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Rowing For Pleasure: The Novel–When In Doubt, Write About The Holocaust

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.


4 thoughts on “Rowing For Pleasure: The Novel–When In Doubt, Write About The Holocaust

  1. It goes well beyond the writing of novels. I think that in the western world there is this fear that in order to be legitimate we need to show that we care for at least one ‘issue’ that antagonizes humanity. We must do our part to make the world a better place. Otherwise, we may be taken as being selfish…God forbid! Like…don’t we all feel better when a blockbuster, filthy rich movie star is photographed feeding the starving children in some worn-torn country? All of a sudden, they are legitimate.
    We don’t really believe this. I say that because all of us enjoy and need having time for ourselves…being entertained…being pampered. Which is actually very good for the human soul. Of course, a steady diet of self feeding will eventually end up destroying us, but then so will ignoring the need. All that to say that novels do not need to be ‘about anything’…and some of the most legitimate writers have been those that simply entertained us and continue to do so.

    Posted by Rev Scott | February 8, 2011, 3:38 pm
    • Well said, though I’d suggest that many novels read for entertainment purposes have a lot more to offer. It’s not enough that we simply read a book; we must engage with it. Even the most seemingly formulaic genre fiction can be unpacked, and through that unpacking, explored all the more deeply.

      Still, like you say, entertainment has its value. Who am I to suggest otherwise, as I was once an Entertainment Editor.

      Posted by Z S Roe | February 9, 2011, 10:50 pm
  2. Ever read Alice Munro? One of Canada’s best? I’ve never been able to describe just exactly what any of her works are “about”….

    Posted by colleen | February 9, 2011, 9:19 pm
    • Yes, I’ve read a number of Alice Munro’s short stories, and liked all of them considerably. She has a keen understanding of how to tell an affecting story quickly and with great skill–I know many critics suggest that she’s one of the world’s best short story writers.

      As for what her works are “about,” I’ve often read that her writing exemplifies the literary genre known as (of all things) Southern Ontario Gothic. I’m not sure that little tidbit should matter to anyone, though. Read for the story; only English majors care about classifications.

      Posted by Z S Roe | February 9, 2011, 11:05 pm

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