What is luminous, really?

Before we get started, I need to warn you that this post might get a little catty. But I’m warning you. And I promise to throw in a “bless her heart,” so it will all be okay. (And before you ask, no, this does not make catty behavior acceptable in the real world.)

Whew. Now that that’s out of the way…

I just finished reading Emma Cline’s The Girls for a book club. I picked it up, and talked my way into this book club, because I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a reading rut. I’ve not been reading as much as I’d like to and, when I do, it tends to be lesbian romance. (Which isn’t bad. It’s good to keep up with the genre in which I write and I love the books. Love. That said, it’s not my only interest and I don’t want to have literary tunnel vision.)

Anyway, The Girls was the “it” book of last summer. Reviews called it “luminous.” (Not unlike the praise for Stephanie Danler’s much acclaimed Sweetbitter, which I could not bring myself to read).

I started reading and, for the first sixty pages or so, I was hooked. Cline is masterful at imagery. She wields adverbs in ways that make my hear flutter. She plays with the male gaze and creates a gaze of her own–female and unapologetic even as her protagonist acquiesces to the male (gaze and more). And she has a talent for evoking the mind and meanderings of female teenage existence and her regretful, middle-aged counterpart. I was at once nostalgic and uncomfortable, in that perfect mix of awe and envy.

After those first sixty pages, though, it started to grate on me. I couldn’t decide if it was the subject matter or the language. It was too…too. Too MFA. Overwrought. My partner really liked and I started to panic. I actually went online in search of reviews that might validate my ennui. Fortunately I found some. This made me feel better, enough so that I finished the book and sipped an IPA while discussing it with a bunch of really smart teachers who had interesting things to say about its strengths and weaknesses.

But, even now, I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling. Did I not love it because it wasn’t as good as all the hype promised? Or, much more worrying, has my reading palate become one-dimensional? Worse still, am I just jealous of all the attention? I don’t know. But the nagging has remained and makes me question who I am as a woman, a reader, and a writer. Not in an existential crisis sort of way, but still.

Part of me feels badly for even saying all this because the two authors I’m thinking of (Cline and Danler) are both young women writers and the world needs more amazing and wonderful female voices. Voices that evoke all sorts of things, demand attention, don’t apologize. Voices like theirs, bless their hearts. (See what I did there?) And here I am, aloof and nitpicking. But I go back to that feeling that I’m not critiquing their actual voices. My very problem with books like these is that they are processed and packaged to be young/fresh/ingenue. You know, luminous.

Maybe, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with that. That specific packaging is simply not my cup of tea. The same way that romance isn’t everyone’s thing. Or fantasy. Or memoir. I just…I guess I’m just tired of the value judgment that seems to come with it. The fact that some (seemingly arbitrary) work gets picked up as the new luminous thing and is all over the New York Times, the New Yorker, NPR, the Slate Culture Gabfest. Are there really not enough great books that we all have to get on the same wagon? And for the love of all that is good and holy, does that wagon always have to be luminous?

Okay. Rant over. Thank you for indulging me.

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