When the Suck Fairy flits

suck fairy

Jo Walton posted about when the Suck Fairy visits books you once enjoyed. Even loved. Jo makes a point of saying that readers ought not to beat themselves up over liking something that you no longer can read. The other problem is our fellow being who cannot resist the curled upper lip, and the roll of the eyes, “You liked that? Wow, what terrible taste.”

There are some books that remain on my favorite shelves through my sporadic cullings even though I probably won’t reread them again. But I might, I think, if I hit just the right mood . . . if I can successfully channel that younger self who took such pleasure in them. One thing I learned through teaching a couple of decades of junior high school kids is how to nod and smile enthusiastically when a kid describes, with that joyful tone and eyes wide with wonder, a book that I can barely read a page of, it is so full of what I perceive as faults.

I think that most books have a perfect time—or a perfect audience. The perfect time for Enid Blyton’s adventure books, for me, was when I was ten. I reread those books with intense passion. Now I can barely look at them for the stock characters, stale clichés instead of characterization, the casual racism.

And yet glimmers of the fun remain in the fast pacing, the fun of some of the dialogue exchanges. I can’t read an entire one the way I did as a kid, crouched on the edge of my bed with my knees by my ears because the tension and excitement made my stomach knot. But I can skim a chapter, and an echo of that old joy pulses faintly.

Blyton

I think that the right time for complicated books is later in life, a statement that sounds simple enough—yup, simplistic—except when you consider the vexed question of education. How can you open up all the possibilities of reading to the young if you don’t challenge them? A colleague used to describe the classics reading list as the Sacrifice List: these were the books you would sacrifice, knowing that hordes of youngsters might go on to hate these books after having been muscled through them in the classroom environment. The motive for this effort being to open the young mind to more sophisticated reading protocols that will enable them to read more widely.

For many, that day does come. And sometimes, they even venture into rereading a classic that they had cordially loathed in the classroom, and discover, hey, the Suck Fairy totally left this one! I remember someone, way back when, looking up in surprise from Pride and Prejudice and exclaiming, “Who rewrote Jane Austen and made this funny?”

In my own case, I first read Les Miserables as a tenth grader. I was engaged, but confused, too, and retained a vague memory of a lot of complicated darkness, and words with no context. When I reread it decades later, I loved the narrative sidesteps into the odder pockets of Paris even more than I did the story, for I had both the historical context as well as the vocabulary.

The Suck Fairy is not only an artifact of age, it’s an artifact of familiarity, of evolving awareness. Our reading, which has given us such joy, can gradually turn against us: it risks becoming tedious if it is our job, or if we read too much of any given subgenre: inevitably certain patterns take on a sense of deep groves whose course we can predict. Phrases, even words, lose pungency.

The obvious target here is the burnt-out critic, but this is also a problem shared by many writers. Most writers began lives as eager readers, but in the process of learning to shape their own prose to do what they want it to, they turn an increasingly critical eye on the prose of their fellow writers.

Reading can cease to become pleasure when the internal critic is engaged. Learning to shut that voice up so that one can enjoy reading again can take effort, though one I believe is repaid by rediscovering the pleasure of a good book, even if it isn’t what one defines as a great book.

Vic novel illo

The dangers of not being willing to turn off that internal critic? I hadn’t thought about it until I was recently rereading George Eliot’s essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.”

The books she pours the most scorn on are genre romance novels. Romances have been an easy target for two hundred years, but all kinds of people still read them for pleasure and relaxation anyway. The essay skewers aspects that do seem unfortunate to the longtime reader, but as I was going along, I couldn’t help but remember coming across period reviews, letters, diaries, essays, etc, in which writers accused Eliot of perpetrating the same egregious errors she points out. Not the sentimental prose that pretends to airy and artistic heights, or the more predictable tropes of Victorian novels, but lugubrious subjects, blocks of impenetrable text, an excess of clergymen . . .

I do believe that her Middlemarch is truly a great book, but for some readers her Romola falls into many of the traps she excoriates. Clearly she did not set out to write a bad book, in fact, biographies maintain she worked very hard on her research. For those readers, however, the Suck Fairy fluttered up and landed with a splat.

