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The Literate Masochist
by Deborah Markus

here are a number of good reasons for seeking out writers you really love to hate. I don't mean someone you've just never liked, or someone you know you ought to like, you've every reason to enjoy, all of whose friend you admire, but the chemistry just isn't right and you can't make it work. I mean someone who gets on your nerves in a rather specific, delicious sort of way.

I've had this kind of doomed, hopeless relationship with Henry James for years. Ask me how I can swoon over Wharton and not be able to click with James. Go on, ask me. I can't answer. But I'm not talking about an undeveloped, for whatever reason, taste. I'm talking about writers I know I detest and at the same time I just can't get enough of.

I don't even mean those books that are so bad they're good, or at least funny. Cornball over-the-top romances and men's adventure novels come to mind. I'm talking about just plain bad books. I must be some kind of literary masochist.

Some of these writers are obscure. Take Sonia Johnson, whom you've likely never heard of and it's probably just as well. A long time ago, say a couple of decades, Ms. Johnson actually lived on the same planet as the rest of us. She was a Mormon (and no, that doesn't contradict what I just said -- be nice) who thought that being a feminist didn't mean having to give up her religion. Her church thought otherwise and kicked her out, and she, not unnaturally, was peeved. So she wrote her autobiography, From Housewife to Heretic, and got her 15 minutes of fame.

So big whoop. That book was actually pretty good -- Mormon history, Mormon not-so-history (their allowing blacks full membership privileges is within living memory), women's history, gory details about a marriage gone down the tubes. Lots of fun.

It would have been a great Cinderella story -- except that Sonia didn't stop writing after that. She became one of those people who figures, hey, why blame just one guy or religion or deity when I can trash an entire gender, all organized religions, and any deity out there who doesn't agree with me, which weirdly enough meant pretty much all of them in Johnson's case. So each book she wrote got a little weirder and a little worse, and I went from interested admiration to slack-jawed incredulity until the stretch of time between the calls I was compelled to make to my husband, no matter where he was, and insist that he listen to the most bizarre nonsensicality he'd ever heard got so small that the most sensitive instruments on the planet couldn't measure it. I ate these books up with unfading fascination and endless enjoyment. Sure, part of me railed against a writer who once did such fine work and was now writing novels about channeling spirits and theorizing that people could once see in the dark, like cats (and if they can't any more, it's all men's fault). But mostly I was delighted at this turn for the worse. I wanted to write her a note thanking her for adding to the sum total of human pleasure in the world. Kind of like "Calvin and Hobbes," only funnier and less rooted in reality. Which sentiment I realized Johnson might not appreciate, so I kept it to myself after all.

Then the women's bookstore I'd been working at and borrowing her books from (why buy Wonderland when you can get psychedelic mushrooms for free?) closed, Sonia Johnson became unfindable to even my most impassioned Internet searches, and I had to find someone else to love hating. Anais Nin was good for that -- the great cosmic slut who thought that if she slept with enough writers she'd figure out how to put two coherent sentences together, in which belief she was enjoyably mistaken. Then there was Dickens. Oh, Dickens. For every one of his books I actually like (yes, there are a few -- I'm not an irredeemable cretin), there are two I just love to loathe. We're talking the kind of detestation generally reserved for in-laws and exes. And the nicer his characters are supposed to be, the more I loathe them. I must be the only person who despised David Copperfield even when he was a smackedaround little tyke, let alone when he grew up and married first a retard and then the patron saint of cows in rapid succession. Both of whom he no doubt gave syphilis to, thanks to that boyhood affair with James "Just a Friend -- No, Really" Steerforth in boarding school. You remember Steerforth -- the one who ran off with Little Emily? Don't get her confused with Little Dorrit. Or Little Nell. Or Tiny Tim. Oh, to heck with them, every one.

Manly classic science fiction gets under my skin and into my heart much the same way Dickens does. I actually got paid to copy edit a volume of that not long ago, and I hated the book so much I wouldn't have been able to put it down even if I hadn't had the publisher breathing down my neck. Any book featuring brave, bronzed men and the women who love them does it for me. God, do I hate Heinlein. Him and his full-figured fantasies disguised as science fiction. Is that Stranger in a Strange Land in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me? And then -- I know I'm going to get death threats for this one -- there's Armistead Maupin, he of Tales of the City fame, whose plots are as quirky and characterfilled as Dickens but who beats him out for sheer mawkishness eight days a week. You can bore a hole into any one of Maupin's novels and collect enough sap to syrup a Boy Scout pancake breakfast.

It's hard to be a hate-lover in a world that assumes you admire any book you're caught reading. "Oh, The Old Curiosity Shop! Isn't it wonderful?"

"It will be in a minute."

"Excuse me?"

"I'm just waiting for the part where Little Nell dies so I can start cheering."

The thing is, a writer has to be just the right kind of bad, or the wrong kind of good, to appeal to me in this fashion. And most of the writers I've mentioned are dead or otherwise limited in their ability to produce more books for my bitter enjoyment.

And rereading does get dull after a while. If only there were some way of guaranteeing a constant supply of just the kind of book I mean.

Maybe I should snuggle all my Nins and all my Heinleins together on a dark shelf, just to see what happens. Hmmm... Diary of a Puppet Master, Volume Five: Bolt Astley finds out he's his own father and sleeps with him anyway. No, that'd be a bit much. Even for me.

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