthy of being called good. And I'm fascinated by this sense of worth as defined by "learning." I think it's a myth. Is a Jane Austen novel good because I learned about Regency England? Hell no, it's good because of the content, the characters, the humanity, the honesty, the humor. So, to say that a novel isn't really a good novel because she, the character, and I probably have similar life experiences is silly. And then to essentially say that The Wonder Spot would have been good if the protagonist had ended up alone is horseshit. It would be daring to some degree, but not necessarily honest for Bank's protagonist. It's a bolder statement to defy the convention that she would be accepted for one thing and marginalized for another.

So, Ms. Sittenfeld, you're wrong. Maybe you didn't love the book, but the book defies you with being wonderful...And yes, I know I need to read more, but I don't have the luxury of not having a day job, and more than that, I have other things I like to do too.

On other topics: there should be snow on my mountain tomorrow morning! And I think my new literary crush is going to be on Brian K. Vaughn.

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