Welcome to Conversational Era, a new semi-regular collaborative feature which finds us chatting with readers, authors, & fellow bloggers about a myriad of different subjects.
Today, Jennifer Fliss joins Aaron and Karli for an in-depth spoiler-free discussion about Jim Crace’s final novel Harvest.
Jennifer Fliss is The Well Read Fish. She’s an avid reader, writer, runner, and has been known to do the flying trapeze (completely true). In addition to literary treats and reviews, The Well Read Fish likes to pair like books with like books, be it by subject, style, setting . . . The Well Read Fish is a New York fish living in Seattle, loving it and occasionally struggling with it.
Jim Crace’s final novel Harvest has found itself nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and The Goldsmiths Prize. Set in an unspecified time period and told over seven days, Crace’s swan song boldly defies all of the expectations placed upon by casual fiction reader. Plot and character development fly out the window as Crace embarks upon an eloquent exploration of what happens when communication breaks down and trust dissolves.
Aaron: Jen, you picked Harvest as the subject of your “Why It Will Win” post for BookerMarks. I know some of us chose books that we felt we could properly defend from a literary standpoint, but that we didn’t necessarily believe should win. How do you actually feel about Harvest in relation to the rest of this year’s finalists and what inspired you to create such an amazing infographic in its honor?
Jen: I know it’s practically sacrilegious to say so, but I don’t generally care for classic literature. Y’know, Literature with a capital “L.” While I can definitely appreciate their place in our literary canon, I find I get bored. My sensibilities are a bit more modern. Harvest felt like a classic. I found it to be a boring read; especially early on. Couple Crace’s old-style language with an even older-style setting, and you had me desperate for something more exciting. However, it being a short book and one where I was able to appreciate the language and level of craft Crace was employing; I kept at it. Do I think it got less boring? Not really. But the ambiance (witchcraft, death, fire) kept me moderately interested. (I also tend to enjoy the macabre!) In the end, I could see myself writing a paper on it. I could imagine getting into discussions with a class or book club about mass hysteria, about guilt and blame, about outsiderness. (This should be a word. “Twerk” is apparently now officially a word. Therefore I can make up what I want.) These are universal themes. I think a mark of an interesting or quality book is one that does encourage these kinds of conversations. So while I was bored through most of it, I really was impressed with Crace’s skill, which, to me, was evident throughout.
Karli: I’m inclined to agree with Jen on this one. Harvest is certainly a “capital L” piece of Literature, which to me, means that it’s boring, but with a purpose. As we’ve discussed before, I think the purpose of Harvest is to showcase the swift degradation and destruction of a community when leadership is weak and said community is highly motivated by fear and the possibility of threat. Crace certainly succeeds with this notion, but the long, tedious passages makes for a rather cumbersome read. But at the same time, I feel like Harvest is one of those books that makes me a better writer and book blogger. It challenges me to articulate reason and purpose in the absence of pleasure. Does a book have to be entertaining to be of literary merit? As history proves, it certainly does not, so I ask myself: What’s the bigger picture? How does it apply to our society and our understanding of social histories? How does the book contribute to the current literary conversation? I’m not pretending to have the answers, but they are nonetheless challenging questions to answer in regard to Harvest. So while I did not particularly enjoy reading Harvest, it gave me a great deal to ponder, not just regarding the book itself, but also in the arena of modern literature and the state of literary awards.
Aaron, as you have already discussed in your review of Harvest, you believe the tedious pace is necessary to reflect the lifestyle of the characters, but do you think the book would have been more fascinating and embraced by readers if Crace had pursued some of the more “macabre” aspects that Jen mentioned?
Aaron: It’s a difficult question to answer because it speaks directly to why a particular person is picking up the book to read in the first place. Someone that is looking for a light beach read most certainly will not enjoy Harvest, but for someone who’s looking for a challenging piece of historical fiction with ties to religion and sociopolitical issues Harvest will be one of the most engaging pieces of literature that they’ll encounter all year. While enjoyable, characters and surface plot can only really take any story so far, and speaking for myself personally, I love the act of deconstructing a novel, tearing it apart, and examining the underlying glue that holds it together. Plus, that glue smells awesome, does it not? You know what I mean though, I’m always up for the challenge of a more complex read, even if more often then not I’m left feeling like I failed some sort of test by the end of it.
To get back to the heart of your question though, yes Crace could have attracted a more mainstream audience by exploring the witchcraft and the torture, but it would have distracted from his overall message, diluted the themes he was attempting to explore, and turned Harvest into a very different book. I’m not sure it’s one that I would have wanted to read, but it probably could have wound up a New York Times best-seller as a result.
