2.5 by Sayers, or, the new/old way my reading brain works

I used to be adamantly opposed to reading multiple books by one author in short spans of time. I have, in my day, tended towards rationing and have feared running out of the reliables. Somehow, lately, I’ve stopped worrying so much about this. Indeed, with certain authors (mostly Sayers and Trollope), I’ve come to prefer binge reading; I was going to use a food simile here, but binge eating tends to lead to guilt and fear. Binge reading is only good; it’s like visiting one of your favourite people more than once a year. I don’t know why I couldn’t see this before.

The point is, my reading habits are changing significantly and I like it. And it’s not just that I’m reading less like I’m afraid of running out and more like I’m, happily, never going to run out. It’s also that the way I’m thinking about books is changing; this is a good thing.

I think it’s a good thing for my soul. As some of you know, I completed a PhD in English Literature. It was not an entirely happy time for me, although in some ways, I did better than my peers: I never lost my ability to read exclusively for fun. I could happily dump everything and devote two weeks to being simply emotionally overwhelmed by The Brothers Karamazov (not part of my research) while they lost the ability to read without pencil in hand.

It turns out, though, that I wasn’t compartmentalizing so completely. I’ve noticed, in the past year or so, that I’ve slowly ceased thinking predominantly like a literary critic. My graduate training, because I am no longer under any pressure to bring it to bear on everything I do and think, seems to have gone dormant. And while I regret this insofar as I would like to have the option of pulling it out to do justice to books like Middlemarch (the way I think I did with Romola), I think that overall I’m better without it.

I’m happier. Much, much happier. I enjoy reading now the way I did before it became in any way fraught with concerns about writing something intelligent, publishable, original, devoid of emotionalism, or perfect (the latter concern especially being one of the many, many things that kept me from completing my dissertation earlier).

Now, I’m not certain I couldn’t pull out the critical toolbox to advantage; the fact is, I just haven’t tried for quite some time. Deciding that I didn’t want to do that much anymore was something that I was finally able to figure out and accept during my blogging hiatus between Bookphilia and Jam and Idleness. Letting it go wasn’t without pain; but once I let it go, I realized that the reason I’d been having trouble blogging for so long in my previous online incarnation was that it had already let me go. My inner critic had already walked away when I wasn’t paying attention.

So, here I am, still working on figuring out what it means to blog about books without writing either traditional book reviews or pieces approaching literary criticism. I’m trying to realize what I can do, writing-wise, with my almost pre-verbal adoration of novels (and sometimes short stories, plays, etc–but mostly novels). I think I approached it with my recent non-review of Middlemarch, but I don’t want everything I write to sound just like that (or its disappointed opposite).

And what to do with books that are merely okay? Or are really good, but are not show-stoppingly good? In the case of Dorothy L. Sayers, it seems, I read a bunch in a row and then mash them all together into one blog post which (in this case) hasn’t even addressed them yet! (I think perhaps I should also be thinking of ways to harness the power of my tendency towards tangents and prefaces; maybe even figure out how to write only tangents and prefaces and skip the other bits. But this is an insoluble pancake to be addressed another day.)

The three Sayers novels in question include: Whose Body?, The Documents in the Case, and Clouds of Witness. Whose Body?, an early Lord Peter Wimsey offering, felt like just that–immature. But immature for Sayers; her latent hilarity and excellent writing really weren’t that latent. The mystery itself was somewhat clunky but that in no way bothered me–I don’t read Sayers for the plot, I read her for the sheer delight of how she tells her stories. I suspect she could have written anything at all and would have ended up famous and adored by me and everyone else who already adores her.

Clouds of Witness, however, was excellent and made me grateful for the gravy of a really good plot on top of the other expected elements of amazing. Now, when I say it was a good plot, I mean I really enjoyed it; I think it may have been clunky too, but clunky and ridiculous in a way I admire. Sayers really went for it with this one; she may have jumped the shark but she did so with verve and style! And hilarity. Example (of which I am certain Stella Gibbons would approve):

Wimsey looked with a new respect at the lady in the Russian blouse. Few books were capable of calling up a blush to his cheek, but he remembered that one of Miss Heath-Warburton’s had done it. The authoress was just saying impressively to her companion:

‘—ever know a sincere emotion express itself in a subordinate clause?’

‘Joyce has freed us from the superstition of syntax,’ agreed the curly man.

‘Scenes which make emotional history,’ said Miss Heath-Warburton, ‘should ideally be represented in a series of animal squeals.’

‘The D. H. Lawrence formula,’ said the other.

‘Or even Dada,’ said the authoress. (p. 119)

Gold. This little scene has nothing to do with the plot, which is part of why it’s gold; Sayers takes the time to make the spaces between mystery and revelation as good as everything else.

And then there’s The Documents in the Case, co-written by a fellow named Robert Eustace. To be blunt, I found this book dull, and not because of the attention to scientific detail Eustace brought to the writing table (although not not because of it either, if you know what I mean). The plot was tight and well-thought out, but the novel read as though Sayers just phoned it in. Or like she’d left her enthusiasm for the topic on the bus and never got to the Lost and Found booth to retrieve it. Or that she was contractually obligated to complete the task. I don’t need any more metaphors or similes do I? It was dull. And then it became duller still when I realized, to my horror, that Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter were nowhere to be seen. Well, even the reliables can’t always be reliable, I suppose; still, I resented it a little.

I am now only three (almost four–Vaudeville! is a very fast read) books behind here; but I am weeks behind in my food blogging. Prepare to have your mouth water in the next few days.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. heidenkind says:

    That’s why I went into art history and not English, so I could still read novels for fun. Whenever I watch movies now, as soon as I see a piece of art I start cataloging what it is in my head and how much it costs/what its possible symbolism might be. Drives me crazy. I can’t imagine if I did that with books.

    That being said, I do still read really critically.

    1. Colleen says:

      That would be annoying; for me art is pure wowness all day long.

  2. J.G. says:

    My great idea, waiting for the right person to put it into effect (not me): book review haiku.

    Difficult, perhaps, but blissfully short. Could be your ticket?

  3. Colleen says:

    Not my ticket! I spent one summer writing hundreds of haiku and ended up liking only one of them–and not because it was actually good but because it had sentimental value for me! I have writing one-line reviews and may have to do that soon just to get caught up. We move in just over three weeks and I’m about to start painting the place…crazy busy-ness is about to ensue.

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