My daughter was napping, so the house was quiet, and I was eating lunch and staring at my computer. On a whim, I went to the website for The Atlantic, which I always forget about and then remember with a huge sense of relief -- there I know I'll find something I'll want to read. I scrolled through the list of current articles and noticed a piece by Caitlin Flanagan, and clicked on it eagerly. As I settled in to read it, fork in hand, I shook my head and asked "Why am I doing this to myself? It's just going to make me crazy." But I had to read it.
Caitlin Flanagan is on a mental list I have of writers who I read whenever I can, even though they make me crazy. I've got a little list of such writers. Half the time -- more than half the time -- what they write turns me into a raving loony, pissed about their lack of critical thinking, their shitty writing skills, or some other massive flaw in their work; and yet I read every word I can find by these people. Why is this? Why is this? Why do I do this to myself? It's a form of masochism, right? But why?
And am I the only person who does this?
Flanagan is a writer who seems to inspire this reaction in lots of people, so I can't be alone. I mean, she makes people crazy, but she's still earning a living as a writer. I don't think anyone disputes that she's entertaining; she's got lots of clever sentences, and she seldom sounds simply moronic. But nuanced thinking may not be her strong suit, shall we say. I read her and while I'm laughing at some zinger she's come up with, I often think, "Well, no, that's not really true." And I wind up frustrated with the piece as a whole, even as I agree with several points, or even the thrust of the article overall. Even if I think she's got a good idea, I inevitably feel it's not well argued (which is comical, coming from me, because I am probably the least lucid or organized thinker in my zip code). When someone like me thinks a piece isn't well thought out, you've got problems.
But this phenomenon of "I hate you/I love you/When's your next book coming out" happens to me with fiction writers as well. Over the years, based on my affection for one writer, I've been led to the works of other authors who I've been told, or who I suspect, will quench my never-to-be satisfied thirst for another book by my beloved (ok, it's Laurie Colwin, I admit it). So over time I have read numerous novels that I opened hopefully, but have left me just angry that I wasted my time. Books by Maemeve Medwed -- who are the people who really think these are great? Because I just can't get into them; novels by Cathleen Schine, who I ought to love, but who I just.... don't; Meghan Daum. Oh, Meghan Daum. Her first book of essays made me insane: it was so good, so good, and she was so likeable in so many ways, but I just wanted to smack her on the head and tell her to shape up. I approached her novel The Quality of Life Report with apprehension, knowing on the one hand that it would almost certainly suck, but positive that I would devour it in maybe one and a half sittings. I was right on the money. Why did I do this to myself? I could have been reading something I actually enjoyed; instead, I forced myself to read this novel that held no surprises, no phrase that stuck in my head forever after (not true with My Misspent Youth, a collection of pieces that rings in my head all the time). I received her book about house hunting for my birthday last year and was so excited to read it, even as I knew it would disappoint -- and my suspicions were fulfilled. I opened it immediately and couldn't stop reading but in the end I was left feeling like I hadn't read anything at all.
It's very frustrating.
There's a test I have, though, which is, Do you keep your copies of the books by these people, or do you get rid of them (or never even buy them in the first place, but just borrow them from the library).
Cathleen Schine, I've kept one novel (last year's The Three Weissmans of Westport). There are no Medwed books on my shelves.
I'm keeping all my Meghan Daum.
Why do I read writers whose works I know I won't like? It's not like I'm getting paid to read these things (usually). I keep hoping for the next Veronica Geng, Laurie Colwin, James Thurber, or Patrick Dennis. I'm not looking for cosmic enlightenment, folks; just some solid light entertainment. I guess I'll just have to let you know when I find it, and in the meantime, re-read some Betty MacDonald. She's good on a cold winter day.