Sunday, June 26, 2011

Literary Agendas

Literary Blog Hop 
The folks over at the Blue Bookcase host this blog hop every now and then and I always seem to miss it! I'm posting this time anyway, even if I am a few hours late. This round's question is:
Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?
To respond to the first part of the question, literature does not need a clear social, political or other agenda in order to be great. Sometimes telling a fantastic story is enough. Most great works have some sort of theme or message, but that doesn't necessarily mean the authors had an agenda obvious even to themselves while writing them. Well-crafted mysteries would be an excellent example of what I'm talking about, unless you consider revealing the edges of what humans are psychologically capable to be an agenda of some kind, or consider themes to be synonymous with agendas. All great works, of course, have some kind of theme or message - I don't consider those terms to be quite as strong as the word "agenda."

That said, having a strong social or political agenda can easily go either way - it can either detract or enhance a work's value. Though I have not yet read Jane Eyre, I'd say Connie's point illustrates how an agenda, when done poorly or too explicitly, can diminish one's enjoyment. We don't need to be hit over the head with an author's motives or political leanings - it can feel like the author doesn't trust the reader to "get it" and has to spell it out. I would disagree with her about Animal Farm though - I read it for the first time a month or so ago and found the obvious agenda to be a little too over the top for me. I did think that was the point, exposing the faults of a corrupt communism with a simplistic and thinly-veiled depiction of a "communist" farm, and despite that, I enjoyed the book to an extent, though not nearly as much as 1984. Ayn Rand is another example of an author whose political motivations completely overpowered the literary merit of her books, with her characters going off on 50 pages monologues of propaganda.

Authors, of course, can weave their agendas well into their stories. Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago and even Tom Wolfe (I'm thinking Bonfire of the Vanities) are just a few examples. The Handmaid's Tale has clear message about the dangers of what our current society is so easily capable but the dystopian future is merely a carefully constructed backdrop of what might come if we don't attend to problems today. Atwood never explicitly announces what those societal problems are.

Overall, though, an agenda is just one factor in assessing a work's value, or in determining how much enjoyment a reader might experience. Much depends on an individual reader's purpose in reading and what they bring to the experience themselves. Perhaps some readers need things explicitly spelled out in order to get the message. Thoughts? 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Library time!

We are fortunate to live just a half mile from the closest library. The library is open past 6pm only 2 nights a week and I never seem to get which nights right... until tonight! It's built into the side of a hill and  looks more like a bunker or a bomb shelter than a libraryI managed to pick up some good books, including:

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell for an informal Reading Buddies parallel read with ErinEllen and Anita. 
  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane since Mystic River was very compelling (review forthcoming), and the library had this Lehane just waiting there on the shelf for me. 
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami because it's probably time for another Murakami.
  • Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris - it's summer and I need a easy, light read in here somewhere. 
I'm considering committing to Infinite Jest at some point this summer, but I think I'll need to get through Cloud Atlas first.

Some "real" posts should be coming up on here shortly! Free time has been at something of a minimum lately, in a good way, though things should be slowing down a bit soon. Well, as soon as we assemble our new Ikea shelves, go to the circus, climb, run, visit some friends across the river, and explore the City Museum by flashlight. After that I should have some time.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shorter Reads: An Interlude

I have finished about 4 books over the past couple weeks that I haven't mentioned, mostly because they are short, popular or classic, and have been reviewed or discussed widely elsewhere.  They include:

The Stranger, by Albert Camus: In this short piece of absurdist fiction, Meursault is supposed to be an 'ordinary man,' but he is really anything but. He's fairly passive and bland, but also generally unfeeling and unaffected, even when he inadvertently kills a man, and is basically put on trial not for the murder, but for not caring enough about death. You never get the sense that he's a bad person, just completely indifferent and amoral. The entire story is absurd, which isn't to say it's not great, I believe that's the point. The most absurd aspect is how realistic the story turns out to be.

Animal Farm by George Orwell: Leave it to Orwell to suck all the hope and optimism about humanity right out of you. If anyone can succinctly (and without subtlety) paint a bleak picture of human nature, it's Orwell.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey: I listened to the audio version of this and it was hilarious, since Fey herself was the reader. She discusses her life in a self-deprecating & humorous way, dancing over some of the obstacles she's come up against in her career, and her annoyance with the "How do you do it all?" question reserved solely for working women.
Of all the places I've worked that were supposedly boys clubs, The Second City was the only place where I experienced institutionalized gender nonsense. For example, a director of one of the companies once justified cutting a scene by saying, "The audience doesn't want to see a scene between 2 women." Whaaah? (More on that later.) 
In 1995 each cast of the Second City was made up of 4 men and 2 women. When it was suggested that they switch one of the companies to 3 men and 3 women, the producers and directors had the same panicked reaction: "You can't do that; there won't be enough parts to go around. There won't be enough for the girls." This made no sense to me, probably because I speak English and have never had a head injury. We weren't doing Death of a Salesman; we were making up the show ourselves. How could there not be enough parts? ... The insulting implication, of course, was that the women wouldn't have any ideas.  
... My dream for the future is that sketch comedy becomes a gender-blind meritocracy of whomever is really the funniest. You might see 4 women and 2 men. You might see 5 men and a you-tube video of a kitten sneezing. 
The Giver, by Lois Lowry: The coconspirator produced this book when cleaning out the car last weekend, so Monday morning I picked it up and read it. It's a YA book, about Jonah who lives in an eerily orderly society in which the Elders determine your job at age 11 or 12, and you train for that. At a certain age, after your societal worth is deemed exhausted, you are 'released' from the group. It's an interesting dystopia, even if some of it doesn't make sense-there's a bit of magical realism, you might say, which didn't always work for me. But, worth the couple hours it'll take you to read.

Now, off to enjoy some coffee and Mystic River.
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