I wrote a fairly negative review of Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet a few weeks ago. I liked it okay, but in my review I pointed out what I saw as shortcomings of the writing and why I couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace the book even though I enjoyed the subject.
Tonight I went to book club, and I feel somewhat differently about the book now.
One woman told about how she, at first, shared many the same complaints the rest if us had until she experience a shift in how she looked at the book.
“For the first half of the book, I really didn’t like it. I kept focussing on all of the things that seemed unrealistic and sappy. I kept going back and forth between getting into the story and then feeling manipulated by the author,” she explained. “But about halfway through, I realized that this is a book about loss; the loss of the father-son relationship, the loss of a first love, the loss of the record, the loss of the homes and possessions of the internees. When I looked at it that way, I didn’t mind so much that some things didn’t seem realistic. They were all there for the purpose of illustrating these losses.”
The fact that the story is about historical events makes me expect it to be “real.” But should I expect that? A friend mentioned that before Jamie Ford published this novel, he was writing sci-fi/speculative fiction. Knowing this and looking at the novel through the lens of its themes and symbols has given me a new appreciation for the book. When we free the author from the expectation of realism, we open ourselves to the greater symbolic meaning of the story.
Now, if this was his goal, I think Ford should have given the reader a little more of a hint that this was how to read the story, and I still prefer more well-developed characters in my novels, but I think I may have been selling him short before.
What is our responsibility as readers of literature? Is it reasonable to sit back and expect a book to deliver a story like we passively experience a television show? Maybe reading fiction is more of a relationship between the author and the reader. Maybe it’s our responsibility to meet the author halfway, to learn what he’s trying to tell us and then allow ourselves to be led along that path, even if it doesn’t lead where we think it ought to. Maybe it’s more fair and more enjoyable to Assume Positive Intent on the part of the author and read in such a way that we allow ourselves to notice where things are working rather than where they’re not.
I think I tend to look for the flaws more than I look for the gems in a story. Would I want someone to read a story I wrote in that way? Would I want someone to treat me that way?
Another thing happened during book club that illustrated this idea off of the page.
I love to read, and I love to talk about books. It’s the reason I chose to major in English (why not get a degree in something I would do anyway?). In a book club environment, I get excited that I share a book with the people around me and I talk a lot. Boy howdy, do I talk a lot. I try not to, but every time someone says something, I get excited and want to add to it or explore another dimension of it or ask them to clarify or expand their point.
Tonight, we had quite a large group at book club (probably 25 or so people; I didn’t count), and there were about four of us who were doing most of the talking.
At one point, one of the big talkers (one of only two men in the group), said, “I have a question, and I’d like to hear an answer from some of those people who haven’t said much,” as he pointedly looked at me and the other two women who’d been talking a lot.
I immediately felt my face grow hot. I started thinking of all of the rude things I’d love to say to him for chastising me in front of the group. But I took a deep breath and managed to listen with only a slight bit of schadenfreude when only one person answered his question.
After the meeting, I mentioned the man’s comment to my friend as we climbed the library stairs.
“Well, you know sometimes that’s what it takes to get other people to join the conversation,” she said.
“I guess,” I said. “But he clearly singled out me and the other two women.”
“Well, maybe. But I don’t know, I guess I just prefer not to take those kinds of things personally.”
I raised an eyebrow and shrugged, and we moved onto other topics.
But it occurred to me on the way home that her reaction to the comment in the meeting and the other woman’s reaction to the seeming unreality of the book were related. Both women chose to assume positive intent, and both came away from the situation with increased joy as a result.
Maybe this is one of the positive effects of my Happiness Project. While my initial reaction to both the book and the comment from my fellow book club member was still to look for the negative and cling tenaciously to that, a year ago, I would not have been open to the possibility that I could choose a path of greater happiness, (which, coincidentally, is also the path of greater connection).
And here I thought I was just going to book club to talk about a book.