By: Bernadette Harris
I send my warmest greetings to you, old friend. It’s been quite a while. I hope you’re doing well. I also hope this article will not offend your personal literary preferences, or in any way make you feel singled out for condemnation. However, I must be allowed to raise my voice and unburden myself of these unpleasant literary impressions.
Please know, sir, that while you taught me a good deal about the ins and outs of Southern culture, awkward literary role playing, and the influence of racism on the American novel, I regret to inform you that it is a truth universally acknowledged that some authors will simply never “do it” for me–despite your best efforts.
1) Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor is an unusual writer, and by “usual,” I mean unpleasant. This woman made her living by diving deep into the muddy sediment that lurks at the bottom of humanity’s dark, collective consciousness. She would wait until she could locate the slimiest and dirtiest specimens, and when she did manage to find these monsters, she’d scoop them up with relish and hurl them at her readers with unapologetic glee.
Her plots and characters are a mess, not insomuch as incoherent or poorly constructed as they are full of despicable people and events. She disposes of finicky old ladies nobody really likes anyway (in fact, she’ll have you rooting for serial killers), runs over middle-aged women with tractors, and drowns stupid kids who don’t know the difference between spiritual immersion and the physical kind that can actually kill you.
This is the point, of course. O’Connor didn’t just strive to show humanity at its ugliest and pettiest; she excels in doing so, and admittedly, this skill is something I understand and appreciate on an intellectual level. Emotionally, however, I have never and will never connect with her. Down here in the valley of the Everyman, I find her to be boring at worst and morbid at best. Frankly, I’d rather read a car manual.
2) William Faulkner
If a college student wrote a paper in a single night and then submitted it without editing, we’d call him lazy. Faulkner does it and we call him a genius. Where’s the justice?
Now, to be fair, Faulkner revolutionized the way novels were written. By plunging readers directly into the heads of the characters, he made them more relatable than ever before—at least, that’s I’m told.
I could never figure out what he was saying half the time because everything was so grammatically jacked up; it took me a week and a half just to untangle what his sentences were even trying to communicate. I think there’s a difference between writing style and mad, rebellious linguistic drunkenness performed in the name of “art.”
However, I’m aware that the reasons I dislike Faulkner are the very reasons why so many others enjoy him. I will say that his irritating “stream of consciousness” style is at least distinct—unlike this next fellow:
3) Ernest Hemingway
If we can blame Faulkner for ushering in stream of consciousness, we have Hemingway to thank for perfecting the art of literary subtlety. In fact, it’s so subtle you can’t even understand it.
Thanks to his “iceberg theory” (what you see on the surface only hints at the depth beneath), the majority of modern literature doesn’t bother with those bothersome things of the past called “well-structured sentences.” Such techniques were for inexperienced hacks like Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, Fitzgerald, and other has-beens who didn’t know what they’re doing. Things are never spelled out in real life, so why should they be in novels? Ambiguity is real.
So is chicken pox, and that’s also something I never want near me.
I’m not saying Hemingway gave us nothing (he did provide plenty of frustration). I’m just saying that his writing always seemed like bland statement-making to me: “This happened, she said this, he did that, etc.” It’s too much like reading an essay.
If Hemingway was art in a gallery, he’d be the abstract piece hanging lopsided in the corner that showed nothing but a blank canvas. Some people would puzzle over the existential angst for ages, but I’d say the artist was too lazy to actually flesh out his own portrait. Why should I do it for him? I need details, Ernest, baby. Even Andy Warhol had the decency to paint a soup can for me.
My Concluding Apology: A Peace Offering
Thus ends my grievances with your course list, dear sir, and I hope that it does not cause you to take such offense as to consider hunting me down and putting an end to my criticism once and for all.
I even dare to suppose that my cheek has made you smile—nay, chuckle. After all, literature is a varied tapestry; there is a color, texture, and genre for everyone. What is sweet wine to you could taste like sour knockoff juice to me—and really, who’s to say which of us is more correct?