Monkey See
12:43 pm
Tue July 10, 2012

Museums And Planetariums: Two Terrific Books And Two Ways Of Reading

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 1:52 pm

When the power goes out, what can you do but read books, like it's THE PRAIRIE?

Kidding, kidding. But I'm not kidding when I say that the recent (fourth day and counting!) power outage at my house, while relieved by visits to the couches of friends and family who remain AC-enabled and taunt me with their humming refrigerators and whirring fans, also gave me the opportunity to catch up on my reading.

This week, that included two books I was looking forward to a lot: The Next Best Thing, by Jennifer Weiner, and You Take It From Here, by Pamela Ribon. Both are what I think of as (deep breath) "high-end non-genre women's fiction," which might sound a lot like I'm trying desperately not to say "chick lit." I sort of am, but hear me out anyway. "Chick lit" brings with it a lot of baggage, some of which implies that the story will primarily revolve around getting a boyfriend and feeling bad about yourself, and neither of these books is like that.

The Next Best Thing is about Ruth Saunders, a TV writer who's just become the showrunner of her first network show. While she has friends and guys she's interested in and a grandmother, the story is really about the business of making television and, more broadly, the conflict between making something that can be commercially successful and making something that's true to your vision. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Weiner created a series called State Of Georgia that ran for two months last summer on ABC Family.)

What's interesting about this, too, is that the person I thought of while I was reading The Next Best Thing was ... Pam Ribon. Pam (you may know her as Pamie) and I worked at Television Without Pity at the same time for a few years, and we know each other a bit. I always feel like I should quantify how well I know people when I talk about their projects, so I will put it like this: Pam and I have met for drinks, but I still find out her important life news on Twitter. Surprisingly precise, right? Anyway.

Pam has written a lot on her blog about her career writing for television — she's worked on a bunch of shows, including the underappreciated Samantha Who?, which starred Christina Applegate as well as a not-yet-Oscar-nominated Melissa McCarthy. She's written about what she does in the off-season, and she's done a little speaking out about women getting hired in writers' rooms.

I've been reading both of these writers for a long time, and the writers' rooms Jennifer Weiner writes about in her fictional account sound a lot like the ones Pamela Ribon has written about in real life.

But Pam's book isn't about television. It's about two best friends and, more generally, what you ask friends for, and what you do for friends, and how utterly messed up it is to visualize best-friendship as "I would do anything for you." Because really, that's ridiculous.

Both books are very sticky in my head; I continue to sort of reflect on the central conflicts — what the women at the center of these books should have done at various points — and I'm not sure I've completely decided.

One of the things I've been pondering about these two novels, as opposed to the ones that are generally considered literary fiction — by whomever; I am never consulted — is that the primary literary unit (why yes, I did just make that up) is not the sentence. When I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, for instance, I was eternally stopping to admire what was between two periods on the page. A particularly gorgeous character description would demand attention, and I would think, "That is a beautiful thing." And then I would move to the next sentence.

When we talk about great writing, I think we feel the accumulated weight of all that admiration sentence to sentence, and it's easy to pull out examples — look at this, look here — that exemplify exactly what is special and skilled about the book.

In these two books, and in lots of other books that are naturally devoured rather than tightly examined as you go, there's more of a cumulative effect from the entire story as a whole. To be honest, I read Freedom, and shortly after I read it, I would have had a hard time remembering what actually happened in it. What I remembered was the feeling of the delicious writing as writing, not the questions the story raised or the things it was poking at, the way these two novels poke at ideas of friendship and creative integrity.

If a book like Freedom is like an art museum, which you take in by going from painting to painting and stopping at each one to marvel at how beautifully made it is, a book like You Take It From Here is more like a planetarium, where what matters is the feeling of the whole; the sneaky and skilled creation of a persuasive sense that you are experiencing a sky full of stars that doesn't actually exist. A readable "commercial" novel — again, whatever that means — may not lend itself to molecular analysis, any more than individual stars in a planetarium show are supposed to be analyzed in the same way as paintings.

But on a professional level I really admire, and on a personal level I really value, the ability of a skilled novelist to create that kind of ... whomp, if you will, that you get in a planetarium. You get to the end of the book, and you have that sense that you've heard a whole story that seemed to be about skin-and-bones people, to the point where part of you is still worrying about them, like they're phantom limbs.

I've often wondered whether the reason tear-jerking has such a bad reputation (unjustified, I think) is that art that lends itself to that molecular analysis can sometimes keep you very much in your intellectual head and out of your quick-reacting heart, which makes you less likely to be blown off the Cliffs Of Contemplation and into the Roiling Waters Of Feelings. Don't get me wrong; I love writing that keeps me in my intellectual head — that's where a lot of the brains are, you know. But I also love books that knock me off my feet and into all that crying and feeling. That's valuable, too.

We could have coffee, you and I, and talk about what Ruth (from The Next Best Thing) should have done, or what Danielle (from You Take It From Here) should have done. I have a lot of thoughts. I think that means I liked them.

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