That Old Reading Magic

My review of Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And just to be clear on this, I filed my review weeks before I offered my thoughts on the Newsweek contretemps and before my second interview with the man.

But there’s an additional issue that worries me, one recently voiced by Jennifer Weiner. Like Russo’s latest novel, Weiner’s book, Best Friends Forever, includes a lengthy chapter in Cape Cod — a surprisingly dark and creepy flashback that reveals significant behavioral details — and, like Russo, concerns itself the theme of adults having to come to terms that they are indeed their own parents. Both novels approach the subject from entirely different perspectives. But because Weiner writes from a female-centric perspective, her novel is judged an ersatz beach read and because Russo writes about men, he is “a misogynist.” Such cavalier assessments, which violate John Updike’s first rule of trying to understand what the author wish to do, underscore the more troubling issue. A novelist who writes in a light and straightforward tone about human behavior is often written off by the critical snobs, particularly if the novelist has any commercial success. Weiner and Russo, in other words, are really on the same side.

And here’s Weiner in her blog post:

After the fifth or sixth time this happened, I pulled Fran aside and explained that I doubted that Mrs. Russo was endorsing my book, so she needed to quit pimping Richard Russo’s work. Which I still haven’t read, but probably should.

But Weiner, as it turns out, was wrong. At the end of my interview with Russo, I asked him if he had read Jennifer Weiner. He said that he hadn’t, but that he had read and enjoyed Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. But he assured me that he would read Weiner at the earliest opportunity.

It was very heartening to learn that Russo was committed to reading “high” and “low,” far and wide, and literary and commercial. Reading isn’t about confirming your preferences or your perspectives. If it were, how could anybody be passionate about books?

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