Is it possible to compare literary apples and oranges? That is, can we meaningfully measure a novel against a work of non-fiction, a volume of poetry, a screenplay? I think so.
Recently, at the readers’ group that I’m a member of, we were talking about John Banville’s The Sea (Knopf, 2005), winner of last year’s Booker Prize, which we had just read. We gave it mixed reviews, which means that we didn’t much like it, despite the book’s prestigious honours, the undeniable pleasures of Banville’s masterful prose, and his solid track record as the author of a baker’s dozen of readable novels, including The Untouchable, his memorable fictional recounting of the story of art historian and spy Anthony Blunt.
For those who haven’t read The Sea, it’s the boozy tale of narrator Max Mordden, a self-confessed dilletante art historian whose meagre accomplishments in his field and perhaps in life justify his taking to the alcoholic flask. Max retreats to the Irish seaside town of Ballyless, where he spent summer holidays as a child, to mourn the recent death of his wife in a month of blurry days and nights.
We spent most of our morning-coffee-and-muffins-meeting trying to figure out why it didn’t “work” for us. Certainly, we didn’t think it a complete failure. Given Banville’s talent, that was unlikely in any case. But we didn’t think, like the reviewer of The Spectator, that it was “a brilliant, sensuous, discombobulating novel,” nor did we agree with the Sunday Telegraph’s critic that “The Sea is his best novel so far,” though we were prepared to concede that on many pages “the reader is arrested by a line or sentence that demands to be read again.”
Although Banville’s latest book, as the Sunday Times’ scribe put it, “is simultaneously about growing up and growing old… coming-of-age and coming-of-old-age, awakening and dying,” we simply weren’t terribly moved by the narrator protagonist, his memories, or the grief, anger, and numbness he feels about his life without his late wife.
Somewhere in the midst of our floundering-at-The Sea conversation, I thought of another book that I happened to be currently teaching (and re-reading) in a philosophy and literature class at the college where I work. The book is Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown (Thomas Allen, 2003), by my old pal and partner-in-literary-mischief, Brian Fawcett. As I was enthusing away in the course of making an inevitably odious comparison between the two books, one of our group members said, even though he too was a fan of Fawcett’s book, “But how can you compare them? How can you compare this novel with a work of… a work of sociology?”
Not to quibble, but Virtual Clearcut, which is Fawcett’s compelling account of the woes of the once-booming milltown of Prince George, British Columbia, as well as a memoir of growing up and getting on, a cosmopolitan analysis of the local effects of globalization, and a set of unflinching reflections about the nature of modern men, is not exactly “a work of sociology,” and certainly not just a work of sociology. When I first read it, I immediately thought, This is the first important Canadian book of the new century. And re-reading it for the class I was teaching, I found it even more illuminating than when it won the 2003 Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.
But I didn’t say any of that at our readers’ group meeting, probably because I’m a smartass. Instead I said, “How can I compare them? Easily. One of them is interesting and the other is not-so-interesting.”
Of course, my sophomoric wit didn’t settle anything, but it made me think. What I thought was, Since I do in fact compare all kinds of books, what’s the basis upon which I make my idiosyncratic judgments? What makes me say that Fawcett’s Clearcut is better than Banville’s Sea? Why do I prefer Italo Calvino’s fictional Mr. Palomar to, oh, just to take anyoldthing from the current bestseller lists, James Frey’s once non-fictional, now semi-fictional A Million Little Pieces? Which is another way of asking, What do I look for when I’m reading books?
Here’s the answer: In addition to the more-than-aesthetic pleasure of reading solid sentences, I want books to tell me something about “life” (or “the world” or fill in your own favourite blank) that I didn’t quite know before I read it. I want a book to change my understanding of life or the world or whatever you call the category by which you measure meaningfulness.
I’m willing, in short, to compare books that “tell me something” with those that don’t. Once a book, irrespective of genre, meets that standard, I’m not at all tempted to compare it with other books that meet the standard. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out the comparative merits of Dante’s Inferno and Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis. They both tell me something. No comparison needed.
A related thing I notice is that lately I’ve been taking “the novel” off its pedestal. Rather than assuming that novels are inviolate products of somebody’s tender imaginings, I find myself asking about fiction that I’m not reading simply for entertainment, Did this book need to be a novel? Often enough the answer is an irritated, No. However, if the book is Cercas’ semi-fictional pondering about the Spanish Civil War and the nature of heroism, or Bernhard Schlink’s interrogation of moral illiteracy in The Reader, or Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, in which he must create the imagined voice of a magical-realist mind, then I happily recognize that there was no way for these authors to tell me something important other than by means of fiction. I notice that I have a particular predilection for fictions that play with the boundaries between imagination and real-life, like the above-mentioned books or, say, Tomas Eloy Martinez’ The Peron Novel or Santa Evita, and Christa Wolf’s Accident. What I like in such books is the reader’s experience of recognizing that the “real” is “made up,” too.
Because I mainly write essays, reportage, memoirs and prose poems, I tend to be respectful of novels. I retain a sense of mild awe for someone who “makes it up” out of seemingly nothing, while I’m merely writing “from life.” But of course this is mostly false. Novelists are also creating, if at a curious angle, from their experiences of life. Still, I maintain a residue of admiration for a writer who thinks up a character or creates a composite out of people he or she knows, and then imagines a whole bunch of what-if-this-happened, what-if-that-happened events, especially if the outcome tells me something about life.
Yes, I can tell the difference between apples and oranges (genres), and often there’s a point to separating them, but there are also situations where I just want to know if the apples and oranges are fruitful.
Vancouver, Dec. 20, 2006. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Books in Canada, November 2006. Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. His next book, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education, will be published in the spring.