Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Grim Reader

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Well, operating on more than four hours of sleep this morning, I should be able to do a little better.

But it surprises me that we’ve circled around to this again, and on two counts.

The first is–STORY.

Lymaree asks why I’d give up good STORIES because they contain “future technology.”

But I’ve said before that I DON’T READ FOR STORY.

I don’t mean to shout, but it seems to me that I’ve said this enough times now so that it should be the first thing you know about me. 

I read for character, and I read for a sense of place, but I never read for “story.”  Story doesn’t interest me very much, and it never has, even when I was reading as a child.

What I wanted from Nancy Drew was some sense of what it would be like to grow up to be Nancy Drew, and that sense was only valuable to me to the extent that it was actually possible for me to do that.

You guys get far too technical and philosophical about the “actually possible” thing.

Was it ‘actually possible” for me to be a girl detective solving crimes?  Nope, but that wasn’t the point.

It was actually possible for me to be eighteen, in possession of my own car, with a boyfriend and completely confident in myself.   Hell, I even had a lawyer for a father.

When I read to escape, what I don’t do is bury myself in a fantasy that can never come true on any level, so that I forget about my problems for a few hours and feel more refreshed when I go back to them.

I know people do that, but the very idea of it makes me cringe.  I have a near phobia about what I think of as “false hope,” of not facing facts and dealing with them. 

And I’m very, very bad at forgetting that the problems are there when they’re there.  I find it difficult to read anything at all, or to write, when problems are there.

When I read to escape,  it’s because I actually want to escape. 

I want to pack my bags, get up and go someplace.

Robert asks why I don’t just do that, and the answer is that it’s not always possible.  Sometimes you have family obligations or not enough money.  Sometimes you’re twelve years old and stuck living where and how your parents live until you reach your majority.

Things like travel books are actually very bad at giving you a sense of place. They’re written for tourists, and I suppose you could get, for them, some sense of what it’s like to be a tourist.  And there are some–the Dorling-Kindersley ones–that are wonderful for pictures.

But I don’t want pictures or a guide book, I want a sense of place.  Of what it’s like to be a human being in that atmosphere.  Of the there there.

To get to Gertrude Stein, one of the great writers of place ever to have existed on the planet.

So was Hemingway, by the way. 

But I’m not looking for “grim” when I look for a sense of place, and I virtually never read fiction that is primarily about “social problems,” although I don’t mind characters who have them as long as that’s not the focus.

Stein is never grim, and Heminway wouldn’t know a social problem from a skein of knitting wool.  A Moveable Feast–the faux-memoir of Hemingway’s writing days in Paris–is not grim, contains nothing about social problems and is about as atmospheric as…I don’t know what.

And no, I can’t go to “Heminway’s Paris.”  But I spent a good part of my adolescence reading to escape to Paris, and Hemingway helped. 

And in the end, I got to Paris, and not as a tourist, either.  I plotted my escape, and then I actually escaped.

If real, actual escape is impossible, if the best you can do is some fantasy that can’t come true on any level–why bother thinking about it?  And how could it possibly take your mind off anything, if you always know it’s made up and can never be any true part of your life in the future?

These days my big escape fantasies are London (possible, because I have someplace to be there, and I’ve already lived there for a good long stretch), Lisbon and Greece.  They’re all places I’ve been (and two, again, not as a tourist.)

For Lisbon, the best I’ve got is a Wim Wenders movie called Lisbon Story, nothing grim or serious about it, the best of the novels of Jose Saramago (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, Blindness, All The Names) and the films of Manoel de  Oliveira. 

Those last I listen to mostly to hear Continental Portuguese spoken. 

For London, the best out there consist largely of things like episodes of As Time Goes By–once again, nothing at all grim–and for Greece I have a lot, including the old Hayley Mills movie of The Moonspinners and Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic. 

 A sense of place is not achievable in a travelogue, or a guide book.   To do it right, you need fiction or something close to it.

Jane Austen, though, I read for characters, and a sense of how men and women can be with each other.

And yes, I know all about Foyle’s War.  I own the entirety of it on DVD.

But anyway, I’ve never said that “grim” is better than not in fiction–I was talking, yesterday, about light, fluffy, silly cozy sorts of things.

But that’s something else, of course.

For what it’s worth, I’ve said all of the above before, and there has been discussion of it on this blog.

I guess you guys just don’t believe me.

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2011 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Grim Reader'

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  1. I believe you don’t read for story.

    I have a little difficulty wrapping my mind around the idea of only enjoying a sense of place when it’s a real place. Although I’ve certainly spent lots of time dreaming of being somewhere else, I didn’t usually read books set in such places to give me the illusion of escape. I think I knew, even as a child, before I had the experience, that the reality would different, partly better, partly worse, but not the same. If I wanted another world to live in, an unreal one would be just as good, maybe better than a real one for purposes of distraction and relaxation. When I was planning a real escape, I was more concerned with saving up the fare and completing my education and finding work. So I guess I’m saying I operate in almost exactly the opposite way that you do, and perhaps that’s why I don’t always understand or remember what you write. It’s hard to get into someone else’s mind.


    29 Nov 11 at 10:18 am

  2. Well, you clearly don’t believe me–either when I say that story can be an important part of my enjoyment or that I do NOT park my brain at the door when reading science fiction and fantasy. That last rant read as though I’d never responded to your nearly identical previous ones. I was half tempted to copy and past the previous reply.

    But no, I don’t believe you. At least I have a hard time believing both that story is a matter of indifference to you and that the big problem you have with “genre” is the limited range of plots, or that you believe all characters are the same–Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple? Nero Wolfe and the Continental Op?–who fulfill the same function in the plot. Those rants are at least as common.

    Is “Jane Haddam” by any chance a house name? Because otherwise, I’d suggest you stack up 100 or 200 favorite pieces of fiction and DEDUCE your reading preferences instead of just firing random bits of literary ideology downrange. I think the end result might be a bit more nuanced.

    Haven’t read Moveable Feast. On Hemingway generally, with due respect to “The Undefeated” if the alternative were a random selection of Hemingway, I’d be running for the Fodor’s. He makes Lovecraft and Bob Howard look like Cheerful Charlies.

    But I utterly fail to see why–even if “place” is paramount–the place should be more interesting because I could really go there. I could really go to DC any weekend. In a broad sense, I live there. There are shelves of novels set here, but the place is still dull as dishwater–as are the novels, incidentally. Kipling’s India, Post-Roman Britain, Schmits’ Hub and Chandler’s Rim, Barsoom and Barayar are interesting. I just can’t get there from here. Even if I could I often wouldn’t. Life tends to be short in interesting places.

    I’m with Cheryl. If I’m actually going to live in some strange place, it’s tour guides, phrase books and history, not novelists–but I don’t pick my settings based on my expected living arrangements, any more than I’d pick characters based on how likely I am to meet the person in real life.

    Why should I?


    29 Nov 11 at 6:48 pm

  3. And I was mad enough not to point out that you evaded Lymaree’s point. Forget story: would you give up interesting characters because they lived in a place you didn’t wish to live–or couldn’t? And sometimes you need that setting to build precisely the characters you wish.

    When I do reading as travelogue, by the way, it’s PJ O’Rourke and Ralph Peters–or perhaps Mark Twain. But not fiction, let alone modernist.


    30 Nov 11 at 4:43 pm

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