The Cranky Curmudgeon: I Got Nothin’

Something weird happened to me recently. After reading two different books by two different authors I found myself at an utter loss for something to argue with them about. In both cases, I closed the book, set it down, and felt no particular need to argue with much of anything that the author wrote.

That’s unprecedented for me. I always want to argue—even when I agree. There’s always something in the theme or the character or the setting to quibble with. There’s always an understated (or overstated) point that I think I could have offered better using a different structure or through a different conflict. There’s always something I want to steal wholesale and make my own.

Not this time.

In one case it was because the story was complete and perfect (for lack of a better word). The author nailed me with pure entertainment that I could not second-guess in any real way, despite more the forty years of practice. It wasn’t that it blew me away, it just hit all the right notes in a satisfying, if not especially showy way. A smile rather than a laugh.

The other story was almost exactly the opposite. It started weak, then beat me down with a veritable cacophony of clunks, clanks, and thuds. The author intruded; the characters were weak; the situation was interesting, but the conflicts were silly. When I finished, I was drained. I read the piece on assignment, so I had to finish, but it left me devoid of response; I didn’t want to argue with either the author or the story. It wasn’t even a good example of a bad example; it was just irrelevant to me.

That had never happened to me before. I got nothing useful from the read. Twice.

In our various conversations about Mormon literature, I’ve chosen to take the role of cheerleader—I don’t care what you write, as long as you do it with intent and show a modicum of respect for the reader. More is better; quality will work itself out as long as we keep plugging away at it.

Sure, I prefer some kinds of stories and I find some authors hard to read, but in general I tend to want to see more and different and better under the belief that Mormon literature is not a specific set of story limits or assumptions so much as it’s an idea of community based more on shared hope than specific experience. We just need to get more people to write from their uniquely Mormon viewpoints (whether telling specifically Mormon stories or not), and goodness will happen. Eventually.

And we are. More Mormons are writing right now than ever before. Many are succeeding in the broad market, some are succeeding in the regional or cultural markets, and some are not so much succeeding as simply getting their stuff out there and seeing what happens. The ease of self-publishing now has brought more writers to a larger potential audience of readers than at any time in history.

Which now leaves me with a problem. There’s not much left to cheerlead. We’re mostly doing it—writing it down and getting it out there. Go team.

Problem is that there really is a lot of mush out there. Not good, not bad, just…meh. Entropy seems to be working. I don’t believe in negative reviews, so I won’t mention any names (to protect the guilty), but in the end a lot of my recent reading has filled me with a colossal sense of “so what?”

Theoretically, this is a necessary step—we have to build up a body of texts that we can then react to as part of a literary conversation. As such, it’s more constructive to emphasize the jewels than decry the turds.

Which means I got nothin’ just at the moment. And I’m not sure what to think about that. Time to go read something by Peck or Goldberg to recharge the batteries. Any other suggestions?

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4 Responses to The Cranky Curmudgeon: I Got Nothin’

  1. Th. says:

    .

    By “suggestions” do you mean books to read? Or techniques to discover what books to read?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Yes.

      [Supplemental Comment]

      I probably didn’t really make myself clear. Part of the issue for me is that in cheerleading for independent publishing and finding new venues for Mormon voices, I’ve gotten what I wanted—and a lot of it isn’t very good. Which is why some level of jurying still has value (in my opinion) in helping direct people to the better works.

      Best-of lists, recommended readings, contests, awards, and the like all fill the role of trusted filter. Which we lose a bit of with self-publishing.

      So…

      I’m basically trolling for people to offer recommendations of good reads in whatever genre. Ideally, with a bit of explanation as to why. I will never stop reading (or writing), but it is nice to have resources for sifting the increasingly large pot of not-very-good stories from the better ones.

      Sort of like Jonathan Langford commented on with his reading for the Whitneys—lots of self-published titles, all with varying flaws that traditional publishers normally catch and repair. The need for recommendations is higher than ever before, because we’re getting exactly what I agitated for—more stories from more authors.

  2. Wm says:

    I think it’s okay to take a sabbatical from the Mormon stuff and come back to it when a) you’re in a different mindset and b) there’s more stuff that has come out.

    So I’m going to recommend non-Mormon lit instead:

    Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove is interesting. I personally think that she errs to much on the literary side with her endings, but the way she spins genre conceits into a story idea is fascinating. Plus her stories are darkly funny.

    Kij Johnson, Karen Russell and Karen Joy Fowler are my new triumvirate of “intend to read every short story they publish from here on out”.

  3. Hooray, Scott! I wish somebody would pick them out for me too.

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