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.
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.
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!