Choices in Reading

I am not familiar with the work of  Annie Ernaux, the French author who just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It used to bother me when I hadn’t heard of a writer whose work was well-enough known to be considered for a prestigious award, especially if that writer was a woman.

But I no longer expect to have read everything of note that’s published in the world. It’s not just the obvious fact that writers who don’t work in English are not translated and published in the U.S. as often as they should be, especially since I have read some complex works in French and probably could do it again with the help of a good dictionary.

It’s mostly that there are just a lot of books out there, many of them by writers who should be better known than they are. I find it hard to keep up even with writers whose work I love.

And of course, there’s a great deal of nonfiction to read, not to mention the need to read “comfort” books, most of which will never be nominated for big awards even though they are often better than that label might imply.

It is clearly impossible to read everything and when you know that a great deal of excellent work isn’t even noticed by those who purport to define the literary canon, it’s obvious that one will miss a lot of very good books.

As the French say, “C’est la vie.”

I do not think I will look for the work of Ms. Ernaux, either in translation or to challenge my high school French. According to the discussion of her work by people who much admire it, she writes autofiction — novels that blur the line between memoir and fiction — and much of her work has to do with passion and love affairs.

Neither attracts me. I have been mystified for years by the popularity of the work of Karl Ove Knausgård. Why would I want to read about his struggle?

And I am generally bored by stories about people destroying their lives — or at least their happiness — by pursuing doomed love affairs. I mean, there is so much more to do in life besides falling in love.

My lack of interest is not meant as a criticism of Ms. Ernaux or of her selection by the Nobel committee. It is clear that many people do not share my taste and I must admit that the idea that autofiction is about getting to something deep underneath one’s actions could be important. I do, after all, write on some subjects to figure out what it is that I actually think, though generally I do so in private journals. Plus the description of her writing as “spare” is intriguing. I like spare writing, though I also like the lush kind.

I mean, what I mostly like is the manipulation of words by someone who is a master of that. The actual style doesn’t matter as much as the mastery.

I gather from some descriptions that her work is considered feminist, particularly in her treatment of abortion and of sex. Given the current political situation in the U.S. (and in other parts of the world), stories that deal with the reality of women and sex are important.

I’d like to think that stories about someone’s back-alley abortion experience were no longer relevant, but of course that is not true.

Still, I have read enough stories about that. Give me stories about women who don’t let misogyny keep them from claiming their agency and power. Give me stories about women who work with others to do good in the world.

Those stories are also true. And we need many more of them.

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