To bring this ramble to a close, I’d like to say two things: if someone you know, especially someone young, but anyone, is enthusing over a book you think is worse than a bag of mad snakes, maybe consider biting your lip, unless they genuinely want your opinion. The chances are pretty good that the Suck Fairy will be along sooner or later. But secondly, if you have the time, maybe consider revisiting some of those old stinkers the teachers hailed with such praise. You might be surprised!

young reader

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When the Suck Fairy flits — 35 Comments

  1. George Eliot’s failure with Romola happened because she never understood the time, the place and the people. The Mediterranean milieu, the Catholicism! — remained impenetrable to her empathy. Without that fundamental empathy — that ignorance of the sensibilities of her characters shaped by their own history, climate and experience — the fountain of her creativity never flowed. Or, as some today might put it: she didn’t get it.

    She was English, with that English protestant sensibility, in her cells, which refused emotional, worldview permeability to the south, no matter how hard she worked on her novel. Unto the very end she still thought her problem was not knowing enough details about the time and place, but what it was is that she didn’t know how the people thought and reacted.

    She worked at the novel doggedly, but it never came together. I know all of Eliot’s work almost by heart — with the exception of Romola, which I’ve never been able to read all the way through. However, her failures with this novel isn’t the same as for what she takes to task the silly novels — or so it seems to me.

    I have a friend, who did find Romola a terrific guidebook to Florence on her first trip there. 🙂

    Love, C.

    • I agree all the way through. Indeed, Eliot failed to grasp the medieval paradigm. However, some critics of the novel ascribed the very faults she despises to her own work.

  2. If I mention a book that I really liked at a certain age, and someone else mentions not liking it, I tend to say that I read it at the perfect age to love it. And I usually get lots of nods and yesses to a statement like that. I think a lot of people recognize, even if they don’t say it out loud, that you tend to like different things at different ages and for different reasons.

    And I’ll definitely recommend a book I liked at a certain age to that same age, even if I don’t like it anymore.

  3. Whenever I mention liking a book, or a series of books, and someone else says they tried to read it and couldn’t — if I had read the books at a certain age, I tend to mention that. I say something like, I read it at ____ age, which I think was perfect age for that book. I tend to get a lot of nods and yesses when I make a statement like that. I think people tend to recognize that you can like a book at a certain age, even if you don’t like it later on.

    And I’ll definitely recommend a book I liked at a certain age to that same age, even if I don’t like it anymore.

  4. On the Tarzan series, the Suck Fairy came and then left. As a child of course they were just wonderful jungle, more realistic than playing Nyoka the Jungle Girl with friends and arguing about who got to ride the black panther. Then they became just black marks on white paper, and thin black marks at that. No real details — what’s a spoor, anyway? I must have been imagining that rich context myself! Then around middle age, the jungle came back, and I started getting sparks of irony (though not in the same chapters), and admiring the latinate prose.

    • Heh! I have to admit I never read them, having never had any interest in ape men, jungles, battles with ferocious animals, or men dressed in skins. I was a lace-and-satin snob from my earliest days.

      • Great example! I read all the Tarzans as a kid, later kept them as trophies of my misspent youth, and recently reread the first one with my book club and enjoyed it again. And my oldest son is the perfect age to start the cycle all over again…

        And there is a surprising amount of lace-and-satin in them, as Tarzan confronts the jungles of SOCIETY!

    • I listened to them as ebooks (via Librivox) while exercising. They worked pretty well that way – but I never read them earlier (only the Barsoom books) so never had a chance to see them change over time. I think Barsoom might have been visited by the Suck Fairy if I were to read them, but they too work well as audio for working out.

  5. I was amazed to discover that The Scarlet Letter, which I read and hated in high school, is both funny and satirical. It does edge into some silly male romanticism at the end, but it’s still very worth reading.

    • PS: The Great Gatsby, however, remains as unimportant as ever. Lovely writing on the sentence level, but the story is so silly.

      I should probably re-read Catcher in the Rye again, though I’m not sure I can face it. I loved it at 13, but by 16 I thought it was nonsense. I suspect I’d have even less patience with it today.

      • Great Gatsby I think is one of those considered significant by men, because it’s all about the male POV being significant. Like you say, pretty sentences. But there is no there there.

        Catcher in the Rye, I found, was twice as annoying as I found it at thirteen, when I checked it out of the library after my mother told me it had been banned at her high school. Was I disappointed! It was all about this whiny, annoying guy, just like the whiny, annoying bullies in junior high, who used the same foul language. I tried it again a couple decades ago, and my opinion hadn’t changed; I felt justified when I read Patricia Meyer Spacks on rereading , and her essay about that book. However, that said, the book is still in print, so it is working for somebody out there–you might love it all over again!

