Monday, November 06, 2006

Anita Brookner

I began a new book recently: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. This is my first Brookner novel, and so far, so good. A friend really liked her most recent novel Leaving Home, and Sandra has written glowingly about Brookner. Hotel du Lac is just the kind of novel I really like: character-driven, smart, funny in a sly kind of way, slow in a good kind of way -- not boring but taking its time to let you get to know the main character. And it's a short novel. I'm about half way through; I'm curious about whether it will end in dramatic fashion or continue on in the way it's been going, at a leisurely pace. More on this book later.

I'm also curious about Anita Brookner's reputation. In the last couple months I came across a blog post where the blogger, in talking about Alice Munro's reputation for writing about domestic concerns, said something like "Alice Munro is starting to give me a mild case of the Anita Brookners." This blogger -- a woman -- praised Munro's writing but felt that too much Munro makes her long for something more intense. This comment was witty, and I wonder how many people who've read Munro and/or Brookner feel this way.

I haven't read Munro, although I plan to, and my first exposure to Brookner is a positive one. But I wonder if I were to read a lot of either of them, if I would begin to feel a bit claustrophobic too. And I wonder what it means to criticize these writers for being "narrow" in their interests. Women writers have often been dismissed for writing about "women's interests" and for being interested in domesticity, and I'm sensitive to how women are expected to read books that are about traditionally "male" pursuits but men will sometimes balk at reading books about "women's" interests (I've heard students complaining in this way).

But this blogger is one I like and trust, and I’m positive she was fully aware of all the gender implications of complaining about Munro, and obliquely about Brookner, on these terms. And she said she felt badly about complaining in this fashion, at least as far as Munro goes. I do think there has to be room to say, "I'd prefer to read adventure stories," or "I like something with more edge," or "reading Munro I begin to feel claustrophobic" without at the same time dismissing books about topics that concern or have concerned women.

I remember a friend in grad school who was taking a course in 19C American sentimental literature and who complained about being bored by the sentimental novels the class was reading, saying something about how she'd rather be reading Moby Dick because it's much more exciting than domestic fiction. She was very aware of the gender implications of this, but still felt that adventure stories were more entertaining than stories set in kitchens. I don’t mean to imply that women and domesticity automatically go together – lord knows in my case they don’t – but simply that women have traditionally been associated with domesticity and so to dismiss domestic novels can sometimes be a way of dismissing women’s interests.

The question I’m left with is this: how do we figure out the extent to which our reading preferences are shaped by a culture that tends to devalue women and the extent to which we are merely expressing a legitimate preference for one type of story over another?

And also, is it fair to criticize Munro for being narrow in her interests? I’m eager to read her to find out.

Does anyone know more about Brookner’s reputation? She won the Booker prize for Hotel du Lac, but that blogger’s comment makes me wonder if her reputation has suffered generally or if this is merely one blogger’s preference.