Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Why Don't I Like White Noise?

Sometimes I just feel perplexed by modern novels of the sort the New York Times reviews--the type that are chosen for literary prizes and taught in undergraduate literature classes. I'm not alone in this:

I'm going to wrestle once again with literary fiction, and ask once again what it is, and how it differs from other fiction, and why it is considered fine art, and why it is regarded as superior to other fiction, and why academics embrace it and teach it but won't teach popular fiction....I can't even get any agreed-upon definition of literary fiction. Its proponents usually tell me they know it when they see it, and are sure it is superior to popular fiction, but can't say why.

This is from a recent blog post by Richard S. Wheeler. I'm just a gal reading books in her woodland cabin (I do have a B.S. in English, but I spent most of my class time on "The Fairy Queen" and "Paradise Lost," with nothing more recent than George Eliot in my curriculum.) but Mr. Wheeler is a much-published novelist with some interesting insights, so I was surprised to find him in my same boat.

Sometimes I can see why a writer is admired, even if I can't bring myself to join in. John Updike's prose really impresses me--his descriptions of place and mood are vivid and I remember them years later, even though I could care less how Rabbit feels, or what happens to him. It's the same with Cormac McCarthy--that's mighty fine prose, but why are you telling me this?

I think it might be that I am not the intended audience for these sorts of books. Updike and McCarthy seem pretty concerned with what it means to be a man. That's probably not as important a topic to me as it is to them, although Ralph Ellison and Joseph Conrad and Feodor Dostoevsky engaged my interest in that same topic, and Franz Kafka drew me into what it means to stop being a man (and being a big bug instead).

Don Dilillo is a highly-regarded writer that I have avoided. A few months ago I decided to try again, and perhaps understand why I didn't connect with him. I got a copy of White Noise from my book trading site and read it through. If it hadn't been awarded the 1985 National Book Award, I wouldn't have gone past the first 50 pages. I understood it to be a satire on modern American society, including pop culture, consumerism, science, and medicine. These things are so often satirized that I didn't find much humor in this book--I'd heard these jokes before.

Maybe I would have been more amused if I'd read the book 25 years ago, I thought. I spent some time reading literary criticism on the Web, and found that the book is still assigned reading for many undergraduate classes, still the subject of literary criticism. (For example, Don Delillo's White noise: a reader's guide by Leonard Orr generously makes large chunks of text available on Google Books.) The folks who admire Delillo still like White Noise, so that's probably not my problem.

I think the reason I fail as Delillo's reader is my personal history as a science fiction reader, a disgruntled graduate student, an environmental scientist, a teacher of nursing students. Long before White Noise came out, I'd read several Philip K. Dick novels, especially The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. More distopian and more outrageous than White Noise, Philip K. Dick's genre fiction stole its thunder, at least for me. It seems to be fashionable to take Dick's fiction seriously these days, but back when I read it, in the late 70's, it was just some really weird stuff that most sci fi fans didn't much like.

The most helpful Don Delillo Web resource I found was Curt Gardner's Don DeLillo's America - A Don DeLillo Site. He has links to many interviews with, and essays by Don Delillo, as well as a bibliography and reviews both positive and negative. I found Mr. Delillo's essays (indexed in Don Dilillo on Writing) interesting and thoughtful, which made me particularly sorry I fail as his fan. This analysis of his novels was particularly helpful to me: What to Read: The brilliant. The pretty unbelievably good. The rough going. The completely avoidable. Our guide to the DeLillo oeuvre. Of White Noise, it says: "If you're going to like DeLillo, this is the book that will make it happen." I guess it's not going to happen, and maybe it just comes down to liking it, or not liking it.


Anonymous said...

I've discovered that it's pointless to try to make someone like something that they've tried and don't like. And yet, the urge is still there...

"White Noise" is my favorite novel, but the first time I read it I thought it was ho-hum. I didn't like the fact that all the characters spoke the same way; they felt a bit flat. But I was utterly changed the second time I read it. I found the humor real and nagging, forcing me to continue thinking about the underlying point long after finishing the book. Although it's a bracing satire, I didn't feel the coldness that usualy accompanies satire (and in fact accompanies many other DeLillo novels). I was surprisingly moved by it (the second time through).

The scene in which there's a scare on an airplane was funny and terrifying - and I thought it was an accurate rendering of how we navigate the contemporary American lifestyle (consumerism, media saturation, distanced human relationships, etc).

If you get a chance, read it again in a few years. No promises, but there's potential.

[Incidentally, I ran across your post because I have a Google alert for Philip K. Dick. He's my favorite author. If you haven't already read "Martian Time-Slip," I recommend that, too. Thanks for your post!].

Sherry said...

You put your finger on the reason why I didn't like "The Road" - I'm one of the few living readers who found it dull and filled with deus ex machina and, if this is McCarthy's vaunted prose, I don't like it. But mostly, as a post apocalyptic novel it falls flat.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Anonymous--Thank you for writing exactly what I wanted to read-- explaining to me why you liked the book. Reviewers and literary critics never touch that. My problem with the book is that I think, "Oh, that's meant to be funny" instead of laughing, and I believe that's because I read a bunch of Philip K. Dick first. You (and all the book award-givers) laugh--in your case, because you feel the humor deeply, and in their case, because they never dabbled in "low class genre fiction" like PKD.

Oh, Anonymous, I hope you'll come back and talk books some more!

Rebecca Clayton said...

Hi, Sherry,
I'm so glad you still stop by after my long, long blog absence!

I knew there was no point in my reading "The Road." My teen reading diet was quite heavy on post-apocalyptic science fiction, and a quick browse showed me McCarthy had all the usual elements.

The first (and last) McCarthy book I will ever read was "All the Pretty Horses." It was a tedious story about boys trying to do manly things in a manly way, but I did enjoy his descriptions of scenery and horses. None of that to brighten up "The Road."

Hanna said...

Have you read A Reader's Manifesto?

I stumbled onto it after I'd fought my way through Snow Falling on Cedars -- and realized to my horror that I liked the movie better. Since I read the manifesto, I feel better about just going with my own opinion, which is that "literary" fiction is sometimes just garbage dressed up.

I haven't read White Noise, though I may look at it now out of curiosity. The best literary novel that I've read in the last decade is The Voices of Glory by Davis Grubb. Actually, it's probably the BEST novel I've ever read, but it was so gut-wrenching that I was never able to re-read it. So, why not stick with reading Dan Simmons? Or avoid novels entirely, and enjoy some Jared Diamond?

I guess this comment is just a long-winded way of saying that I'm an unapologetic hater of literary fiction. :-) Kudos to you for giving it another try.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Hi, Hanna,
I haven't read the book, but Meyers had an article in The Atlantic that went over some of his points--here's the URL:

I'm not ready to say White Noise is garbage--Delillo seems like an interesting and thoughtful man, and he puts plenty of effort in his work....but so do many other interesting people we've never heard of. I'm puzzling over the thought processes of the award givers, and I'm beginning to think they just pick stuff they like. Period. And that tells us more about them than about the quality of the books.

I'm with you and Reya though--I enjoy nonfiction more often than fiction these days. I thought it was something that comes on with age, but I believe you're a whipper-snapper, so that sends that theory out the window....

Thanks for stopping by!