Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When You Read a Gross Story and It Ruins Your Whole Day

I ordered my lunch at the counter (Joe's Special with toasted sourdough bread, though I would have much preferred rice), then sat down to enjoy a few moments of reading. Reading and lunch! What could be better?

Alas, my bliss was not meant to be. Because...I'm currently reading and appreciating Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, which is made up of Volume I and II of a 4-volume work. It's slow-going, actually, and stuffed with delicious words I've never seen or heard before. Some, I believe, are specific to the world of Wolfe's highly stylized and...mannered?...work, but others such as "tinct" and "saros" are not, and they serve to remind me that my vocabulary is not all that it should be. Anyways, I dipped my arm into my gigantic bag and came up empty. No book.

So I pulled out my phone, tapped on my Kindle app, and randomly chose a story from Fantasy & Science Fiction. I scooted down in my seat a little and scrunched up my shoulders, the standard non-posture of a reader shutting out the world. I prepared to be dazzled.

But I wasn't dazzled.

Instead, I was unbelievably grossed out. And yet, I could not stop reading. Could not. Perhaps I was waiting—hoping— for something redemptive to occur, something that would handily reverse the churning in my stomach. I don't even want to think about the story now (or ever, thanks), but I realize that I need to give you a general idea of the goings-on, so let me just quickly say that mermaids were involved. But not fairytale mermaids, no. Instead: mermaids with catfish whiskers and tiny hands and eyes on the sides of their heads. And also a lotta lotta lotta lotta rape.

Why? Why?

I should have stopped reading, right? That would have been the best thing to do. My food arrived, and I had zero desire to touch it. I took a few bites and stopped for fear of vomiting in public. At the table. With happy people all around me.

The rest of my day was, frankly, ruined. The writer succeeded in engaging me, yes, but only in the way that a freeway accident captures the morbid curiosity of onlookers. Does that success count for much when I read the story against my better judgement and when the experience was utterly without joy? I like to be knocked off-kilter, I like to think. I don't need everything to be lovely, I don't require puppy-shaped clouds and cooing babies, but throw me a bone. Give me one lovely image, one moment of beauty, something funny, a character I can embrace, and I'll stick with you, I promise. What I respond to when I read for enjoyment is the sense of proportion that E.B. White describes here:
"There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me." (read more at Brain Pickings)
The ever-shifting landscape of social media makes the blogosphere a quiet place these days, but I would love to know how other people feel about reading gross stuff.

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