Speaking of those themes, Jen, one of the most prevalent throughout the story is clearly society’s instinctive reaction to immediately turn to violence when something foreign or abnormal comes along and upsets its everyday routines. Do you think this need to go on the offensive still holds true in today’s modern world, and if so, what do you think Crace is trying to tell us by setting the novel so far in the past?
Jen: Aaron, I would agree with your point: “but for someone who’s looking for a challenging piece of historical fiction with ties to religion and sociopolitical issues Harvest will be one of the most engaging pieces of literature that they’ll encounter all year.” I am certainly glad I stuck with it for those reasons. However, I do tend to put a book down if I’m straight-up not enjoying it and would most likely have done so with Harvest had I not been tasked to read it. So, for that, I’m grateful.
Yes, I definitely think the themes are still universal today. Look at what happened after September 11th. Anyone who looked remotely Muslim was anointed a terrorist. Media outlets suggested kicking Arabs out of the U.S. This happens throughout the world constantly, on large and small scales. It’s (unfortunately) rather natural for humans to see an outsider as a harbinger of trouble, should there be any disruption to their lives. The economy tanked? Whose fault? THEM. A plague has stricken your village? The newcomers! (But, of course, THAT was frequently the case.) I’m not sure why Crace chose to set it in the past and in the particular setting, but I’d think it might be because if it were set in current times, we could be blind to the themes and simply read it as the way the world is right now; a play-by-play, rather than a commentary. Given its setting, it reads more Literature and therefore the themes seem to be stronger than the plot itself, unlike much (though not all) modern fiction.
Karli: It’s interesting to think about how much we have grown to rely on plot as readers. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have decided that a book has less merit if the plot is not fast-paced or unexpected. With Harvest, I think we get back to the basics of literature – Crace shows off his artistry in prose and descriptions rather than storytelling abilities. Harvest may not have the most compelling plot, but it has depth and focus. It’s not really about what happens, but rather why certain events unfold the way they do. It’s about the psychology of the characters more than anything, which, for readers, means more work – we have to read between the lines and use our skills of analysis and interpretation. It’s not as fun, but do you think it’s more rewarding in the end?
Aaron: Ultimately, if I’m truthful with myself about it, in this particular situation, probably not, no. It all boils down to how relatable some of the major themes are, and The Enclosure Act of 1773, well, sorry, but that’s not exactly at the top of my list of concerns as a modern day human being. Harvest is a semi-interesting puzzle wrapped up in some truly gorgeous writing, it made me question the sustainability of any sort of prolonged form disconnected existence (even one in which a single individual unplugs from a computer), but I’m not willing to make the leap to rewarding because I don’t feel like I learned anything through the experience of reading the novel that I wasn’t already aware of. For me there was no “a-ha” moment, there was no epiphany or sudden parting of the clouds where I thought that I finally understood something for the first time or could at least appreciate it from a different perspective. There were just lots of ideas I had already considered in one form or another repackaged in a less accessible way. Jen?
Jen: I agree. I didn’t find it rewarding either. Yes, now that we are talking about the novel, we can discuss it and pull it apart and we DO find interesting features, themes, writing, but how often do you dissect a book you read? I don’t often. My book club is all about food and we rarely even talk about the book! (Sometimes to my chagrin.) I finished up a two year writing class recently and our teacher really tried to bring home plot and certain “typical” tools with fiction. I tended to rebel. I like a good page-turning plot, but I think I gravitate primarily toward language and setting. For me, a plot is useless if it’s cliché and formulaic. I also think it sad, like Karli said, that we generally have these expectations of go-go-go in our fiction these days. I actually think The Lowland defied typical plot-driven fiction (a bit), and still ended up with better results than Crace’s Harvest. Do I think Harvest could win. I do. Would I be disappointed though? I don’t think so. There is value here, even if I wasn’t excited by it. Especially considering, I did resent when Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending won. I was bored to tears with that book and really felt I came out of it with nothing.
Karli: As I mentioned in my “why it will win” post, I think Harvest has a very good chance of taking home the prize this year. There’s nothing too edgy or flashy about it, but it has certainly succeeded in drawing attention. It seems like every year the Man Booker Judges like to throw a few wildcards into the longlist – last year, though, seemed to have many more wildcards than others. But in the end, the judges always go with something more on the traditionally literary side. It doesn’t get much more traditional, proper, capital-L Literature than Harvest this year. You could make a similar argument for The Testament of Mary – and Toibin certainly has Man Booker experience on his side, but in the end, I really think that The Testament of Mary is too short and too controversial. Now keep in mind, I haven’t read The Lowland or finished The Luminaries, but at this point, I do think Harvest has the strongest chance of winning.
Jennifer Fliss is the newest member of the BookerMarks project, which is a yearly collaboration between 8 bloggers who shadow the Man Booker Award and try to predict the winner. So far, they’re 1-for-1.