Reading and “Spots of Commonness”

Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

My book club met on Sunday to discuss Nora Ephron’s Heartburn. We all basically really enjoyed it: we found it funny and sharp and yet also just serious and touching enough to be anchored in believably human feelings about the kind of deception and betrayal that not only ends a marriage but taints its happiest memories. Towards the end of the novel its narrator Rachel recalls being asked why she turns everything into a story:

So I told her why:

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

What a lot of truth about stories, about laughter, and about life is packed into those few lines!

I liked a lot of things about Heartburn: the laugh-out-loud comedy, the book’s clever plotting, the ring Mark gives Rachel that comes to symbolize her stolen and then freely relinquished relationship with him. “I love the ring,” Rachel says to the jeweler she sells it back to, “but it really doesn’t go with my life.” I especially liked the cooking. I too consider potatoes a comfort food–though I had never thought to connect potatoes with love quite the way Rachel does. (Her recipe for Potatoes Anna sounds particularly delicious, but it also sounds like more trouble than I’m ever likely to go to.)

There was one thing in the novel that I didn’t like. When Rachel’s friend Richard tells her that his wife Helen has fallen in love with another woman, Rachel figures it would be a mistake “for me to have introduced the word ‘dyke’ into the conversation,” but then Richard introduces it himself and they go back and forth about how you can “tell if someone’s a dyke” or whether “all women have tendencies of that sort.” It seemed to me as I read this section that it was a mistake for Ephron to have “introduced the word ‘dyke,'” and then to have kept on using it. I blame Ephron (not Rachel or Richard) for it because I don’t see any reason to read it as a “tell” of some kind about the characters: there’s no sense that this is a moment in which (as in one of Browning’s dramatic monologues, for instance) they give away more than they mean to about themselves; there’s no implicit narrative judgment, no distancing irony, no self-conscious scare-quotes, nothing that would make this other than what it sounds like, that is, the casual deployment of a homophobic slur by two characters we’re supposed to like.

Some members of my book club wondered if “dyke” would have been meant or heard as derogatory in 1983: if not, my negative reaction would be anachronistic. I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but I did poke around in a few sources that confirmed “dyke” was basically always an insult, though the term has of course also been reclaimed as a positive one–as in the “dykes vs. divas” softball game that is a well-known feature of Halifax’s annual Pride Festival. I don’t think Rachel and Richard are engaging in any such subversive recalibration of the word (and it wouldn’t be their business to do so in any case), and I don’t think Ephron is either. She just strikes a wrong note here–she betrays what George Eliot calls in Lydgate a “spot of commonness.”

This exchange takes up less than half a page in a scene that is fairly incidental to the novel as a whole. The insignificance of it by that measure got me thinking about cut-off points for my tolerance of this kind of–what should I call it? a failure? a blot? a slip? When or why do we shrug off something that we recognize as a lapse, something that signals a gap between our own values or standards and those on display in a book–and when or why do we find it too much to take? It sometimes feels as if we are in a particularly absolute phase right now in this respect. I’ve seen some recent books written off entirely by some readers for their insensitivity on a particular point–one example that comes to mind is Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game, which was roundly criticized for its characters’ fat-shaming. I’m not in any way suggesting the fat-shaming is OK; I’m wondering about how we decide the extent to which such a “spot of commonness” affects our judgment of the book as a whole. When do we say “it’s a good book except for X ” and when do we say “it just isn’t a good book because of X”?

The extremes are easy. Gone with the Wind, for instance, doesn’t just include a couple of incidentally offensive bits: as I wrote in my 2010 essay about it, the novel “endorses racism and romanticizes slavery.”  But so many books include but (arguably, at least) aren’t actually built on problematic views or attitudes: some examples in books or authors I generally like a lot include the anti-Catholicism in Villette, for example, or the occasional anti-Semitism in Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers, or Dickens’s annoying tendency to either vilify or idealize women, or the racist caricature of Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (here’s a thoughtful little piece by John Sutherland on Thackeray’s racism). One approach is to read every such “small” example as indicative of wider and cumulatively unforgivable systems of prejudice and oppression and condemn the books accordingly as complicit. I think that is true about the big picture but not very helpful about specific cases: symptoms of even the worst diseases can range from mild to severe, after all, and sometimes a book’s own moral energy can be part of what makes its moral failings stand out so urgently.

I expect we all handle moments of disappointment with a book in our own way: we all probably have our own particular issues on which we allow no compromise, as well as our own degrees of tolerance for “spots of commonness” in cases where (as Eliot intends with Lydgate) the good, in our estimation, outweighs the bad.  This means being clear-eyed about faults, not excusing or ignoring them, but also not letting them set the entire terms of our engagement. For me, the more I otherwise admire a book–the more I think it deserves and repays a thoughtful response–the more effort I’m willing to put into weighing the implications of its flaws. The risk, of course, is that I might end up making excuses for them, but we all also probably have books for which we are willing to take that risk because they mean so much to us and we want to do our best by them. I’m certainly not going to go to that kind of trouble with Heartburn: I mostly enjoyed it, I almost certainly won’t reread it, and that’s an end of it.