These are thoughts inspired, in part, by Shya’s recent post about ambition, but mostly by a question Maureen asked me last night: does nothing delight you any more?
My immediate thought was: yes, of course, I really like … and I really like …
But then I stopped myself, because there is a world of difference between “I really like X” and “X delights me”. So I am trying to think back and remember what was the last thing I read that really delighted me. And what actually do I mean by “delight”, what does it imply?
I know I can be a grumpy old curmudgeon when I feel like it. I also know that as a critic the one thing I have learned is that any novel is, by definition, a flawed work of prose. The more I practice my craft as a critic, the more I find myself honing in on the flaws above everything else. So when I write about books, when I talk about books, there is inevitably an air of negativity inherent in what I am doing.
And yet I believe, firmly, implacably, that the first and (perhaps) only job of the critic is to convey the delights of literature, to be excited about books and to excite other people about them.
There is a contradiction in there, I know. And I know that somehow I must negotiate that contradiction, square that circle, every time I write a review, or I wouldn’t be doing the job properly. (Or do I? One review of my book, What it is we do when we read science fiction, complained that it was too academic to really get excited about science fiction. Yet that book includes an essay that begins: “This is a love story.” Perhaps everyone has a different understanding of excitement or delight?)
Part of the problem is that I am an ambitious reader. I prefer to encounter works that stretch or challenge me. I want a serious conversation, not smalltalk. So a light trashy novel, a TV soap opera, that might delight someone else won’t work for me. And the serious conversations are few and far between. Maybe I am not frequently delighted because of rarety value?
Or maybe the serious conversations, the challenging works, are more flawed? Or the flaws are more obvious? Or the very nature of the beast gets my critical faculties going so that lesser flaws become more noticeable?
And yet I do take delight from what I read. I’m not sure there would be any point continuing as a critic if literature didn’t delight me. I am not, after all, a masochist; I do what I do for pleasure not for pain. Am I less able than I once was to show that delight? Perhaps? Or perhaps I take my delights in different ways.
But, I insist, I do take delight. Perhaps not in the whole work, since nothing is perfect and I am a critic and I do notice flaws, but in parts of works. I delight in The West Wing (I must do, I watch it over and over again) despite the fact that it can be precious, sentimental, and inclined (especially in the early series) to slapstick. I delight in the ideas behind The City And The City much as I think the novel as a whole is let down by the crime story format. I delight in My Family And Other Animals, even though every time I read it I find myself wishing he’d get over the colourful description of the new villa and get back to the family comedy. I keep being delighted by things, it’s just that it’s a partial delight, and maybe I’m not so good at showing how delighted I am.
So, what delights you? And why?