“The Experience of Boredom and Disgust”

Revolutionary Road is replete with moments like that, conveying with great economy the experience of boredom and disgust…

This quote appears in a review by Christopher Hitchens in the latest issue of the Atlantic. Hitchens is praising the novel (Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, which lost out the 1961 National Book Award to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), but a statement like that was bound to raise my hackles as soon as I saw it. Who on earth wants to read a book “replete with moments…conveying the experience of boredom and disgust?” I don’t.

Disgust alone might have been okay, especially if I were a horror fan. But boredom? Why would I want to spend time reading a book that conveys the experience of boredom, no matter how economically? Or spend money on it? (Especially these days.) I’d much rather read something that’s interesting. And fun.

That’s what I try to do in my own writing. Make the books interesting and fun. My characters might be evil or good, (or something in between), and my endings might be happy or sad, (or something in between), but either way I’m trying to make the book interesting and clever and enjoyable the entire time. In short, as a writer, I’m trying to entertain.

Guess I’m never going to be nominated for the National Book Award.

Why is it that the tastemakers in America so often define ‘art’ as that which isn’t fun, or even entertaining? Is it some last vestige of the puritan in us?

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    You can’t be an elite unless you first chase away the masses. ;)

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Joe – Well, there is that. The review makes it quite clear that both suburbia and phony intellectualism are being skewered in the book. Much to the delight of the book’s urban and truly intellectual readers, no doubt.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    I don’t have an explanation for it, but I’m there with you. I watched the trailer for the film and thought, “wow, that looks soul-crushing; I doubt I’ll go anywhere near it.”

  4. 4. S. M. Payne

    Boring and disgusting! One alone would make me steer clear of a book (not being a horror fan), but both together is too much.

    The one thing I noticed when I read through back issue after back issue of The New Yorker and The Atlantic was that most of the “best” literature they contained wasn’t that good in the following terms:

    1. Not enlightening. It contained absolutely no special takeaway or lesson that left me feeling wiser or better.

    2. Boring. Not always, but frequently, the style of writing was itself uninteresting. They delighted in the mundane details (even in war stories)–and not much else.

    3. Depressing. This is the biggie, and sometimes it seems, almost a requirement of “good” literature.

    To me, I read books for refreshment, enjoyment, and relaxation. Boring, depressing, and disgusting just don’t cut it.

  5. 5. The Eeyore Librarian

    Having just finished reading it I’d like to add that yes, its a prime example unhappy domestic couple book that critics love. I read that type every once in while to remind myself to be thankful that 1) I don’t have the energy to psychoanalyze and be that unhappy about the minutia of life, nor do I want to.
    2) We can sometimes choose our own happiness/unhappiness levels. Make the right choice.

    Be grateful for the good things you do have in your life, and your children and spouse, etc. Then go out and read a good sci-fi/fantasy for a different type of ‘enlightenment’!

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Marie – Ah, there’s a movie coming out. (Was that in the review? (I’m currently starring in my own version of “Memento”.)) No wonder the new attention on the book.

    S.M. – I agree on all accounts, especially number three. And the three rules cross into different media as well. How often do genre works get nominated for Academy Awards, even comedies. And how often do they win?

    Eeyore – I read them every once in a while as well. I’m actually not hoping to be reminded of why I don’t read them any more often, though that’s generally what happens. But every once in a while I run across something like “The Shipping News” – which stood all the standard depression on its head. Almost as if Proulx had set out to spoof that sort of unhappy book.

  7. 7. NewGuyDave

    I don’t understand how literary fiction can obtain such prestige when often it seems to be about sitting around over-evaluating everything and doing little to change things.

    Is that something good to teach people? I suppose it is, if you want a complacent, unthinking society like in “Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury.

    Who am I to judge? I think people should be shown in action, doing something about their circumstances, and thus why I read spec fiction.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Dave – “Doing something about their circumstances” is a key point for me, too. And it doesn’t have to just be in spec fiction either. Most literary fiction before modernism really hit had plenty of stories about people trying to do something about their circumstances. But that’s too close to the whole narrative thing, which is out with the lit crowd these days.

  9. 9. Daemonworks

    It’s stuff like this that make me treat a lot of modern so-called literature as though it were infected with the plague… and leperosy. It always seems to be about boring people doing boring things for boring reasons.

    I’ll stick to speculative fiction, and real literature like Dumas, Swift, Shikibu, etc. The people are interesting, and actually do things that I want to hear about.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Daemonworks – “It always seems to be about boring people doing boring things for boring reasons.” And here’s critic praising book for just that reason!

  11. 11. Jeffrey M. Hopkins

    I think you have to look at the industry we are dealing with. There is a recession going on now, and the traditional publishing industry (being highly capital intensive) wants safe, tried and true formulaic stuff. I’m sure most of it is entertaining, but on a different level so is smoking a crack rock or banging a pill of heroin into your arm.

    My take on fiction especially is that it is an arena to try out all human possibilities without killing anyone in real life. You can take the values and social mores that we hold near and dear, throw them through a meat grinder of conflict, and see if they come out whole and pristine.

    You can do this in a science fiction novel, a detective story, chick lit, horror fiction, grease fiction, all the other thousands of permutations and genres we classify these works in, but I think the best literature is that which teaches us something about itself, that even in the worst of times, there are still acts of courage, kindness, and humanity, and in the best of times acts so reprehensible that they seem to have come from hell itself. And all points in between.

    There is a story hidden behind every rock, tree, and graffiti sprayed wall, and thousands in every human mind.

    Sometimes this is depressing. Sometimes enlightening. It is all how you see it, and how you write it.

  12. 12. Jeffrey M. Hopkins

    Replace itself in the sentence “I think the best literature is that which teaches us something about itself”, with ourselves in that last post.

    Thanks,

    Jeffrey M. Hopkins

    Author of Broken Under Interrogation

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Jeffrey – I agree, especially after that last change to ‘ourselves’. Though I think there’s a place for pure entertainment too.

    There are also books that think they’re being profound, but aren’t.

Author Information

S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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