Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultured Expectations

Two weeks ago, Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for NPR's cultural program Fresh Air, released her review of a Korean novel, Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin, upon its publication in the United States. Corrigan is usually extremely balanced in her reviews, even when she doesn't love the book, and so it was a real shock that her review of Shin's novel turned out to be a full-on condemnation. Her criticisms were not just of the writer's style, or of specific plot details, but of the novel's entire premise. " I was stranded in a Korean soap opera decked out as serious literary fiction," she said, "If there's a literary genre in Korean that translates into 'manipulative sob sister melodrama, Please Look After Mom is surely its reigning queen." Corrigan concludes her review by urging American readers to seek out other literary options "rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction."

My opinions are not those of the publisher, and I have not read the book, but Corrigan's review, and the dozens of comments she received afterwards, prompted the same questions that arose as I read my book for TK last month, a piece of historical fiction about post-war Vietnam--what kinds of cultural baggage do we bring to the books we read? As a reviewer, how well-informed am I supposed to be, not just about literature, but all forms of cultural expression? And if I don't understand the cultural context of a book, does that make it anathema to me?

Corrigan's review undoubtedly reeks of ethnocentricism--she admits that she writes from a Western perspective "indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'; I kept waiting for irony; a comic twist in the plot; a reprieve." Corrigan is right in that the vast majority of American fiction, especially those tearjerkers destined for embrace by the best-seller lists and book clubs, is resolved with happy endings, rarely with a closing spoonful of doubt and blame and unending guilt. But this owes a great deal to a literary tradition rooted in stories of Christian redemption--so of course we've come to expect the happy endings. But ideas of redemption express themselves differently across different cultures--a novel written from a Buddhist perspective might let characters find redemption when they give up their personal desires; a story rooted in Greek mythology might only resolve a character's conflict once they have returned to their place of origin. But if you're reading like Corrigan did, the expectations for conventional narrative get in the way of exploring something new.

This brings me to something that I think many readers have discovered, and appreciate: fiction is the easiest and cheapest form of travel. We read fiction for a lot of reasons--entertainment pleasure, intellectual challenges, emotional growth--but we also read to expose ourselves to something unknown. Your passport may lack stamps, but if you build your library across many traditions, you can easily travel the world. I can go to India with Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, to Japan with Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, to Mexico with Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and yes, to Pakistan and Afghanistan with Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea. Methinks part of the popularity of Eat, Pray, Love was not in its self-help feel-good ending, but in its geographic scope of Italy, India, and Indonesia. If you read literature in translation, the writer becomes a guide not just to a landscape, but to a whole set of cultural expectations, and you leave the work exposed to an entirely new series of ideas and possibilities. Reviewers can't be always be cultural authorities--if so, book review editors would have to provide big travel budgets--but they should be cultural omnivores. If Corrigan was turned off because the subject of motherhood from the Korean perspective proved too strangely foreign for her exploration, then one has to wonder what exactly she bothered to pick up the book at all. If you don't want to travel, then please, stay at home and leave the journey for the enthusiastic.

But of course, even if you do agree to take the journey, you may not like what you find...You can't force a book to be pleasurable if you can't make an emotional connection to it. But there, of course, is what I find one of the greatest potentialities in any book I pick up: I may really, really hate it. Not everyone reads to skate placidly across a narrative, and sometimes, you really want the experience of a rollercoaster, the narrative throwing you into wildly polarized opinions and emotions. For all the books I've loved, I learned just as much from the ones I hated--I gritted my teeth with disgust at American Psycho and Less Than Zero, groaned with annoyance at The Devil Wears Prada, and openly yelled at the characters in Freedom. But none of these reads were at any point a waste of time, and I never once put them down because I disagreed with them. And this was the point where I really fought with Corrigan's perspective: she recommends that the American readers go for Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids instead of Shin's novel. This is fine--Just Kids is a great read, one that many people have loved--but to suggest that reading is an either/or experience, that somehow one book should be substituted for another, misses the whole point of why we read. The sad, beautiful fact that we're going to miss almost everything is somewhat inevitable, but being "well-read" isn't about reading everything. It's about reading widely, generously, and with an open mind.

It's been a week full of literary highs and lows: first the potential falsehoods (and excuses) of Greg Mortenson's best-selling memoir Three Cups of Tea, then the glorious one-two punch of Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer win and HBO development deal, then today's release of the Time 100 that includes all kinds of literary tastemakers from the past year (Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Chua, George R.R. Martin, and Patti Smith, among many others). All of these serve as reminders that, while we may gnash our teeth over the impending publishing apocalypse, every day writers and their work make news, incite conversation, and create reasons for the reading public to participate in a dialogue about what makes good literature. I'm happy to know that books can stimulate an exchange of'd be nice if Corrigan could've felt the same way.

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