This morning my husband left his copy of the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings on the dining room table. At breakfast, I started flipping through it and keyed in on the article “Notable Naval Books of 2010” by LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Retired), the senior acquisitions editor for the U.S. Naval Institute Press. Only one of the sixteen books that made this year’s list was fiction: the novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Of the book, LCDR Cutler says: “As is often the case with important literature, readers may not necessarily ‘enjoy’ the book but will come away with a deeper appreciation of the human condition.”
LCDR Cutler is a respected author and editor of several books of nonfiction, and I like his book A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy so much that I’ve given it as a gift several times. His comment on “important literature” rubbed me the wrong way, though.
During my twenty years in the Navy, I observed among my fellow officers a strong cultural bias against a certain kind of education and sensibility – a tendency to sneer at anything perceived as “Ivy League” or at fellow officers possessing “useless” degrees in subjects such as English, art, and philosophy. (A degree in history or political science was considered marginally acceptable, as long as the individual possessing that degree was not a line officer and did not aspire to earn a warfare pin. Never mind that two of the three core departments of the Naval War College’s resident program, which most officers must complete to advance beyond a certain paygrade – Strategy & Policy and National Security – are essentially graduate programs in political science, with a naval flair. I understand from several graduates of the War College that courses in the third department, Joint Military Operations, are only marginally more technical. The purpose of the Naval War College is to turn “operators” into “strategic thinkers,” who need to exercise a different kind of thinking than they might have in calculus-based physics classes back at the Naval Academy.)
LCDR Cutler’s opinion that readers don’t necessarily enjoy “important literature” came across, to me at least, as a snarky way of saying that only those pesky, useless English majors would actually enjoy literary fiction.
I’ve seen the bias in the opposite direction, too. A writing instructor in the graduate program I attended said to me during a novel workshop class, “You could write this novel if you wanted – but this really is a program in literary fiction.” As if anything that smacked of “genre fiction” was unworthy of her time and effort, if not mine.
I had a similar experience at the beginning of my sophomore year in college. I brought my writing portfolio to the writer-in-residence for a creative writing class admission interview. She didn’t invite me to sit. She lifted a single disbelieving brow at my jeans, flannel shirt and hiking boots; I squirmed, felt naked and unqualified. I did not wear black turtlenecks and skinny leggings, smoke clove cigarettes, or make existential pronouncements in dim Greenwich Village cafés. My experience with recreational pharmaceuticals began and ended with a single marijuana encounter at a high school graduation party – meaningless because I drowned the memory in a trashcan of Everclear punch immediately afterwards. Literary lineage? My grandfathers and great-uncles signed dozens of Army enlistments, farm mortgages, and tax returns. And surely she would condemn me for my real crime: I had neglected to read her single published novel. She pursed her lips, tapped dark-lacquered fake fingernails together, and looked down her narrow nose at the unopened folder in my hand. “Do we know your work?” she asked. My answer and the outcome of the interview were foregone conclusions. I was not going to major in English. Nor was I in line for literary fame. My future lay in saving the world from nuclear Armageddon. I went on to create my own degree in Russian Studies through the college’s Independent Major Program, took literature classes only on Russian authors, and joined the Navy a few years later.
Neither form of snottiness stopped me from reading (or writing, for that matter). I said before that I am what I read. I’d be lying if I said that I always eat a healthy diet, and the same is true of my reading. Once in a while a Twinkie or a moon-pie creeps in; during times of greatest stress I go on a paperback binge. The authors and titles don’t matter – mysteries, adventures, and romance novels are comfort food, all equally high in fat, sugar and carbs.
Sometimes the binges aren’t totally unhealthy: one summer I went through several of Avi’s novels, including The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Avi’s Newbery Prize acceptance speech, posted on his Web site, led me to a Donald Hall binge (The Ox-Cart Man; I Am the Dog, I Am the Cat; Life Work, and On Writing).
Some books are a gourmet meal, rich and satisfying: John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain. Loved it; couldn’t eat it every night. Reading some authors is like eating vindaloo. You know it’s gonna be spicy, you know it’s gonna be delicious, you know it’s probably gonna give you indigestion – and you eat it anyway: Tim O’Brien’s Tomcat in Love and Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones.
Some books are soul food: the short stories of John Cheever and Breece D’J Pancake…Annie Dillard’s essays…my Russians, in the original and in translation – especially Gogol’, Bulgakov, and Yuri Olesha.
Mostly I find books in the manner that one looks over a buffet. This looks tasty, I think I’ll have a little of that, I’ve always been meaning to try some of the other (and at $4.95 how can I resist?) I pick over the sale tables at Barnes and Noble and Borders, where I find things like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. A trip to San Diego’s restored Old Town gave me Louise Clapp’s Shirley Letters; the San Diego Museum of Natural History led me to Digging Dinosaurs by John Horner. After poking through web sites for a refresher on celestial navigation I returned to Dante’s Inferno for a nibble, and gobbled Jack London’s Cruise of the Snark.
Finally, in the manner of a mother bird feeding her children, I deliver prizes to my offspring. The Magic Treehouse and Little House on the Prairie series were favorites. A picture-book version of The Odyssey and D’Aulaire’s Greek myths were at the top of the pile one summer. We read Doctor Seuss, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, stories from the Old Testament. Most recently we’ve gone through some Carl Hiaasen and the whole Deltora series. My oldest is now reading Stephen King and is getting ready to dive into Margaret Atwood’s apocalyptic novels. Although a Scooby-Doo comic book creeps in occasionally, I try to feed my children books with integrity of character and story.
And this year, I’m reading short stories by authors who have a reputation for writing fiction with integrity of character and story. I like to think that the stories are “important fiction,” by whatever standards one might define that. And I like to think that I’m going to enjoy them, too, no matter what LCDR Cutler says.