      • At fourteen I loathed Catcher in the Rye–I knew too many kids kind of like Holden, and I wanted to bitch slap him. I read other Salinger later (Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter) and thought I should go back to Catcher again. Still loathe Holden. Still loathe the book. The Suck Fairy is still in full attendence.

        • Franny and Zooey remains on my list of favorite books — the end still makes me cry. But I’m afraid re-reading Catcher, especially combined with what I know about Salinger, would spoil even his good work for me.

          • My teenage self, who loved the Glass family stories, was more tolerant about authors’ real life behavior. Or, maybe the good stories were channeled from a different muse.

            Catcher isn’t even the same story now, as it was, what, 50+ years ago. Our language has changed, for one thing.

            • Wayne C. Booth talked in his Rhetoric of Fiction about the “implied author” — that is, the sort of person you would think that the author was from the book.

              Saul Bellow later observed to him that it was no wonder that the implied author was often a better person than the actual flesh-and-blood one, with all that careful revision.

  6. I definitely think some novels benefit from a person having a few years under their belts. I enjoyed Russian literature even as an adolescent, but when I read some of it again even later, I loved it a whole lot more. I understood the *reality* of things like landlords and the grind of earning a living better at that point–it wasn’t just intellectual understanding; it was visceral understanding. I think even with things like Romeo and Juliet, which gets given to kids in their early teens because it’s assumed they’ll relate to a story of young love, a few years can really make you feel the pathos a lot more deeply and richly.

    I guess it’s where your focus is when you’re reading–in a really good novel, there’s lots there, and when you come at it at different ages, it reveals different things to you.

    Your lead-in from LJ is something I believe happens, too: that you can like things when you’re very young, then dismiss them as just awful at some point, and then come round to liking them again. I think of a quote from a Byrds song: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now”–I think maybe with enough years, you can end up more forgiving?

    • I love that Byrds quote! It puzzled me as a kid.

      Oh, how I scorned Romeo and Juliet as a teen their age. “What a couple of dorks!” I thought the play ought to end after the sword fight with Mercutio, who seemed like a high school bully. I didn’t even get half his wit, but then I was a very backward sort.

  7. I totally agree about having to be the right age for things. There are books that I adored as a child or teen and was then afraid to re-read as an adult for fear that they just wouldn’t work. It’s always a delightful surprise when they do survive reading at a different age, sometimes even despite perceived faults.

    • “Despite perceived faults” yes–it’s so good when there are enough positive aspects. And of course even better when one discovers new layers hitherto hidden.

  8. A lot of writers are perfectly able and willing to denounce faults that they are guilty of. It’s a lot harder to actually incorporate the knowledge into the writing, or even see it in the concrete, that know it in the abstract.

    Even in literary criticism — was reading George Orwell’s collected essays and letters, and his ability to carefully distinguish between actual literary criticism and political views, but didn’t always attain it in his reviews.

    • I think this is definitely true: you can know, intellectually, how to do something without actually being able to do it in practice. This is intuitively obvious for things like being a great gymnast or something (no one thinks that just because they know what makes a great gymnast they’ll be able to be one themselves), or for art (people can understand about perspective and color theory and all that without being great artists), but I guess it’s harder to accept it for writing? Maybe because it seems like *reading* ought to be all the practice you need for writing. And reading is good practice, but not enough, on its own.

  9. I recall reading Pride and Prejudice in high school, and not finding it all that good. Then skimming (and finally re-reading it) to write the necessary term paper, and realizing it was really funny. The next time I read it was probably my late 20s, and while I still saw the humor, now I saw the sadness, too.
    Is there another novelist, writing at about 1800, that many people read today not just for literature class but because they thoroughly enjoy the books?

  10. When my daughters were smaller and enthused about a book of which I had no good opinion, I bit my tongue. A few times this has come back to bite me: “Mom, how could you stand to read me that book? Jeez!” The first time, with the younger daughter, that I simply couldn’t bite my tongue was when she read The Maze Runner and insisted I read it too, so we could talk about it. So I did, and we did, and I’m not sure she was prepared for the kind of talking about it I did… Bad Mama. No biscuit (but really, I found that book deeply Eh).

  11. For me, oddly enough, the clearest example that comes to mind is Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. I did not like it at all the first time I read it, and don’t know why I even came back to it, I felt so strongly MEH about it, but when I did, I LOVED it. Perhaps I was too young the first time, or perhaps it’s just a book that’s better appreciated when you see what she’s doing with it. (Which may be another way of saying I was too young; I suspect I would recognize Tam Lin now, even without a re-read to prompt me.)