Monday, June 21, 2010

Literary Fiction or Smut: What Do You Think?




It’s interesting when something new comes out and you only hear very good or very bad reviews. I’m fascinated by the lack of middle ground and this so very definite view of materials. I frequently find myself quoting the “love it or hate it” maxim when discussing new films and books and yet what does it really mean?

Recently, I found this to be particularly true about a much-touted novel, A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. For the past year I have heard much about this novel. It was an Indie Pick and has been the center of many book club discussions, particularly after its January 2010 release in paperback. Several co-workers have also read, reviewed, and discussed the merits of this novel. Having looked at the premise seen here courtesy of the publisher (Algonquin Books) I found myself intrigued.

He placed a notice in a Chicago paper, an advertisement for "a reliable wife." She responded, saying that she was "a simple, honest woman." She was, of course, anything but honest, and the only simple thing about her was her single-minded determination to marry this man and then kill him, slowly and carefully, leaving her a wealthy widow, able to take care of the one she truly loved. What Catherine Land did not realize was that the enigmatic and lonely Ralph Truitt had a plan of his own. And what neither anticipated was that they would fall so completely in love.


I always enjoy a good angst-filled love story and the thought of one with some literary merit was rather exciting. So, I picked it up one day and began reading…and reading…and reading. Now, this is not the sort of continuous reading that one might do when totally engrossed in the story, for instance how many of us read the final Harry Potter, unable to move from the couch because we were torn between never wanting the book to end and yet desperately needing to see how the series would end? No, this was more like the feeling you get when you pass a truly horrific accident, police, fire, paramedics, swarming the scene, flairs flickering brightly illuminating the shards of glass and blood spread across the black asphalt in an eerie design of power, pain, and death. In other words, a train wreck.

What had been touted as literary was actually to my eyes and mind a novel of such degradation, sexual escapades, and unreal, ridiculously over the top unbelievable and unlikable characters, that I had to literally question the sanity and tastes of my fellow readers. I am by no means a prude when it comes to my reading material; I have more trashy romance novels on my shelf than I would usually like to admit to, but the lengths to which this novel goes, while not more imaginative than many erotic romances, seemed to be far worse primarily because it was trying (and not unsuccessfully) to pass itself off as literary. This in itself is obscene. Remember the Gertrude Stein quote “a rose is a rose is a rose”? Well in this case we are much more in line with Hemingway’s “a rose is a rose is an onion” and this novel is most definitely an onion.

After finishing this novel, my eyes rolling dramatically in my head, a look I perfected as a teenager and laughed to find myself reverting to, I had to ask my co-workers what they really thought about this book. I was given two primary responses. The first being along the lines of “The prose was haunting and beautiful, the characters original, the writing strong, masterful, even.”

The other responses were immediate. “What trash! I couldn’t suspend belief enough to care about either the plot or the characters.” “It was pretty smutty. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop reading it. I just had to see how far this author would go.”

Love it. Hate it. No one I spoke with was in the middle. I had to agree with the haters. I thought the novel was pure drivel wrapped in illicit sex and a large vocabulary. I continued to read because I was curious about how much worse kit could get and because I kept getting an image in my head of little old ladies in a book group (yes I know most book groups are filled with members more between the ages of 30-50, than 75, but the older ones created the image in my head) sitting around a coffee table, wine or coffee in hand discussing the use of arsenic as a cure for erectile dysfunction as well as a way to get rid of an unwanted spouse. Hey why not kill two birds with one stone, you get your jollies and get rid of the old man at the same time.

Not a pleasant image. Not a pleasant book. Yet, there seems to be much appeal for readers across the nation. Personally, I think these ladies just want the erotic thrill of a smutty book nicely wrapped in the guise of “serious fiction”. I call it intellectual porn.

Come on ladies, fess up; you know it’s true.