Friday, August 15, 2014

5-Star Books and "Literature with a Message"

I've been reading for for a couple of months now. At first, I wasn't sure how easy it would be to adhere to their rating system. I tend to be an overly expressive, enthusiastic person--hey, my hero is Leslie Knope!--and I worried that I would be tempted to give out the coveted 5-star rating like Halloween candy. 

But it's turned out to be very easy, and not just because I've read some real stinkers. To put it simply, the books to which I award 5 stars have made me cry.

Not just some little verklempt tears at an especially touching scene, but a full-on lay my head down weep after I turn the last page. The kind of cry when you're overcome by the goodness of the world; when you want the book to go on and on; when you feel, for a glimmering moment, like you might want to try and be a better person.

The three 5-star novels that I've read recently are Lev Grossman's MAGICIANS trilogy (mostly the last one, The Magician's Landbut the themes and plot I talk about span all three novels), Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emporerand Gregory Maguire's forthcoming Egg and Spoon

These three books have a lot of things in common. They each portray the coming-of-age of a young person. Each employs subtle, layered characterization, not exaggerations or stereotypes. None of the three is fundamentally preachy, although they do have messages that float to the surface. 

Most importantly to me, each novel is life-affirming without portraying life as easy or perfection as attainable. The civilizations and human relations portrayed are realistic and complex, despite being based (at times) in worlds of fantasy. For instance, in The Magician's LandQuentin realizes that magic entails hard work, not easy times. Egg and Spoon does not gloss over the struggles of the poor in the face of massive wealth and oppression. And the political machinations of The Goblin Emporer are just as subtle and back-biting as they are in the real world. Despite these realities, each protagonist emerges with a positive view of what the world can offer them. In these novels, people are, by and large, good.

This speaks to my biases, certainly. For one thing, they are all (ultimately) feel-good novels. This is not to imply that they are light and fluffy. Quite the opposite, especially with Grossman and Maguire who both show us real human darkness and evil. However, they each end with some measure of joy and hope, as do most of my top-tier books such as Neal Stephenson's AnathemWoolf's Orlandoand Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I'm a hopey-changey kind of person [see above re: Leslie Knope], so, no matter how technically impressive, I'm less likely to give a 5-star rating to a book with a negative or nihilistic message.

This isn't a standard I hold to, but more of a pattern I'm identifying. After all, I love Jeff VanderMeer's recent SOUTHERN REACH trilogy, and both Kraken and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville rocked my world. Not that those are negative or nihilistic, but I wouldn't say they're especially hopeful, either. That's not really what they're about. And I prefer Middleton to $hakespeare, and goodness knows there's nothing more pessimistic about goodness than Women Beware Women

This predilection could be called naive, and I accept that. There is certainly a lot of stuff in the world to make me question the inherent goodness of humanity, one of the most important tenets of my humanist worldview. And just the phrase "literature with a message" sort of makes my skin crawl, probably because it sounds like the tagline for a cheesy Christian bookstore. This de facto rating system would probably not be popular in a contemporary literature classroom, either. It's not really that cool to look for meaning, although we still do, undercover of other stated agendas. And the way I approach reading might change. Reading Kelly Link lately has made me question why I read, and push against some of my own readerly expectations such as the idea that there has to be a message. 

But rating any work of fiction is subjective. And, for good or ill, I like what I like. So for now, my 5-star ratings are reserved for the books that shake me--in a good way.

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