While visiting at a hospital last year, one of the nurses saw the paperback book poking out of my coat pocket and asked if it was good. I responded by characterizing the book as mental chewing gum, which served to confuse more than clarify. Her coworker stepped into the conversation, saying “Something to pass time”. Yes, just so.
Mass market paperbacks are, for the most part, a source of casual entertainment. When I pick up one of them, that’s all I want, all I ask of it. Occupying time in waiting rooms, with other weightier concerns on my mind, I don’t want to be educated, to think, to question, to analyze, to be changed. I just want something to entertain me for a while.
I’m spending less time in waiting rooms now, so I have been reading other kinds of books, some nonfiction, some essays, and some fiction a bit more ambitious than the paperbacks.
As I have read, I’ve recalled the question from the nurse, asking if the book in my pocket was good. That’s difficult. “Good” or any other qualitative label is well into subjective territory. There’s no way to know what she may have considered to be good.
But the question stuck and I have since tried to define “good”, not for her but for myself. Which criteria make a book something I respond to in some way? Why are some books I’ve started closed almost without notice, abandoned before completion? Why do others remain as permanent fixtures on my shelves?
I’ve mentally walked back through the novels and short fiction I’ve read, attempting to recall the attributes of each. I’ve stood before my bookshelf looking at the spines trying to resurrect the qualities which drew me into those that are there by virtue of what they mean to me. And I’ve read some scholarly writing on literary criticism.
Some of the more common critical elements seem to be:
- Engaging narrative style
- Descriptive text
- Ideas that matter
- Work that takes on something about being human
- Vocabulary, thought provoking language (If I need a thesaurus while reading, it’s a good thing)
- Writing that conveys truth, somebody’s truth
- Relatable characters
The last entry in that list seems to have generated some lively online discussion, specifically with regard to readers who find good fiction to be the result of characters they “like”. In several reader reviews, likability vs. non-likability has been disdainfully disparaged as distinctions of an unsophisticated reader (one such reference aimed squarely at Amazon reviewers), rejected as a basis for genuine critical assessment. Yet, as I stand before my bookshelf, many of the books that have earned their place have characters which have captured my attention in some way.
I recently returned to the library with a book I closed after the first hundred or so pages. The characters were, by design, amusing. Some bordered on the absurd; mere fools, career dysfunctionals. One, ostensibly the central character from the title, seemed only to be there as a foil for the others, not fully drawn, one dimensional. None seemed real in any sense other than to move along the Keystone Cops-like storyline.
I’ll admit, likable and unlikable are perhaps overly simplistic terms. It may be more descriptive to say that the books I prize have characters which have mattered to me. If the author has peopled the story with characters for whom I feel some affinity, share something in common, admire, empathize with, or even discover some trait I’ve never experienced personally, I am drawn toward them. They are characters which have about them some ring of authenticity and genuineness, who reveal strength or weakness, conviction or insecurity, idiosyncrasy or familiarity, something which gives them life, depth, believably. Characters that matter hold my interest, keep me involved with the narrative.
Wallace Stegner is such an author. His characters reach me. He graciously allows time for the characters and I to come to know each other, time for our relationship to unfold. It’s a process which takes place in real time, as pages are turned, unhurried. I find his characters to be dimensional, personable, believable, more than props in service of the narrative, something more than mere descriptions of them might convey.
Joe Allston (The Spectator Bird and All The Little Live Things) is such a character. I find Joe to be a good person, imperfect, to be sure, a man who has made mistakes, a man with questions, misgivings and conflicts as he contemplates his past, impatience and anxiety about where he finds himself now, a growing peevishness with people, institutions, circumstances, change and loss. But Joe remains a good person.
I understand these unsettled, unresolved parts of him. I empathize. I’d like to walk with him and talk about things, his perspectives, how he sees himself at this time of life, discuss our similarities, as well as the ways we are different. Joe seems to be speaking to me as I am now, at this time in life.
At the time The Spectator Bird was written, Stegner was in his 60s. The character of Joe Allston is in his late 60s. I am in my 60s. Both Allston’s perspective and Joe’s are relatable. We, the three of us, Joe, Wallace and I, could form a club. We could have matching jackets.
“That’s why we read, to understand what we have not dared to consider, to see ourselves in the characters portrayed.”
