Monday, August 24, 2009

Fairy tales

posted Mon, 12 Jul 2004

I had every intention of hoeing the back garden tonight. All that grass growing in the garden and none in the yard. But a storm this afternoon has left it horribly muggy – not that heat and humidity are enough to stop me from working! – and the mosquitoes are out in full force. We have West Nile virus here and I certainly don’t want to put my health at risk. I took malaria prophylaxis when I traveled in Latin America (nasty stuff, that mefloquine), but there is no prevention for West Nile other than not to get bit. So for the sake of my poor widowed mother, who would be shattered should I succumb to something like West Nile, I am not going to work in the yard.

It has nothing to do with the fact that I am a little bit sleepy today. I even had to exceed my usual daily limit of one diet Coke. Yep. Had to have a diet Dr Pepper to get through a meeting on forecasting this morning and not because of the subject matter. No, I’m afraid I’ve been staying up late to read brain candy – you know, those fluffy novels that will not stand the test of time to become great literature but still address the human condition in an entertaining way.

I call this particular genre ‘women porn.’ It’s not sexual, but it’s what a lot of women fantasize about. Here is the basic setup of the book. There is always a heroine who has been forced to fend for herself most of her life, thus developing a fierce independence that is off-putting to most men. In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novels, the protagonist has a mother or mother figure – usually ineffectual – but no father. In Linda Howard’s books, the heroine might even be an orphan altogether.

If the heroine is beautiful, her beauty has brought her nothing but trouble. She might be very flirtatious, but that is just a way of keeping men at a distance. In reality, she is quite chaste. If she is not beautiful, it is just because she has not gotten her hair, makeup or clothes right. (“Why Miss Sakamoto! You’re beautiful without your glasses!”)

In Phillips’ books, the heroine has a major character flaw that she must correct before she can triumph. In one case, the heroine was shallow, vain and self centered. But still, she is a good-hearted, generous person en el fondo. In Howard’s books, the challenge is external: there is some mystery that must be solved, like a kidnapping or murder.

This is where the men come in. They are always alpha males in alpha professions: cop, PI, cowboy, football player. They are also highly intelligent, handsome and independently wealthy. It is always dislike at first sight with the heroine, but they still sleep together. In Howard’s books, the man proposes pretty much right after that event; in Phillips’ books – which are comedies, compared to Howard’s dramas – there are a series of misunderstandings before the proposal.

All the books end with weddings and babies. The essence of the plot is that the independent, self-sufficient woman can finally relax because she has found a man strong enough to take care of her. Tell me this is not fantasy stuff!

My friend Leigh is appalled that I like fluff novels. She is embarrassed that she likes Patricia Cornwell. “I was forced to read her when I was in Chile – that’s the only sort of thing there was in the Peace Corps library,” she admitted.

I’m not embarrassed about it. I was an English major. I’ve read the good stuff and can toss off references to Hardy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez with the best of them. (This is not a quality valued by my employer – my boss even told me to quit using those words that made people feel stupid, only he couldn’t tell me exactly which words those were.)

But I like a good story. And honestly, I think a lot of the stuff that passes for literary fiction these days is pretentious junk. I’ll bet a lot of other people think so, too, but they are afraid to admit they don’t like something because they are scared everyone else will think less of them.

I’m not afraid. I have tried reading some of the Booker Prize books and just can’t. They are unbearable. Here’s what I remember about “Flaubert’s Parrot:” there is a guy who traps bugs under glasses and leaves them there. He sweats a lot and leaves sweat rings on the sheets. I had to read about 100 pages to get that much, then I quit.

And Don Delillo – yuk!!! That guy is AWFUL! I tried “A Thousand Acres” and another of Jane Smiley’s books, but neither of those drew me in. I say this as someone who actually read and enjoyed “Satanic Verses,” so you know I am not dismissing every contemporary writer.

Essentially, I hate postmodernism. All you postmodern writers – here’s a news flash. The literature that has endured has been those stories with a good plot and characters we care about in a struggle that draws us in. You don’t read any ancient Greek plays where nothing happens. Chaucer had plot. Shakespeare had plot. Dickens had plot. Your stuff isn’t going to last because no one cares about what happens to your characters -- and nothing does.

I’ll read educational stuff, non-fiction and serious fiction – I have a book about Abraham and his position as the father of the three major world religions in my stack – but it better be well written. I read for enjoyment, not to impress other people.

I am going to sign off now and read Kathy Reich’s latest murder mystery. Good night and good reading.

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