My favorite book about writing is Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. As I said in my review of Augie March, It is the only "how to write" book I've found that avoids both patronizing you ("Oh! Writing is such a joy! Write what you feel!") and insulting you ("Do you want to express the feeling of a person, place, or thing? We writers use a noun in that situation. Can you say 'noun?' "). Le Guin uses a sample of Virginia Woolf's writing as an example of how to construct good sentences. After I read that sample, I couldn't wait to read To The Lighthouse.
I wasn't disappointed. Virginia Woolf is one of the most skilled writers I have ever read. It is amazing what she can do with words. She can write a one-page sentence that flows and wanders like candle wax dripping across a table top on its way to the edge, where it will drop on a sleeping feline Anakin, yet (unlike this sentence) it won't seem long or contrived, and you will never lose your way. And she'll follow it with a fragment.
I would like to say I've learned something about writing from reading this novel, but I didn't, because I can't figure out how she does it. If a caveman watches a stage-wizard saw a woman in half, he won't be able to truthfully say to his cave-friends, "Og watch hairless guy cut woman with painted lips in two, and put her back together. Now Og can do it." If he thinks he has the knowledge, he will soon find that he is incorrect.
You can open this book to any page, selected at random, and see the magic. She makes the amazingness happen in every paragraph. If the word "great" is to have any meaning at all, then this novel was truly one of the greatest novels I have ever read, and I thoroughly understand why it is on the list of "Greatest Novels of All Time."
God damn it, I wish I had liked it. But I didn't. Not at all.
For a while I couldn't understand. How can I be in awe of how incredibly good this novel was, while at the same time not enjoying myself? Then I remembered a scene from my Urbana days. My friends and I went to see a classical guitarist. I had never heard classical guitar, and this guy was supposed to be one of the best. It was hard to reconcile what we saw and what we heard. We saw a guy with only ten fingers. We heard a string orchestra. During the fast passages, there would be a kabillion notes played every second. There were times when you heard many different voices weaving in and out, each with a different rhythm. I was more blown away by this guy's performance than I have been at any magic show I've been to, including Siegfried and Roy.
But I didn't like the music. I wouldn't have called it "bad," but none of the melodies grabbed me. If I had heard it on the car radio, I would have switched the station.
Lighthouse was like that for me. I just couldn't get into the story or the characters. Now, some of my friends will probably say, "Oh, Doug, that's just because you are a man." That type of talk usually makes me angry, or at least defensive. But in this case, I think that they are right. There was one scene in particular (as beautifully written as the rest of them) that took place at a dinner. We had descriptions of what characters said, and how characters physically reacted to what was said, and the motivations behind what was said, and how characters responded to the physical reactions of the characters, and how the responses to the reactions made the speaker feel, and how that affected them, and why that affected their response to the reactions and I was thinking, "CAN'T YOU CRASH A CAR OR TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES OR DO SOMETHING? JEEEEEEZ!"
I usually disagree with the concept of "Women's Fiction." I think it is a concept that is condescending, insulting, and degrading to woman authors as well as all readers. I've read a lot of books by women, starting in elementary school with Betty Brock and the goddess Beverly Cleary, and going through Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Yoko Ono, Anais Nin, The Incredible Harper Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand, Laurie Anderson, Emma Goldman (by or about her, I don't remember), etc. There were many more; I never used to pay attention to the author when I read books. I think it is very misguided (at best) or evil (at worst) to group them all together and say, "Hey, look! I was reading 'Women's Literature' getting the 'female perspective'. " Ayn Rand (who, by the way, was left off of several lists of "women authors" that I've seen) has a whole different set of beliefs and obsessions than the goddess Beverly Cleary, for example.
Lighthouse is the first book I've ever read that I would call "Women's Fiction" in the sense that I did not enjoy it, but I think I would have enjoyed it had I been born female in this society. I can enjoy and access Anais Nin's work, even though I'm not in the target audience. That wasn't the case for me with this book. Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse is honestly the most excellent book that I've ever disliked.
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