Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Eye Of The Beholder

In my last newsletter, I said this blog would feature my thoughts on an essayist's responsibility to the facts of a given topic, in response to a recent segment of On The Media.   That blog is still on the way.  However, an issue has arisen, which I feel I must address first.

Now that my mother has retired, she's filled her time with a few new hobbies, including membership in a monthly book club.  Since, April is her month to host, she asked me to recommend a good book.  I confidently recommended Tina  Fey's humorous biography, Bossypants.  She asked if it was a  "dirty book," and with equal confidence, I told her it wasn't.

Mine was apparently the minority opinion, at least where this particular book club is concerned.  Some members have refused to finish the "dirty book," sighting  frequent use of the "F word" and the inclusion of gay characters.  I was floored that anyone would consider the book to be dirty.

I remembered funny tales of her; growing up, working at the YMCA, meeting Lorne Michaels for the first time, working for Saturday Night Live, starting 30 Rock, and preparing for motherhood; but none of it struck me as dirty, or even risque.  To paraphrase a literary master, I puzzled and puzzled until my puzzler was soar.

A few days into the puzzling process, I finally hit upon the source of the misunderstanding.  I realized that most of the authors I enjoy, utilize such elements in their books.

Take the "F word," for example.   Robert B. Parker, James Patterson, and other modern mystery writers use the word to give their tough downtown characters a sense of realism.  Additionally, writers such as Anthony Bourdain and Gabrielle Hamilton use the word to set a certain independent tone to their prose.

Likewise, many of the books I read feature gay characters.  My favorite writer, Robert B. Parker, has even been sighted as being the first hard boiled mystery writer to include non-villainous gay characters in his books.  They're not usually included because the book in question addresses gay issues, but simply because the presence gay people is  part of life, as is the presence of any minority.  

Thus, the inclusion of such elements didn't lead me to think of the book as being dirty.  By my way of thinking, a dirty book features; multiple bed hopping characters, vivid descriptions of typically covered body parts, detailed accounts of such body parts entering and/or exiting orifices, and graphic depictions of sexual play, none of which were in the book.

If I made a mistake, it was in not taking the subjectivity of the word "dirty" into account, and expecting my definition to be universally accepted.  In Love's Labours Lost, Shakespeare observed that, "Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye."   Perhaps the same can be said for any label of quality including good, bad, funny, thoughtful, and dirty.  If so, then I'm curious about what other people's definitions are.

What makes a book "dirty?"

What makes a book "good?"

Can a dirty book be a good book, or are the terms mutually exclusive?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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