Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pitting amateurs against professional writers

(printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 23, 2009)

When Jane Hamilton came on the national literary scene with "The Book of Ruth" (1988) and "A Map of the World" (1994), her readers were rewarded with emotionally rich, well-written and utterly depressing stories of struggling families.

Because it was a good kind of depressing -- like student loans are supposed to be "good" kind of debt -- both novels became must-reads for the Oprah Book Club, before the club decided to stop featuring living authors.

In her subsequent novels, Hamilton has learned to inject more humor -- of both the uncanny and the "laugh out loud" variety -- into her plots and characters. And in the recently published "Laura Rider's Masterpiece" -- a novel about romance writing and middle-brow literary conventions -- Hamilton manages to be just as funny as she used to be depressing. (She even includes a funny critique of a TV Book Club that, like Oprah's, started featuring only long dead authors.)

"Laura Rider's Masterpiece" deals with many of the same issues as Hamilton's earlier novels -- struggling marriages, identity crisis and sexual versus emotional intimacy -- but without all the personal scarring inflicted on her earlier characters. Safely cocooned in a meta-fictional satire set in small-town Wisconsin, the new novel's married couple (Laura and Charlie Rider) are free to explore new aspects of their cooled 12-year-old passion as they collectively and electronically woo a middle-aged, famous public radio host named Jenna Faroli (a character that seems a fictional stand-in for interviewer extraordinaire and "Fresh Air" host Terry Gross).

The summary on the book jacket all but gives the plot away for this 21st-century cross between "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice." But the reading experience isn't at all diminished for knowing the plot ahead of time. In fact, like the romance tradition it critiques, Hamilton's new novel depends on meeting and surpassing readers' expectations.

Iowa City readers -- as denizens of a City of Literature -- might also find the novel ideal for sparking discussions of what it means to be a writer today.

In one corner is Laura Rider, the intuitive storyteller who dreams of being a romance writer (even though she doesn't really read anything). In the other corner is Jenna Faroli, middle-brow intellectual who chastises Rider for imagining she can reinvent the romance genre while knowing nothing about "queer theory, womanism, postcolonial theory, eco-feminism, (or) the riot-grrrl movement."

Hamilton, as a well-established novelist, uses Faroli to voice an elitist critique of the current "culture of the amateur, a culture where everyone thinks he is an artist. You blog and you're a poet. Didn't George Bernard Shaw say that hell is filled with amateur musicians?" But Hamilton also chooses to elevate "Mrs. Rider," as amateur writer, to produce the masterpiece in the novel's title.

Come to Prairie Lights tonight at 7 p.m. and ask Hamilton herself which type of writer she most identifies with.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 or

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