Recently, I fell in love with a new book. I'll tell you about that book in another post, but it's a type of book that I wouldn't normally read, one I picked up because I heard about the author on NPR and he seemed like a nice and funny guy so I thought "what the heck?" That's what libraries are for, right? And I fell in love with it so much that I read it twice, once and then again right after, before I had to take it back to the library, and now I'm going to be buying it, because it's a book I have to own.*

But it got me thinking. If this is a type of book I don't normally read, by an author I wouldn't have heard of except for the radio, what about it made me fall in love?

I mean, some books are so obviously for me they might as well have had "Jay Montville's book" printed right on the cover. Jonathan Strange, for example. That book couldn't have been more for me if I'd written it myself. Or The Grounding of Group Six--Julian Thompson and I share a brain in that one.

But what about these other books, the ones that aren't so "right up my alley." Why do I fall in love with them?

The answer, I believe, is character.

Let me back up...when I used to teach, I spent a semester on Faulkner. The Sound and The Fury and Absalom, Absalom.** I discovered that the students in my class either loved or hated these two books.*** And, as I delved deeper into why they loved or hated him I discovered something else--the students who hated Faulkner hated him for a bunch of reasons. He was too hard. The story was too complicated. He was a perv. He was boring. He was too messed up about the past and couldn't he just let it go, already? Jeez!

But the students who loved Faulkner all loved him for the same reason: Quentin Compson.

Quentin, for those of you who don't care about Faulkner, is the doomed son of the Compson family, obsessed with his sister's purity and his idealistic notion of the Old South. He narrates large portions of Absalom, Absalom, and in The Sound and the Fury, he commits suicide. The students who loved Faulkner were willing to do anything, read any research material, any literary analysis, struggle with any text, spend any amount of time, to understand Quentin. To be close to him. He was like that bad boy character in countless tv shows and movies that the nice girl from the right side of town tries to save.****

And that's what happens to me. When I fall in love with a character, I am willing to struggle through anything--bad writing, bad plotting, nonsensical structure, to spend time with that character. Fortunately, in books I don't often have to struggle with those kinds of things: authors who can create good characters are often at least moderately skilled in language and in plot.***** I will also, it turns out, read books I don't normally read, in genres I don't normally care about, by authors I've never heard of. Give me a character I love, and I will get over all kinds of obstacles that might otherwise have stopped me.

So what makes me love a character? I'll have to think about that. I'll get back to you.


*Does anyone else do this? Try before you buy? I usually don't buy a movie or a book unless I know that I already like it enough to watch it/read it over and over again. I suppose, as a former English major, it's a defense mechanism to avoid my house collapsing under the weight of a zillion books.

**I know! I did it in an attempt to get students to drop my class so I wouldn't have as many papers to grade. I thought that the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury would scare them away. What I learned then was that students are not scared away by difficulty--they don't have a good way to judge difficulty, so they just assume this is how hard everything is and there's no point in dropping because the other classes are just as hard. What they are scared of is length--a colleague of mine opened with Vanity Fair and lost eight students the first day.

***I myself am indifferent to Faulkner. That's why I picked him.

****Oh my god, Quentin was the Jordan Catalano or Tim Riggins of The Sound and the Fury! And Faulkner is reeling in his grave right now at the thought of that. Incidentally, it wasn't just girls in love with Quentin in my class. A number of young men were also infatuated with him.

*****TV shows, though. WHEW! I've watched some incredibly bad tv because I was in love with a character. Like, REALLY BAD.


I doubt that Jordan Catalano or Tim Riggins are as intelligent as Quentin but not having watched the television shows with those characters, I'll defer to your comparison. Quentin is way too smart to be compared to the average bad boy.

What do you think about this: what really fascinates people about Quentin isn't actually Quentin. It's Father. Quentin spends a lot of time thinking about things his father did and the conversations he had with his father and if you read those sections a few times, you rapidly conclude that Father is the Einstein of the Faulkner universe, always proposing theories about fate and life. Quentin is interesting primarily because of his father. Without those father-son conversations, Quentin is actually a rather dull character.

A fun little Faulkner factoid for you. Faulkner was the writer-in-residence at a famous university one semester. Somebody asked him: "What do you do?" Faulkner replied: "I walk across the campus twice a day so people can say 'there he goes.'"

People who haven't really studied or read Faulkner would hear that story and think he was pompous but Faulkner was poking fun at himself, too. What most students don't realize is that Faulkner is very funny, it's just WORK to get the jokes and they are very dry. You either find that sort of thing funny or you don't and most people don't.

A related topic you might consider for a future post . . . is there any difference between books you love and books you think are well-written? Can you love a book that is poorly written simply because you're fascinated by the characters or the story?

Friday, January 23, 2009 at 10:01:00 AM EST  

I think you're giving college freshmen too much credit, Anon--they weren't fascinated with Quentin because of his mind, they were in love with him because he was doomed.

And I don't think Faulkner is funny. I think Faulkner is boring and needlessly complicated, and that the payoff isn't worth the work. But we've had that conversation before.

That is a good idea for a future post, but I will tell you that the short answer is yes. Yes, there can be a difference between books I love and books that are well-written. There are plenty of books that I recognize as well-written (even Faulkner, gasp!) that I don't love. There are plenty of books I love that I recognize as not well-written. I think that the primary factor in determining whether or not I personally love a book is character. Not story. Not writing. Character.

Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 7:00:00 AM EST  

Well, it's not like the jury's out on Faulkner and waiting for either of US to decide what we think of his literary merit, ha ha. Some folks like him, some folks do not. I'm long past the point of trying to make other people see things the way I see them, although I gave it the ole college try for many years. It is amusing how much effort people spend trying to convince each other that this or that book/movie/show/thing is just awesome and you HAVE to check this out. Must be something about the innate urge to share one's experiences, I guess.

Look forward to your post elaborating on this topic a bit. I might like a character but if a really interesting character is stuck in a really bad plot, it takes me out of the reading experience too much. It would be like putting Hannibal Lecter in a soap opera. (Now, there's a thought!)

It all has to come together for me: the writing, the story, and the characters. If some part of the equation is missing, I end up thinking that it's a good book but not the GREAT book it could have been.

I'll await your thoughts on the topic. I may agree, I may disagree but I'll try to keep an open mind, even if you're completely wrong. Hee hee.

Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 3:31:00 PM EST  

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