As a general rule I avoid books that are labeled ‘literary.’ By so doing, I have no doubt deprived myself of some excellent reading. My problem is that I’ve read – or rather, have started to read – too many literary novels that yearned to be admired for their ‘profoundness’ rather than for being a good story well told. One literary book I have read is Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and I found it to be extremely profound in its observations about love, courage, friendship, betrayal, war, life, and death. But it never shined a light on itself to announce its profoundness. There was never a sense of Hemingway doing anything more than telling an emotionally honest love story based on his deep observations of life.
Further, I find too many ‘literary’ books taking the horse doctor approach to their main character’s primary problem. Here’s what I mean. There was once a Far Side cartoon where a character was studying a book on horse medicine. Down one column on every page was listed a variety of horse afflictions and in the second column were the remedies: Broken leg – shoot the horse. Mangy tail – shoot the horse. Droopy ears – shoot the horse. Milky eye – shoot the horse. Etc.
In my limited experience, too many literary novels take the same approach. No matter what the hero or heroine’s complaint, just like Far Side’s horse doctor, there is always the same remedy. Here is how Far Side would portray it. Workaholic husband – illicit sex. A wife who doesn’t understand – illicit sex. Ungrateful children – illicit sex. Bored housewife – illicit sex. Sacrificed career to have children – illicit sex. Etc.
But maybe it’s the genre that is the problem. If a book is literary, then the characters, gosh dang it, better darn well have a more emotionally tangled, angst filled literary way of solving problems than pulling out an automatic and blowing a hole through somebody you could paddle a canoe through. Otherwise, the book might slip into the thriller category. My category. And serious writers don’t write thrillers. Or do they?
Three words: John le Carre’. Enough said. Also, three more words: Martin Cruz Smith. I just reread Smith’s Gorky Park – the first in his series of thrillers based on Moscow police detective Arkady Renko – a book that, in my opinion, is truly ‘literary’ in all the good sense of the word. Also, Olen Steinhauer – a masterful writer of literary thrillers, particularly his ‘Tourist’ series. Barry Eisler and his John Rain series are also particularly well written. Are they literary? Not as much as le Carre’ or Smith, but then, who is? But read Mr. Eislers first few books and see if his character’s descriptions and emotional ties to Tokyo are not literary enough for you.
In one place in Einstein’s Trunk, while I wasn’t paying attention, my hero Rulon Hurt, slipped into profoundness. He and Yohaba were forced to share a hotel room together, and it was causing Rulon all sorts of moral anxiety. To ease the tension, Yohaba asked him to sing her to sleep, and he, without thinking, chose For My Lover by Tracy Chapman. Afterwards, Yohaba from the bed, reminded Rulon who was laying on the floor, that they weren’t lovers. Rulon replied that she had a very narrow definition of the word lover. So we see, even Idaho cowboys can be profound when there’s a pretty girl involved.
But lest readers think I’m a total Neanderthal, I’m open to the possibility that there are a lot of great ‘literary’ books out there, and I’ve been depriving myself of some great reading. So, if anyone has any literary books they think I might enjoy, I’d be happy to hear your suggestions.