The Candy, Steak, and Brussel Sprouts of Novels

Monday, June 7, 2010

I've given my students an hour of our three hour long class tonight to work on drafting their final research paper, so I thought that while they were writing I should, too.  I spent most of today grading their critical analysis papers and prepping for class tonight, so I only had time to write a couple of pages on The Novel, but I did find time for a bit of reading.  I find that when I'm writing I also must be reading the kinds of works that inspire me, and today it occurred to me that I'm currently reading three books simultaneously: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, and Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris, the ninth book in the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) series.

I guarantee you I'll finish the last book first.  Why?  Because it's the junk food of the bunch, and I love junk food (literally and metaphorically).  I had a student last semester ask me why books like Twilight are so popular, and I told him it's because they are like candy--or like junk food.  They have no nutritional value, and in many ways they'll probably harm you more than help you, but they're yummy.  It's hard to resist a piece of candy if the choice is between that and a brussel sprout (at least if you have a sweet tooth like mine).  Junk food, like the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is hard to resist when the choice is between it and The Vicar of Wakefield.  Reading the Vicar is more beneficial in the long run--it's on my comps  list, afterall, and reading eighteenth-century novels helps me to understand more about how we got to the novel form as it is today--but it isn't much fun.  It's the brussel sprout of the group, the text I have to force myself to swallow but know that in the end it's good for me and that I won't regret it.

Kate Morton's book falls somewhere in-between.  I don't eat her books up like candy, not because they aren't compelling and entertaining, but because I prefer to savor them, like a good steak.  Her books are the kind of rare works that truly make me dread reaching that final sentence.  They are beautiful and lyrical and honest and emotional, without being overwritten or cliche or meladramatic.  The House at Riverton is the second book of Morton's I've read (the other being The Forgotten Garden, her only other book until The Distant Hours comes out this fall), and I find it as captivating and inspiring as the first.  Her characters are beautifully flawed and real; her story lines are so intricate, weaving past and present together effortlessly; and her settings are always so meticulously drawn.  She is exactly the kind of writer I want to be and secretly fear I never will be.

So given a choice between the three books sitting on my night stand, I might grab the candy first, but only because the steak is worth the wait.


Tawnysha Greene June 7, 2010 at 7:43 PM  

Great analogy! I'll have to remember that!

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