Have you been following this year’s Canada Reads? The annual battle of the books competition (broadcast by CBC radio) is a popular event in the Canadian literary scene, wherein five celebrity panellists defend what they believe is the most essential Canadian novel. Over a five-day period, the books are debated and voted upon until the winning title is chosen. The debates for Canada Reads 2011 began this past Monday, and what struck me was that every panellist began by describing what their book was supposedly “About.” And I don’t mean “about,” as in plot or character. By “about,” I mean the issue each book allegedly explores, or grapples with, or confronts, or whatever. Character and plot? Language and imagery? Small fish, apparently.
Lesson of the day: for a novel to be taken seriously, it must be “About Something.”
But this is nothing new. It seems to me that many readers are uncomfortable reading a book that isn’t wrestling to the ground one big issue or another. Popular topics include physical and sexual abuse (and it’s better if it’s a kid getting knocked around), discrimination (generally one ethnicity or another), physical or mental disabilities (barking mad is best), and the list goes on. If all else fails, have a Jewish protagonist and set the story during the Holocaust.
I’m being insensitive, I know. But too often do I see novels like Sapphire’s Push (which became the Oscar Nominated film Precious) becoming the talk of the town, and not because they’re well written, creatively imagined, or deeply resonating, but because they’re “About Something.” Indeed, Push seems to try for all the big issues at once: let’s take an African-American girl, make her obese, make her illiterate, have her abused, have her raped (by her father, no less), have her become pregnant, and then—to top it all off—let’s give her HIV. If only she’d been Jewish, too.
I don’t mean to take away from the success of Push or novels like it. What bothers me is that we rarely celebrate novels that address the big issues in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. Maybe we’re afraid that a novel that isn’t “About Something” is therefore about nothing, the kind of novel you or I might read as a means of escaping our daily woes (popular fiction, in other words). After all, a Serious (or Literary) novel shouldn’t shy away from the trials and tribulations of life, but confront them head on. And in reading such a novel, we better understand ourselves and those around us. In reading such a novel, we become better people. Right?
Hogwash, I say. Every novel, no matter the genre, plot, or character type, is saying something about what it means to be human (what high minded folk like to call the “Human Condition”). When a character does one thing instead of another (never mind whether the character is a struggling Jewish immigrant or a talking dolphin), then that character, and in turn that novel, is demonstrating a particular set of values, core beliefs, and modes of thinking. How these values, beliefs, and modes of thinking apply to contemporary issues is not always quickly understood. But why should they be? Do we need someone to hold our hands and guide us, inch by inch, to a better understanding of humanity? Must serious discourse always be approached directly, and in the most obvious way?
Whatever happened to good old imagination?
Rowing for Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.