Is the growing complexity of life leading to new forms of literary fiction? That’s what Patricia Holt, a former San Francisco Chronicle book critic, is asking her local book club to ponder.
Ms. Holt has been guiding readers through the ins and outs of novels to shed light on the occasionally murky waters of contemporary fiction for some time. She facilitates monthly book clubs at Point Reyes Books and Book Passage in Corte Madera, under the name “Contemporary Classics,” a deliberate contradiction in terms.
“As most of us are taught in school, a book needs to stand the test of time before it can be considered a classic,” she said. “But today, in our fast-paced, post-internet culture, critics and literary judges leap to praise books as ‘instant classics’ soon after publication.”
Ms. Holt began her career in publishing on the East Coast in the late ’60s, then moved to California, where she was the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years. “Literary criticism really does uphold certain standards of writing that are invaluable, and that’s why we have critics,” she said of her field.
In her book clubs, she begins each session by looking at a critic’s point of view on the book and then opens the floor to a lively discussion. “It’s the emotional responses of individual readers that really tell whether the book will pass the test of time,” she said.
The books she chooses are all award-winning. Her small and dedicated group in Point Reyes Station this month tackled George Saunders’s “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which won the Man Booker Prize in 2017.
“I had thought in my lifetime there would never be anything new under the fiction sun. But this decade or so is a stunning time for readers of fiction,” Ms. Holt said.
Mr. Saunders is a critically acclaimed short-story writer and teacher at Syracuse University. The book, which describes Abraham Lincoln’s grief surrounding the death of his son, is experimental, narrated by a number of ghosts who, in addition to telling the story of Lincoln’s visits to the graveyard where his son lies, tell of their own befuddled lives.
Ms. Holt said it looks like a movie script and Lincoln scrapbooks rolled into one cacophonous mess. Still, there is a story. “Here is a novel forging a totally new form. It feels so completely new that we hardly know how to read it,” she told the group.
Where is the story? Who are the protagonists? she asked. “It reads like a play, but insists on a narrative that keeps nailing down the voices of its characters on the page or screen. This is another example of the current trend in fiction of burying the story. I think the reason for this trend is that real life is so complicated that in everyday existence, it’s hard to see our own ‘through line.’”
Mr. Saunders said in an interview with Commonweal Magazine in July of last year, “If you start with the idea that you are going to be writing about a night in a graveyard, and that there are only a few living people in that frame, all sorts of interesting and difficult technical problems arise. And then form—new form, or experimental form—might be understood as just trying to tell that story most movingly and efficiently.”
The idea for the book took hold, Mr. Saunders said, when a friend told him how Lincoln visited the crypt where his son was several times to hold his body.
Ms. Holt said she likes to hear what an author has to say while simultaneously not believing it. “Authors are driven by sparks and triggers and lightbulbs going off and ideas hitting them out of the blue. So they just start in and follow what their characters tell them to do. Sometimes they are the last person to know what their own novel is about,” she said.
Doris Ober, a longtime West Marin resident, and an author and book editor herself, described the club as “an advanced class in modern literature.” “What I love is listening to and participating in Pat’s analysis of whatever we’re reading,” she said. “I may not care at all for the book under discussion—often I don’t.” In this case, she did, however.
“I read it when it first came out and fell head over heels, and reading it again for our group allowed me to see many things I hadn’t seen the first time, or had skimmed over,” Ms. Ober said. “I felt the book more deeply—Lincoln’s grief, especially.”
That sorrow is existential is a main theme, Ms. Holt said. She cited an excerpt from late in the book:
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow, toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”
Christine Muzik, another local reader, said she liked that Ms. Holt makes it a goal to present all sides of a book: the good, the bad and the ridiculous.
“She does this so well that you leave with a much deeper understanding of the latest and ‘best’ of modern fiction classics,” Ms. Muzik said. “I am a non-fiction fan, but with Pat’s assistance, I have a much deeper understanding of the complexities of modern lit.”
To learn more about “Contemporary Classics,” visit ptreyesbooks.com.