Introduction by Terry Tempest Williams
Crossing to Safety, Copyright 1987 by Wallace Stegner
Stegner’s body of work is substantial, yet I only became aware of it a few weeks ago. I think that even if I had come to it earlier in life I would not have been ready.
As I have read, I’ve learned that Stegner seems to have been tagged as a “regional” author, which seems at once to be unduly limiting and personally comforting. His characters, their lives, their experiences, their reflections and revelations are universal and relatable, while the sense of place he imparts is familiar to me since I have lived my entire life in the western U.S. I have visited places which show up in his writing. I recognize them, have a feeling for them, even see myself in them. The places in his writing are as relatable as his characters.
Returning The Spectator Bird to the library, I brought home The Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. The first entry, The Traveller, introduced me to of another man who, though quite different from Joe Allston and his circumstances, I found no less engaging. I was sold. Before reading the collection further, I placed an order for this book. It now has a permanent place on my shelf. I have no doubt others will follow.
* * *
From The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
Copyright Wallace Stegner, 1976
“Joe Allston is a retired literary agent who is, in his own words, “just killing time until time gets around to killing me.” His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, had not been his choice. He passes through life as a spectator.”
* * *
“Some people, I am told, have memories like computers, nothing to do but punch the button and wait for the print-out. Mine is more like a Japanese library of the old style, without a card file or an indexing system or any systematic shelf plan. Nobody knows where anything is except the old geezer in felt slippers who has been shuffling up and down those stacks for sixty-nine years. When you hand him a problem he doesn’t come back with a cartful and dump it before you, a jackpot of instant retrieval. He finds one thing, which reminds him of another, which leads him off to the annex, which directs him to the east wing, which sends him back two tiers from where he started. Bit by bit he finds what you want, but like his boss who seems to be under pressure to examine his life, he takes his time.”
* * *
“Though I grumbled a little about his coming, I was actually looking forward to it. It is possible to feel that you should justify your retirement by showing off the putting green and the paddle tennis court. We had invented Eden, and owed it a PR job. We had books, music, a garden, birds, country walks, friends. When we had Eastern or foreign visitors, we watched them confidently for signs of envy. We wanted, maybe just a little desperately, to be thought terribly lucky.
Well, we were, we are. But at our age, seven or eight years make a difference. Since coming out here we have lost a few friends by their moving away, and a very dear one by death. Eden with graves is no longer Eden. So as the people we knew back East die, or are institutionalized, or take themselves off to Tucson or Sarasota or Santa Barbara to estivate their last years away as we are doing here, our contacts here shrink too. We have half given up the habit of mingling with our fellow man.
Result: we find it easier to stay home and watch television, or read, than go out, and these days when we entertain visitors we find them less a pleasure than an anxiety.”
* * *
“I was reminded of a remark of Willa Cather’s, that you can’t paint sunlight, you can only paint what it does with shadows on a wall. If you examine a life, as Socrates has been so tediously advising us to do for so many centuries, do you really examine the life, or do you examine the shadows it casts on other lives? Entity or relationships? Objective reality or the vanishing point of a multiple perspective exercise? Prism or the rainbows it refracts? And what if you’re the wall? What if you never cast a shadow or rainbow of your own, but have only caught those cast by others?”
* * *
“We rounded the hill and came down along Frenchman’s Creek, running a steady little stream after the rains, and pooling above old weirs. There we overtook Bruce and Rosie Bliven, bundled up in overcoats and armed with canes and walking with brittle briskness. They have lived on the campus ever since he retired as editor of the New Republic many years ago. Since retiring, he has had about three heart attacks and written about five books, and it is a cinch that at eighty-five or whatever he is he still contemplates five books more, and may be halfway through the next one. His last Christmas letter contained a line that should be engraved above every geriatric door. He says that when asked if he feels like an old man he replies that he does not, he feels like a young man with something the matter with him.”
* * *
“We walked back toward the house, and through the dark upwelling of juniper that borders the walk, and under the three birch trees, their trunks slim and white and their twigs, against the light-filled sky, lacy with the first tiny forming of leaves. The entrance was damp, and sweet with the smell of daphne. Two young people with quite a lot the matter with us, we stood for a moment, breathing it in.
The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something – it can be everything – to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”
* * *
Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work
Jackson J. Benson (1984)