Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Only Writers Read Fiction." Urban Legend?

I aim to find out. Because I see a lot of books on laps in the subway every day. Many are fiction, and I recently noted the following titles on the 4/5 train (at great personal risk...over-shoulder reading is bad subway etiquette):

The Namesake, Jumpa Lahiri
The Upper Room, Mary Monroe
Afterburn, Zane (a whole lotta Zane on the train, I've noticed)
The Purification Ceremony, Mark T. Sullivan
The Fuck Up, Arthur Nersesian (Yippee! Go Arthur! Akashic edition too!)
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett (OK, that might have been me...)
Something Blue, Emily Griffin
A Clearing in the Distance : Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, Witold Rybczynski (not fiction, but wow! And the guy was riveted!)
Push, Sapphire (another common 5 train title)

These people can't all be writers. Can they? Or are there just that many of us (Oh God!)?

I'll try not to freak out (today, anyway) about the vast number of bibles, Koran, prayer books (for at least three religions), daily meditations, etc. They greatly outnumber the "literature" books. I'm just glad people are reading and keeping quiet so I can do the same. I also can't comment on the large number of books and newspapers in Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish around me. Again, I'm glad for the literacy, and the silence. I love watching kids read on the train. Some kids read nonfiction about animals and rockets. Others read the free AM New York and Metro newspapers. And of course, Harry Potter. It's all good. The nice thing, especially in the mornings, is that almost EVERYONE is reading. We say hello to each other, the ones I see every day, then open our books.

God, I love New York.

My unpredictable (in a good way) Russian dayjob colleague--let's call her "Scarlett Fever" to protect her identity--is an avid reader of women's fiction. I find the habits of her literary consumption most interesting. Here's an actual conversation we had today (as best I can remember) on the elevator:

ME: What are you reading? (She uses a cloth book cover, part embarrassment, part decoration.)

SCARLETT FEVER: Oh, some "thing." (Opens the book and shows me the title page.)

ME: Undead and Unwed? So like a vampire romance?

SCARLETT: I don't know yet, I just started it.

ME: Well, what did it say on the cover?

SCARLETT: I don't read the cover. I go by the picture. If it has a baby on it, those are good. And this kind of design, you can tell it is a comedy. (Shows me the cover, it has a cartoon of a cute blonde woman against a gothic sky, a goofy handwriting font.)

ME: So not the author, not the publisher, or the series, just the cover art?

SCARLETT: Just the design.

Which, as already observed, she obscures with a cloth cover. So it's not the appeal of the cover, per se, it's the existence of canned signifiers in the form of typeface and color choice, illustration style, and to a degree, pictorial subject. She's told me on other occasions, "If it has a baby on the cover, it's usually about a single dad and a babysitter. Those are tearjerkers."

(Sorry, Scarlett, if I'm butchering your witty repartee.)

Scarlett's literary commentary is designed to make me laugh, which satisfies a need I have, to stay sane in a given workday. But too, the "junk lit" satisfies a need she has, a legitimate one: immediate engagement and escape on her long bus ride home. She has read the English classics too, some in translation, some not, some in both languages. And has introduced me to English stuff too. How did I ever make it through college without knowing about the tragicomic genius of Jerome K Jerome?

And it goes without saying that her experience with Russian literature leaves me in the dust.

Before anyone chides Scarlett for "dumbing down" her literary consumption, I've noticed the books have given her an excellent grasp of conversational/colloquial English. What better way to learn to speak like a native than to read large quantities of pulp? Or, excuse me, "commercial fiction," since I firmly believe these writers work as hard on craft as the rest of us?

So here's my Exhibit A: Scarlett. A real live non-writer who reads fiction. Every single day.

Now I have to muster the courage to talk to that older guy I see on the train daily, reading literary fiction from the Brooklyn Public Library. And plowing through fast, from what I can tell. Is he a writer? A wannabe writer? A member of the "general public," whatever that is? Anyone care to take bets? Dare me?


Blogger GeeNetZie said...

Well since you put it out there, I definitely dare you. If you are struggling just pretend you are me.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Hey, geenetzie, are you who I think you are? Nice name spelling.

I will indeed pretend I am you. I'm going to subway now. If I see Older Gentleman I will speak.

5:07 PM  
Blogger GeeNetZie said...

but of course it is me :)

5:44 PM  

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