Sep. 18, 2010

What makes Emma Bovary so interesting?

Sometimes in reading at random, weird patterns emerge. The last couple of days I ran across these two quotes, both trashing sacred-cow novelists. In the first, from The Paris Review in 1963, Katherine Anne Porter explains why she detests F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Not only didn’t I like [Fitzgerald’s] writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about, and I still think so. It seems to me that your human beings have to have some kind of meaning. I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives.

The next is from B.R. Myers’ acid review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, in The Atlantic:

One opens a new novel and is promptly introduced to some dull minor characters. Tiring of them, one skims ahead to meet the leads, only to realize: those minor characters are the leads. A common experience for even the occasional reader of contemporary fiction, it never fails to make the heart sink. The problem is not only one of craft or execution. Characters are now conceived as if the whole point of literature were to create plausible likenesses of the folks next door. They have their little worries, but so what? Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special? … Granted, nonentities are people too, and a good storyteller can interest us in just about anybody, as Madame Bovary demonstrates. But … whatever is wrong with these people [i.e. the characters in Freedom] does not matter.

I won’t get into the mean-spiritedness of these reviews, except to say that they capture why I could never be a book critic. (I do post book reviews on this blog, but never negative ones. If I can’t recommend a book, I simply don’t mention it.) And I’m not especially interested in the merits of these opinions, either, though Porter’s dismissal of Fitzgerald seems asinine to me. (I haven’t read Freedom.)

But they do raise an interesting question: what makes an insipid character worth writing and reading about? Obviously it is not as simple as “dull characters, dull book,” as Myers’ example of Madame Bovary makes clear. (My choice would have been Mrs. Dalloway). Is it only the skill of the novelist that grants significance to minor lives? Or do the shallow protagonists of successful books share common characteristics — are they shallow in some distinctive, dramatically advantageous way? If it had been Flaubert rather than Franzen writing about ordinary folks in Minnesota, would it have made a difference to readers like B.R. Myers, who evidently feels the whole project was doomed from the start merely by Franzen’s choice of subject?

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