I’ve been talking to Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku about doing more discussion posts, but haven’t quite taken the leap just yet. I get shy. But thanks to Briana and Krysta @ Pages Unbound, I don’t even have to come up with my own topics. There have a couple of posts with ideas for discussion starters. I decided to name this series Time To Ponder Books and use the meme of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn from the film Suicide Squad as she drinks coffee and reads a book in jail. She’s got time. Get it? Eh? I love Margot Robbie.
Today, I want to ponder whether or not a reader should learn something by the end of the novel. Briana and Krysta specifically asked whether children should learn anything, but I’ve been reading book review posts from you folks in which it’s pretty clear the reader should take away a lesson. Take my recent review of Corregidora by Gayl Jones. Even though I didn’t finish it, I knew it was trying to an instill an important lesson in me: if we quit talking about the horrors endured by slaves (especially women), the actual humans who suffered will be erased.
That’s a biiiiig lesson to learn (and also Very Important), but are we moving in a different direction when we talk about race? What about when authors and screenwriters craft a story about African Americans? Activists like Roxane Gay (in her essay collection Bad Feminist) express disgust that every African American novel or movie seems to center on slavery. We shouldn’t forget slavery, or shrug it off as “a long time ago,” but African Americans have been doing things since Emancipation — and why not explore those stories? Stories that don’t necessarily teach us anything about the African American experience, like Coffee Will Make You Black by April Sinclair. Main character Stevie navigates life as a black girl in the 1960s, asking questions about her race and sexuality, but readers read her story, they don’t learn a Very Important Lesson. Could a lesson in life as a black teen girl taught a good lesson to readers? Sure — it’s not often a person like Stevie is put front-and-center in an adult novel. But is it Sinclair’s job to teach readers? I don’t think so.
Some of my favorite novels are ones that practically lack an ending (where the lesson usually is), but I’m satisfied nonetheless. In Jaimy Gordon’s wonderfully creative Bogeywoman, the beloved titular character sort of disappears at the end. I think she reappears in Gordon’s National Book Award-winning Lord of Misrule to work in a horse stable, but I don’t need this confirmed. Getting to know the teen as she moved from summer camp to mental institution to life as a run-away was enough fun for me. The Bogeywoman lives on in my heart, and I can imagine her elsewhere — I didn’t need her to learn a big lesson about why she was institutionalized and how to accept that she’s a lesbian in the 1970s when being LGBTQ was considered a mental illness.
More recently, Joe Jones by Anne Lamott left me feeling happy despite an ending that leaves the characters in place, as if a child playing with paper dolls were called to dinner. It’s more about the clever dialogue and unique characters than teaching readers. Sure, I wanted Louise to consider why she love Jon Jones even though she dumped him, and I wanted Willie to ask himself why he can’t see the relationships he has instead of mourning the ones that are over. That’s okay, though. We don’t know the endings of our own relationships once they’ve fractured, nor do most of us sit down and think about what we learned from our former friends, dates, and family members. We simply ingest their personalities while they’re with us.
Should a book teach adult readers something?