Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fiction vs. "serious" literature

I have a new neighbor--Sue's bright, energetic, newly single, with two young kids who are a delight--shades of me some twenty-five years ago (only I had four kids, ranging in age from six to twelve). One night she found me reading a mystery on the front porch, enjoying the last of spring before Texas turned unbearably hot. She couldn't, she said, believe that someone who holds a Ph.D. was reading a mystery. And she set out to improve my reading taste.
First she brought me a memoir, Breaking Clean, by Judy Blunt, a heartbreakingly honest account of growing up on a ranch in rural Montana in the '60s. When you read it, you think surely it's the '30s, not as recent as the '60s. But it's not. And Blunt's prose is as spare and clean as both her title and her last name. It's a powerful book, and I enjoyed it.
But then Sue brought me Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking about the year Didion's husband died suddenly of a heart attack and her daughter was seriously ill (only to die later, after the close of the book). I know Didion is a master of the English language, and I read about half of it with appreciation. But then Jacob, my newest grandson came along, and I couldn't read about death in a time of new life. I gave it up.
But I've been on the prowl for "highbrow" things to read. A mention of Katharine Weber's Triangle intrigued me--it's about the deadly fire at the Triangle shirt factory in New York. There, I thought, was a novel about a historical event--I could use it as a model. But reviews told me the novel is more about the survivor's granddaughter "finding hersef" than it is about history--and that doesn't seem my kind of novel.
So I'm back to lying awake at night, thinking about the women of the American West who are so familiar to me. Whose story needs to be told? Whose story would interest a publisher? I'm beyond hoping to make a fortune, but I still--oh, vanity!--like to see my work in print.
Meantime, I'm also trying to prove to Sue that I have a serious side. I've given her Jane Roberts Wood's Grace, which she says she loves, and Elmer Kelton's The Time It Never Rained. Me? I'm reading a new J. P. Beaumont mystery.

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