22 May 2012

On Airplane Fiction

I flew for about 7 hours today, and I didn't have a "beach novel" with me. I was supposed to borrow The Hunger Games from a friend, but the logistics of picking them up didn't work out. Ah, for a Kindle.

So I decided to be super good and diligent and dedicated: I only brought poetry and essays to read. I also brought The Mill and the Cross to watch, but that proved to be too violent and creepy for me. It's brilliant; possibly one of the greatest works of cinematic genius I've ever (partly) watched, but I just couldn't stomach it.

So there I was, stuck on a plane for 7 hours with nothing to read but Essays Presented to Charles Williams (by C.S. Lewis et al) and Pity the Beautiful (by Dana Gioia). I love both those books. I read Pity the Beautiful straight through, finishing it on the train after the plane. I read all of Lewis's "On Stories" and most of Barfield "Poetic Diction and Legal Fiction." Great stuff.

But it was terribly hard to concentrate, and I came to understand not only the desire for swift narrative fiction in such circumstances, but also for the actual, positive value of a page-turner on a plane. And here's the delicious irony: Lewis's essay helped me to see it.

Lewis's essay "On Stories" is basically about what he elsewhere calls the "kappa element," or the "atmosphere" of a book, and he claims that so-called cheap novels are not cheap if they are read for the feeling, or setting, or atmosphere of the story rather than just for the suspense-filled, action-packed, danger-ridden plot. How can we tell whether we, or someone else, read a novel for more than just the action? Well, if we re-read it. The page-turning aspect of beach fiction comes from the simple mathematics of suspense, i.e., the sheer desire to find out what happens next. Re-reading, of course, is not based on the desire to find out what happens, since we already know So it has more to do with what Lewis thinks is much more valuable: the ways in which the atmosphere or feeling of the setting and other trappings smuggle essential realities in under the guise of pure adventure. Essentially, he thinks "the masses" get out of novels what "educated people" (his words) get out of poetry, the deep spiritual and human truths. And he loves that.

What, then, does this have to do with the value of reading The Hunger Games (rather than poetry or essays) on a plane? Well, a plane is full of distractions. Flight attendants talk on the PA. The captain comes on and tells you the weather. Babies cry. Seatmates climb over you or fall asleep on your shoulder (not just seatmates you know, either!). You have to get up and stretch, then stand in line for the restroom with your backside up against somebody's elbow, then cram yourself into the broom-closet of a lavatory. Then turbulence always starts just when your sitting on the pot, so you have to hustle back to your seat in great embarrassment. Then you feel sick. You're always too hot or too cold, and you can hear odd bits of everybody else's music and movies leaking out of their earbuds.

It's not a great setting for concentration on The Great Truths of poetry. If the poetry is really good, it probably deserves--and demands--a bit more focus than you can give it in that setting. Now maybe you have wildly impressive powers of concentration and can block out all that, working your way through a good chunk of Milton on a plane. But I'd rather not fight quite so hard, pick up a good ol' guilty pleasure novel, and let the deep truths just easily slide into my subconscious while I turn the pages like a maniac.

And that's why I just bought Doctor Zhivago for the next flight. Ha.

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