Genre vs. Author

I haven’t blogged in more than a week.  I’d love to say that it’s because I’ve been super busy being a super accomplished grown up.  That’s partially true.  I’ve graded a lot, I’ve done a lot of good work for school and I’ve reconnected with friends old and older.  But it’s not really the reason I haven’t blogged.  The reason I haven’t blogged is the same reason I’ve been running late all week and the same reason I didn’t mind that my husband took a four hour nap on Friday night.  I haven’t blogged because I’ve been completely, totally and utterly engrossed in a book.  A really good book.

The last book that engrossed me like this was Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games series.  Even that only really engrossed me because I’d invested so much time and emotion in the first two books.  I wanted to see how Katniss’ story would end, even though I was disappointed when I got there.  Mockingjay also only occupied me for about 24 hours.  After that, I had finished the Young Adult novel and moved on with my life.  The book that engrossed me this week was one that I would never have expected to enjoy, but one that I should have.

Backstory: I was a bad teacher.  As part of my class’ unit on political rhetoric, I had them engage in Literature Circles.  In small groups they’d read books about dystopias and discuss them.  Sort of like a mini Book Club in the middle of our class.  I really enjoy my unit on political rhetoric, but I really hate dystopic novels.  Farenheit 451, Brave New World, Animal Farm–they just don’t do it for me.  I don’t mind teaching them, I don’t mind talking about them, but i just don’t love reading them.  So when I put the book list together, I included some books that I’d read and some, I’m ashamed to say, that I hadn’t.  One such book was Margaret Attwood’s Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake had been a summer reading book a few years back, so I knew the book was approved by the school.  I also knew that Margaret Attwood was an author worthy of my classroom.

I love Margaret Attwood.  Her novel The Blind Assassin is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It is probably in my top five if not in my top three.  It’s got lots of narrative levels, the language is amazing and the characters are compelling.  I’ve read two of her other novels (The Handmaid’s Tale and The Penelopiad) as well as much of her poetry and I’ve always been a fan.  Generally, when I love one book by an author I love all books by an author (see my Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Williams, Chabon and Kingsolver summers).  So in 2004 when her novel Oryx and Crake came out I was pumped.  When it came out in paperback (I was still a poor college student, remember) I bought it.  I was excited to begin a new Attwood novel.  I had loved The Handmaid’s Tale so, even though I knew Oryx and Crake was dystopic (or speculative as Attwood calls it), I was willing to give it a shot.

I hated it.  Well, what I read of it.  I hated the first five pages.  I couldn’t get past them.  Who was this “Snowman”?  Why was he on this weird beach?  Who were the Crakers?  I didn’t get it and, quite frankly, I didn’t want to get it.  I had tried it and that was all that could be asked of me.

So when I started at my current school and saw Oryx and Crake was on the summer reading list I was bummed.  I had tried it.  I didn’t like it.  I could only hope no one picked it as their summer reading book.  Fortunately, its 376 pages deterred my students and none of them chose Attwood’s book.  I was safe for another year.

But when you teach students using Literature Circles, you need to have read the book.  They have questions–specific questions that can only be answered if you’ve read the book.  So I began reading Oryx and Crake.

I don’t know what happened.  I don’t know what’s shifted in me since 2005.  I wouldn’t have thought I was that different.  But Oryx and Crake, with all of its dystopic elements and its confusing opening chapters, was amazing.  It was nothing like The Blind Assassin.  It was nothing like The Penelopiad.  It was nothing like The Handmaid’s Tale even.  But there was something distinctly Attwoodian (I love making up words) about it.

In Oryx and Crake Attwood warns against the perils of a society that has become obsessed with playing God.  The novel opens with Snowman (formerly Jimmy) in the ruins of a former society.  He lives as a benevolent prophet to a group of people he calls “the Crakers.”  Snowman/Jimmy recounts the destruction and failure of the society as he searches for sustenance and shelter.

How is it Attwoodian?  First, crazy narrative structure.   Attwood doesn’t just like to tell a story.  She likes to tell two or three stories at once.  Second, characters that are not entirely likeable but are intensely sympathetic.  Third, language that captures feeling, action and emotion.

I loved Oryx and Crake.  Even though everything about my reading history told me I shouldn’t, I did.  I found myself reading it in between classes.  I read it in the morning before I went to school.  I stayed up until 1:30 am to finish it.  Last year Attwood published a prequel to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood.  I have my reservations (Dystopia again?!  Can it possibly be as good as Oryx and Crake?!) but I’m looking forward to reading it.  I’m confident that Attwood won’t steer me in the wrong direction.



Filed under Books, School

4 responses to “Genre vs. Author

  1. aspiringtobesomeone

    I about croaked when I saw that you said you were anti-dystopian books! Especially since you’re an AP English Teacher.. when I took A.P. English that was basically all that we read, so I’ll admit that kind of defines A.P. English for me.

    I’ll admit I’m really biased… I love them… I loved 1984, gobbled up Animal Farm, loved Ender’s Game, Life as We knew it, The Giver, Their Eyes Are Watching God, Tess and the Durborvilles, Crime and Punishment, Farenheit 451, Death of a Salesman, and The Things they Carried (which isn’t technically one, but it really should be in that category). I would count the Hunger Games series as one too… but… I don’t know…

    I’ve just loved every one of them I’ve gotten my hands on, (interestingly enough I don’t like apocolype movies, weird.)

    I’m glad that Magaret Atwood made you take a chance on it.
    The real barrier to dystopian books -as far as I understand- is almost like a culture shock because suddenly you’re faced with a book whose world is like your own, only wrong, very wrong. So it’s upsetting to some people and hard on others. Most dystopian books to me are trying to address problems in society at their time period that could amplify and eventually lead to those terrible worlds.

  2. Sometimes you’re just not in the right mental place at the right time for a specific book. Sometimes it’s mostly difficulty (it took me a few tries to get up a good momentum with Mason & Dixon, but then I sailed through with great pleasure), sometimes it’s just where your brain is at time. That happened with me and Triton by Samuel R. Delany, since I was feeling a lot of the same things as the protagonist at that time and couldn’t really see the book objectively.

  3. I agree to the last comment – sometimes it just isn’t the right time or the right place for a book.

    This year, my writers group will publish an anthology filled with dystopia-stories – and though I like the genre (Fahrenheit, 1984, Matrix, etc.), I haven’t written Science Fiction (or dystopia) so far … Let’s see what I can make of it.

    But I definitely want to read Oryx and Crake now ! So thanks for recommending. 🙂

  4. aspiringtobesomeone

    Authony and Notizbushfragmente made excellent points… now that I think of it, sometimes I can’t even handle a dystopian book.

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