greygirlbeast (greygirlbeast) wrote,

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This Only Song I Know.

I have always assumed that reading works something like this: A reader approaches a novel or short story with a desire to be removed from the here and now. They wish, at least for the duration of the story, to be transported elsewhere and to visit the minds of other people. They wish to see things they would not likely see in the course of any given day. One of the things I long assumed about reading, based on my own reactions to books and those of people I knew and talked about books with, was that reading was, in part, a vicarious way of expanding the scope of one's life. Indeed, art in general, I have always believed, is a means of giving one's "soul" (for lack of a better word) breathing space, a tonic against the confining strictures of the day-to-day and the limitations of what we are each capable of experiencing directly. In the closing lines of her poem, "Renascence," Edna St. Vincent Millay writes:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, —
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

Being an atheist, or at least strongly agnostic, I don't interpret "God" literally, in this instance. Rather, I interpret it, for my purposes, as epiphany and transcendence of mind/spirit. And, for me, the poem has always been about the triumph of imagination over the soul-crushing weight of the mundane. Now, with this mind, perhaps it's a little easier to understand why I often find myself so entirely perplexed at the reactions of some readers to literature which leads them away from the ordinary and attempts to expand their concepts of reality and humanity and so forth and so on. And I'm not only talking about the inability or reluctance of some readers when it comes to fantastic or speculative literature. This applies just as well to the work of writers who don't dabble in alternate worlds. Sometimes, I think that the most alien thing to mankind is mankind itself. The real aliens live next door or across the border or somewhere overseas. Each man and woman defines the world about them, creating a set of those things which they consider "normal" and "good" and "evil" and "sympathetic" and "likable," and these are damned indomitable walls. They are high and thick, and it is the task of the writer to penetrate or scale them. To break in. To shatter preconceptions. To force people to rethink cherished opinions and prejudices.

Yesterday, I ran up against the "sympathetic character" block again. It will never cease to throw me, I think. The thought of finding characters unlike me off-putting is too foreign to my way of reading for me to comprehend this. In this case, readers who approached Murder of Angels and found daunting a fantasy wherein the two protagonists are an emotionally distant, philandering musician with a serious drinking problem and her suicidal, impulsive girlfriend who has been led to believe that she's schizophrenic by a world that can't accommodate her perceptions. Not hobbits with hearts of gold. Not bespectacled English school boys who would be wizards. Not heroes. Not heroines. Just people. Not "likable" people. Just people. It has not yet been my experience that people come in the flavour "likable." I have looked hard and long on two continents and have not found them. Each of us is fallible and in some way broken. Usually, we maintain our sainthood only in our own minds. We surround ourselves with the familiar, equating the alien with disruption, displeasure, damnation, inconvenience, discomfort, unhappiness, and all manner of unpleasantness.

How do such readers cope with the truly great works of American literature, which rarely ever concern "likable" characters? What do they do with Of Mice and Men, Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Catcher in the Rye...and, well, there's no point in going on and on. I simply don't understand. I simply don't. I don't even think I want to, though I have tried. To me, the reader who judges books as "good" or "bad" on the basis of whether or not they find the characters likable is akin to a child who turns up its nose at a vegetable it has never tasted before. That's a best case scenario. Worst case scenario, they're moralists or xenophobes, convinced that all the drunks and druggies and queers and lunatics and heretics and infidels and freaks and bums and killers and aliens exist in some other world, a hell of their own making, sensibly kept apart from "sympathetic" humankind. Who wants to read about people like that? Why be reminded they even exist? Aren't we better off without them? Why "glorify" their unfortunate existence in literature. And do not forget, I am holier than thou. I am holier than thou. I am not a thief. I am not a cheat. I am not a drunkard. I am not a liar. I am not a killer. I am not deluded. I am not ever false or self-pitying or irrational.

I listen and this is what I hear. And it makes me angry. But at least the anger keeps me writing.

To date, I have no working definition of "likable." I can only see people. And if I look too long or too hard at any of them, they become monstrous. Look hard enough and I might find glimmers of the angelic in the more curious angles of their being, but, near as I can tell, angels are at least as treacherous as monsters.

And speaking of "unsympathetic" characters, the new chapter of Boshen and Nesuko is up.

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