Confessions of a Lit Major

People will tell you not to get a Lit degree because it’s hard to find a job unless you want to continue on in academia. I will tell you not to get a Lit degree because you’ll have to put up with people endlessly asking you why on earth you want to study Literature, before telling you how much they hate books and reading, before breaking out offensive anecdotes about their least favorite teacher or professor–always in the discipline of English.

But there’s a more important reason not to get a Lit degree, which I will share with you: getting a Lit degree may destroy your ability to read books.

I graduated with a BA in Literature in 2008, and I can count the number of books I’ve read since and actually finished, perhaps not on one hand, but definitely using my fingers and toes. Most of them have been mysteries, thrillers, or some form of speculative fiction. I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t like a lot of literary fiction.

I tried to read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for a book club a few years ago, and I got about 100 pages in before I threw it at the wall. I’m not interested in stories about frustrated middle-class white men, or frustrated middle-class white families. If I want that kind of experience I can spend time with my parents.

Last summer I started reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Beautiful writing. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I got about 3/4 through it before I got tired of it. I tired of it because what had started so beautiful began to get ugly. It hit a point where life started going downhill for every character and continued to get worse. And worse. Some characters became unlikeable once the narrative revealed their thoughts, which it didn’t do until halfway through the book. I don’t want to experience any of this after I’ve invested so much time in characters.

I suppose McCullers wanted to alienate the reader as well as the characters. If not, that’s what she did to me.

I usually do better with commercial fiction, because the plots tend to adhere to story formulas and contain more action. Yes, I did just say that I like story formulas. They make plots happen. That’s not to say that I like formulaic plots. I just prefer action over character pieces.

Although plot-based stories give me problems too. In January I checked out Blackout, a 500-page tome by Connie Willis that has won every major award in the speculative fiction world. I’ve been meaning to read it for years. It has a fascinating premise about future historians travelling to the past. It’s a premise I enjoyed in some of Willis’s other books: Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Blackout sat untouched on my kitchen counter until a few days ago. I had just decided I was done with On Writing Well, (about 3/4 total–I can’t finish non-fiction books either), and thought it would be the perfect time to finally get started on Blackout.

I was exhausted by the bottom of page one. By page 32 I knew I couldn’t continue, unless it was with a red editing pencil in hand. It is not the book to read after On Writing Well, a book modeled on Strunk and White’s edict to omit needless words.

Blackout could easily be 1/3 shorter if someone cut out the adverbs, adjectives, and florid conversation markers. All I could think while reading it was “this prose should be cleaner.” I cringed through every conversation, because the characters don’t ask or say things–they quip, joke, query, announce, mutter, and chortle with every breath. As for other descriptive words: I don’t loathe adverbs as much as some people as long as they’re used sparingly, but I hate adjectives. Adjectives can get fucked.

I think Blackout technically belongs in the Young Adult genre. I don’t think adjectives and adverbs and chortling conversationalists are as bothersome to younger readers. I’m sure lots of other people enjoy it where I couldn’t. I hope someone makes movies or a miniseries out of Blackout and its sequel All Clear so I can engage with the story sans profusely quipping adjectives.

I have read some things from beginning to end since I graduated: several books by Neil Gaiman, the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson, multiple mysteries by Martha Grimes, John Scalzi’s Redshirts. And some nonfiction like How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

But I always struggle because more often than not I hit a point where I just say meh and toss a book aside.

Maybe not being able to finish books has nothing to do with my Lit degree. Maybe I had this problem before I did my senior year of school and read 60 books in seven months. Maybe it’s just the rebelliousness of knowing I don’t have to finish a book if I don’t want to. Maybe I’m just getting better at recognizing what I don’t like. Maybe I’m lazy. Maybe I just like TV too much.

2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Lit Major

  1. I felt like I wrote this! I have my BA in English and while I was in university, I used to read all the time. Now, though, I find myself in the same predicament as you: never being able to finish a book, starting a book with the best intentions but then, tossing it aside. I thought it was just me but I’m glad to know it’s not. And, yes, maybe I like TV too much, too. There are just too many darn good TV shows on these days.


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