I’m something of an eclectic reader. In the last month I’ve read (at least parts of) Tolstoi, Dashner, Dante, and Farland; Siddhartha, Count of Monte Cristo, Nag Hammadi, Lolita, and Dispirited. On my staging pile are works from Stephen Peck, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Brian Jacques, and Baroness Orczy, as well as Tales of Genji and Mormonism and the Negro.
I like works that fire my imagination and stretch me to observe, consider, and interpret in new ways. I tend to prefer fiction, but like a good philosophical, political, historical, or scientific essay now and again. I want to see how others perceive and make sense of the same sets of facts and observations I consider from my own viewpoint.
Maybe it’s an artifact of my odd reading selections, but in comparing classic works with many of the more modern stories I’ve been reading lately (admittedly heavy in YA), I’ve noticed a trend toward highly imaginative (fantastic) settings with fairly simplistic philosophical underpinnings. It’s as if authors are selling out to cool visuals at the expense of challenging questions; as if pace is a substitute for substance; as if conflict is inherently interesting and requires no consequence.
As if a clever idea and imaginative presentation is all that’s required.
Book reviews seem to underscore that point. Reviewers praise the imaginative settings and situations as new and innovative, but speak very little about the questions those settings reveal except in the simplest and most generic ways. It seems that if the story is odd, quirky, or strange enough, that’s good enough. If enough events occur—regardless of whether they’re causally or thematically related—then the story succeeds. If there’s an identifiable structure, then it doesn’t matter if that structure is useful.
I think I disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure of it.
I love imaginative literature. Given the choice I will always gravitate toward the unusual precisely because it frames (largely) familiar questions in ways that invite re-engagement. A familiar question becomes interesting again when re-framed or exaggerated in a clever way. The three-fingered blue alien is really just Japanese (or Iranian), but the imaginative presentation bypasses my initial biases long enough to trick me into a fundamentally fairer rethink of those biases.
It allows me a second chance at a first impression in light of new experience. I generally consider that a good thing.
But when there is no real underlying question, then the imaginative pyrotechnics are just sound and fury that ultimately signify nothing. In some ways even more disappointing than the allegedly “important” works that point out the absurdity of expecting a question to even be asked, because the imaginative setting fires the…well…imagination into looking for something that isn’t actually there. Form without substance.
And don’t give me the “meta” argument; that’s an excuse for a piece that has neither soul nor purpose, and never did. The author knew from the beginning that they were spinning an irrelevancy, but as long as enough interesting stuff happens before the page count ends, who cares? It feels cynical, as if the only goal is to create escalating tension to sell another book, not to actually address an interesting question.
Not every story has to be meaningful, and not every conflict has to generate change or deliver new information that expands our understanding of the problem. But some of them should. It’s not enough to be vivid; there should be a question in there somewhere. And not just a bland rehash, but an imaginative reformulation—or at least re-exploration. If you spend three books setting up an underlying mystery, there better be a reveal worthy of the wait.
It’s why I haven’t read beyond the first Hunger Games book; based on the first volume I don’t trust the author to actually have a point with any of this. I don’t have to agree with the point, but I have to know what that point is so I can decide whether I agree.
So I find myself traveling the curmudgeonly road these days with stories that are very popular and very well-reviewed. Stories I should like by dint of their imaginative presentations, but that end up betraying me because of the relative emptiness behind the mythopoeic pretense. Stories that draw near to me with their lips, but whose hearts are so far from me as to be undetectable.
Does anyone else feel this way, or am I just getting old and turning into a cranky curmudgeon?