Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Next to Godliness

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought I’d made a big mistake reading two books about “the gods” in a row. How many characters can you meet who might turn out to be gods, demigods, mythological whatsits, mystical beings, “culture heroes,” totems, spirits, pixies, goblins, fairies, or maybe a regular old human being who just happens to be walking around dead? And then to have those characters spend over half the book mumbling about the coming storm, and traveling around to weird places finding more of their ilk to try to enlist in the coming war of the gods?

Several times in the book, it is mentioned that America is a bad place for gods. Due to its being a young country, most of its gods were imported along with its immigrants. These are the primal, ancient gods that predate any monotheistic religion. But it seems that in the present day that new gods have emerged, brought into existence by people’s belief in them, namely technology, consumerism, and the media. America seems to be a much better place for these gods.

So, blah, right? A humorless screed against modern materialism? Not quite—first of all, Gaiman’s humor relieves the solemnity of the theme. Second, the old gods are not portrayed as all that wonderful to be around—many feed on blood and warfare, others are deceptive and destructive in other ways—essentially needing some sort of sacrifice from human beings in order to stay alive. I suppose the new gods might be the same in that respect, but they are not portrayed as such. Third, the storytelling involves a couple of twists near the end that make the two sides not so black-and-white.

Just after finishing the book, I happened across an article by David Barnett that mentions Gaiman’s foreword (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblo...) for a book of short stories of the speculative genre, otherwise known as science fiction and fantasy. In the foreword, he writes “What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. Yes, we wanted good writing (why be satisfied with less?). But we wanted more than that." Barnett goes on to discuss the split between "literary" fiction and genre fiction.

I understand why such articles are written--they are bread and butter for many critics--but the arguments themselves seem sadly predictable and pro forma to me, as well as beside the point. Each person argues for why he/she thinks his/her favorite type of writing is the best. Is a lyric poet going to say that science fiction is her favorite genre, or a fantasy writer that Zola is his favorite author? It might be interesting if they did, but it's not likely to happen. And what of the readers of these various arguments? Are we supposed to be suddenly swayed to like something we've never liked before? Is the reader whose favorite author is Henry James going to say, "I've seen the error of my ways--nothing but Philip K. Dick from here on in!" People like what they like. Assigning moralistic or political value to different genres may make readers feel guilty, but will it change their tastes? Maybe the effect is simply to encourage readers to try something new, to widen their horizons.

The point for me is my own enjoyment. What type of writing brings me enjoyment? While I read mostly what would be called "literary" fiction, I read many other genres as well. I tend to read different books depending on what kind of experience I'd like to have while reading. After I (rather unexpectedly) found myself pregnant for the first time, I plowed straight through the complete Sherlock Holmes. Obviously, faced with a great mystery in my own life, I craved an experience in which all mysteries were satisfactorily solved by a genius who found it all "elementary." Besides mysteries, I read thrillers, "speculative fiction," trash, book club books, YA lit.--whatever fits my mood. Sometimes I'll read a bestseller to try to figure out why it is such. Sometimes I'll read a YA novel because my kids recommend it, or because I want to see if I should let them read it. I also read non-fiction occasionally. I think I'm probably similar in my reading habits to many people who like to read in that I seek a balance of genres, sometimes reading different genres at the same time, or following one genre with a very different one as a palate cleanser. I recoil from tying myself too strongly to one particular type of writing, because I love to read a variety. A good story is wonderful, but a beautiful prose poem in which nothing happens is wonderful too. Why should anyone have to choose?



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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at susiemarplesyoga.com. Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag. http://profile.to/susiemarples http://pinterest.com/susiem66

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