On Having Read All the Books

The best episode of Louie’s third season revolves around a joke told by one of his daughters. I won’t repeat the joke because it’s only funny when she tells it, but Louis CK talks about being a comedian and how he’s “heard all of the jokes,” further explaining that (I’m working from memory here), “even if I haven’t heard it, I’ve heard it, I know how it goes.” To him, the improvisational humor of a child is fascinating because, even though it probably won’t make any sense, he doesn’t know where it’s going.

I feel the same way about books. I haven’t read all the books, not even close—not even all the kids’ books. But in a way, I do feel like I’ve read most of them. As I pick up a new title, even a highly touted one, I realize I’ve read it before. I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and at this point I know how books go.

To quote the baby on Family Guy:

Gotta, gotta compelling protaganist? Yeah? Gotta obstacle for him to overcome? Huh? Gotta story brewing there? … Nice little narrative? Beginning, middle, and end? Some friends become enemies, some enemies become friends? At the end your main character is richer from the experience? Yeah? Yeah?

Exactly, Stewie. That’s how novels “go.” That’s how we’re taught to write them. If they don’t go that way, it usually feels like the author lost control over the narrative. Stakes should have been raised right there, not lowered. This side character didn’t further the plot. The scene with the gorilla didn’t go anywhere.

Sometimes I do read books that surprise me. John Corey Whaley’s Where Things Come Back impressed me because he spent significant time with older-than-YA characters, which I’m sure any well-intentioned critique group and perhaps other editors would have told him to hatchet. He treated religion in a thoughtful way, with allusions to apocryphal books of the bible. Kids wouldn’t identify with those college-aged kids, I’m sure some early readers would would have told him, it detracts from the book, slows down the narrative, whatever. The religious stuff is too obscure. You run the risk of alienating both religious and non-religious kids with the focus on obscure Christian texts. Oh, and you kill a major character in the first few chapters (sorry for the spoiler). That’s a no-no.

The book ended up winning some major awards.

Another book that defies convention is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. It is in the second person, written from one character to an unnamed other, and has a puzzling chronology. It’s a book that must be re-read, after you know the solution, to see how all the pieces fit together. The themes of friendship and family, the way kids come to see one another with new eyes, are classic middle grade fare. They are dealt with in an especially succinct and deft manner by Stead, but what’s remarkable is how the unconventional narrative makes these ideas feel new. That one won the Newbery.

We tend to wind up literary conventions with “how it’s done,” and although most include some catch-all concession that good writers know how to break those made-up rules and defy conventions, there is no objective way to know when that’s happened, at least until you see it on the bestseller list or see shiny stickers on the book. But I like to see authors taking chances, throwing a little caution to the wind, ignoring the conventions.  I love it when books prove I haven’t really read all the books. When they give out the awards tomorrow, those are the ones I’m rooting for.

3 thoughts on “On Having Read All the Books

  1. Have you ever read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak? It was originally released as YA, though eventually crossed over to adult lit. Talk about surprising: the narrator is Death, and, even more surprising, Death has a sense of humour! I absolutely loved it, and so did the students I assigned it to.

    • I am ashamed to say I still have not read The Book Thief, but everybody I know who has speaks of it with dazzled eyes and gibbers helplessly to describe it. One day I shall read it, I promise.

  2. Interesting observation. The miracle of something like WHEN YOU REACH ME is that the narrative feels so natural. It doesn’t fight you, it draws you in. Books that succeed on this level aren’t engaging in being unconventional for novelty’s sake. When it works, it’s because it’s organic to the narrative.

    You linked to Max Sebald’s unconventional writing advice yesterday on Facebook. One of the tips was “By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.” WHEN YOU REACH ME and the sorts of books you are talking about I think illustrate that point.

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