In my 400-level fiction seminar class, we are reading A.M. Homes’s The Safety of Objects. For some, this is not an easy book to read– all of Homes’s characters are dysfunctional, insane, depressed, etc. Out of curiosity, I decided to look it up on Amazon to see what others were saying about it. Many responded positively to the collection, as I did. However, there were others that were so offended that they literally threw the book out. One person who informally reviewed the book on Amazon called it “pornographic humor”.
This brings up the very common questions of the distinction between literary taste and good literature; if it was the right time for a particular person to read the book; cultural readiness; believability, and reader interest. There are so many facets to the good literature vs. personal taste battle that it is, and will continue to be, argued about at great length.
People often get violently angry about literature they find offensive. I’m not the type to get offended by art, be it film, literature, visual art, or poetry, but I think that partially has to do with my world outlook and my status as a writer. I wonder how I might have looked at this book in a different cultural context: not as a student of fiction, but as a mother, or even a student in a different major. Would I have seen the value in this text then? I think the answer would still be yes, because of the person I am. I’m not saying that some of the stories did not make me uncomfortable: “A Real Doll”, though one of my favorite stories, was also very creepy. But to me, discomfort while being engrossed in a story is a sign of good literature. The ability to evoke such feelings in one’s audience is quite an accomplishment, one Homes should be proud of. Though cultural context is a very influential factor on one’s literary enjoyment and comfort level, I really think it depends on when the person was introduced to a certain type of literature, and how it was presented to them.
At least one person reviewing the book on Amazon stated how Homes was a sick person. That seems to me to be an interesting conclusion to jump to from reading fiction. That’s the key word here: fiction. In the past, I’ve heard advice from a lot of people running along the lines of “write what you know”. Now, this may be good advice for some, but to me, there are a lot more interesting things to write about out there than my own life. If I wanted to do that, I’d write a memoir. I may in fact do that one day, but the point is, I enjoy writing stories about characters who have very different lives than my own. I relive my days in memory, I don’t need to relive them on the page, under the guise of fiction. Then I am never thinking of new things to build on. I do use elements from my life at times, but my fiction does not typically reflect my life, and I don’t believe that Homes’s does either.
For those offended by the sexual situations and the flawed characters, I can’t really help you. I don’t know about everyone else, but I enjoy reading all kinds of fiction: both uplifting and creepy, exciting and sad. Nobody’s perfect, and it’s not interesting to read about someone that is. However, I do understand that for some, reading can be an escape from the stress of everyday life, and would prefer not to read such content. In that case, I’d move on.
That brings us back to personal taste. There have been many stories that I have scratched my head at because of my literary taste, but I still appreciate for their artistic qualities. Use of language is an example. I prefer a simple (not simplistic) prose, because I feel it does not clutter up the images of the story as flowery prose does. Some people who are more interested in poetry than I am may prefer that style. Outright condemnation of a book because it contains themes one finds inappropriate, or is in a literary style that does not appeal, is doing a disservice to a book that could open the world of fiction to another reader.