Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Virago Anniversary

My shelf of Virago Modern Classics in both their black and green incarnations.

Stella
, the magazine of Britain's Sunday Telegraph, this morning features an article by novelist (and blogger) Justine Picardie about the thirtieth anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics. It's a lovely tribute to Virago founder Carmen Callil and to an independent publishing venture that rescued so many wonderful women novelists from oblivion. On Friday, Clara attended the weekly convocation at Carleton. The speaker was novelist (and Carleton alumna) Jane Hamilton. She spoke, in part, about the decline in readership for literary novels. Clara happened to be sitting next to the author of Getting Your Book Published for Dummies, who told her that of approximately 60,000 books published each year in the United States, only 1,800 are novels. And according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll published last summer, 25% of Americans read no books at all in the preceding year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poll revealed that women and liberals were more likely to read novels. A feminist press like Virago clearly has the right niche.

On our walk yesterday, Clara and I had an interesting discussion about our reading habits as we tried to decide which book I should read aloud to her while she does her knitting. We chose A Tale of Two Cities, which is on my rereading list and is a good choice for knitting. At the moment, Clara is reading Caleb Carr's historical thriller The Angel of Darkness and I'm reading E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, a Virago Modern Classic. Clara prefers plot-driven novels, and grows bored with lengthy descriptions; I prefer character-driven novels, and love long descriptive passages. This came up because we considered Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native as a read aloud novel. Except for the relatively sunny Far from the Madding Crowd, I don't like Thomas Hardy's novels, but I have read the first chapter of The Return of the Native half a dozen times simply for his gorgeous description of Egdon Heath, all in evocative grays and browns. As night comes on, the heath "embrowns itself moment by moment." I've always loved that word, embrowned. I respond to Hardy the poet, the observer and word-painter; Clara responds to the plots. I love the more contemplative Virago Modern Classics, character-driven not plot-driven novels like Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day in which, to quote the novelist Elizabeth Taylor, "practically nothing ever happens." I do enjoy a good thriller every now and then, but most of the time I prefer books with the fine texture of a life really lived and closely observed.

Here's a little touch of character-revealing description, from Ordinary Families, that makes me gasp in admiration, both at its perceptiveness and its humor: "Stella smiled indulgently at him, leaving her mouth open for a few seconds when the smile was over, which gave it a fatuously lingering end. Expressions took just too long to wear off her face, which made every member of the Rush family, save mother, long to shout at her, in the hope of startling another look into its place."

1 comment:

Clara said...

Remember that Aristotle thought plot was most important as well!

But of course that brings up the very question that Jane Hamilton was addressing, in part, in her convo. You can get many of the pleasures of a good novel from good tv or film (drama, which is what Aristotle was mainly talking about) -- an imaginative world, interesting characters, snappy dialogue. JH set the question of what made a novel distinct from these genres, and suggested that it was the experience of solitude one had in reading. Those of us who read a lot value that solitude, and are sorry to see our children losing it (always with the earbuds, the cell phones, the IM...). But it is a historical phenomenon. Nobody in the ancient world experienced literature in solitude: even epic or lyric poetry were always performed in community. So maybe we're just entering a new age...

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