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Woman in a library art nouveau for On Confronting Literature by Malin James

Dig by Sadie Wendall (1909)

On Books that Quietly Confront

I’ve had On Chesil Beach since it released in 2007. It’s a lovely little hardback and I picked it up without even looking at what it’s about because I love Ian McEwan. I remember taking it home and doing the rare thing of sitting down to start it right away (I usually buy books and put them in the long, long, long line of my TBR). But I got two pages in and stopped. I felt vaguely ill and I stopped. I slowly closed the book, set it on the shelf with my other McEwans and moved on without trying to think too much.

In the years since then, On Chesil Beach has sat on my shelf, biding its time. I say “biding its time” because it felt like an active presence in its own quiet way. I’d pull other books off the shelf to read, or to cull or consider, and think – I know you’re there. I’m going to read you, but I’m not ready yet. 

I couldn’t pick the book up, but I still mentally addressed because, in an odd way, it didn’t feel like an object. It felt like an experience I was going to have to have, one that was waiting patiently for me. It’s the most gently confrontational book I’ve ever read because the confrontation was very specific. Two pages in, it was clear that the experience of reading On Chesil Beach was going to be deeply personal. So I set it aside until I could process why. Here’s why:

I recognized too much of myself in those first pages. The situation in that narrow book resonated in a way that drew a personal line for me between literature that confronts by design (think Tampa or American Psycho) and literature that resonates to the point of confrontation. For me, On Chesil Beach is the latter, and it’s a very different thing than the former.

Literature that confronts by design is meant to challenge – you know what you’re getting into before you even start. Whether the challenge is emotional, psychological, moral or social depends on the book, but regardless of how it challenges, its intention (at least in part) is to challenge. I love a great many books that do this – The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark; The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan; Tampa by Alyssa Nutting and loads of others – some that I’ve actively enjoyed and others that were difficult but which I appreciate nonetheless.

That appreciation comes from the distance the intended effect allows me to have. If I pick up A Little LifeI’m going to brace myself for the experience of reading it. Same with An Untamed State. That doesn’t mean I won’t be emotionally affected – far from it. What it does mean is that the effect will very likely be tempered, somewhat, by two things – the fact that I was expecting it and the fact that others have been similarly affected by the book.

Cover of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan for On Confronting Literature by Malin JamesLiterature that resonates to the point of confrontation is different. For books like this, the confronting element is purely accidental and often deeply personal. On Chesil Beach is a perfect example. Nothing about it is directly confrontational – it’s about a young couple and their disastrous wedding night. No one gets killed, maimed, or traumatized. However, when you scratch the surface, it’s about a young woman’s complicated relationship with sex in the wake of sexual abuse, and the damage it does to her relationship. While it isn’t about trauma, it’s about the effect of trauma and that resonated with me in a deeply personal and challenging way.

Though the situation in the book is very different (and quite a lot simpler) than mine, it reverberated enough to feel dangerous when I first bought it. I’d suppressed a great deal and was, at the time, unprepared to examine large chunks of my childhood, my sexuality, my personality and my sexual / romantic relationships. This subtle, gentle book hit close enough to home that I knew within two pages that it was going to make me confront things I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, so I set it aside and let it wait for me.

The fact that I was drawn to reading it now signals an important shift. I avoided it for years with the conscious understanding that I would “read it when I’m ready”. That I pulled it down from the shelf last week and read it in two days means that my relationship to those things I was trying to protect – memories of my childhood, my sexuality and my perceptions (of both myself and my relationships) – are strong enough now to bear the acknowledgement reading the book would mean.

Literature intended to confront is an important part of how you might understand experiences beyond your own. It’s a way to engage empathy and understanding and broaden your mind. Literature that resonates to the point of confrontation has the opposite effect. Rather than looking outward, it’s a passage inward to your personal experiences, one that can deepen your understanding of how you move through life.

Sometimes that’s a joyful thing. Sometimes that’s incredibly difficult. Either way, there’s great value in the challenge – so much so, in fact, that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you’re able to process that value in a healthy productive way. It’s the difference between engaging your history and triggering yourself. When in doubt, opt for the approach that allows you to engage without hurting yourself.

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