There Will Be a Quiz
By JOE QUEENAN
Published: April 6, 2008
Freelance writers are always looking for ways to scare up a few extra bucks, so recently I tried my hand at writing some of those “Questions for Discussion” that appear at the back of many paperbacks. I got the idea after reading Andrei Makine’s novel “The Crime of Olga Arbyelina,” the hard-luck saga of a Russian émigré with a hemophiliac son who pops up in France after World War II, hoping to put her life back together. Rumored to be kin to the luckless royals who ran afoul of Lenin and the boys back in the old country, Olga endures a life of uninterrupted misery and heartbreak.
The novel’s story line isn’t all that hard to follow, so by the time I reached the end, I had a pretty clear idea that Olga hadn’t gotten a fair shake in life. Be that as it may, I was startled when I turned to the back of the book and encountered eight questions prepared for book clubs that might be interested in discussing the novel further. Question No. 5 ran like this: “Olga has been driven from her homeland by the Bolsheviks, raped by a soldier, abandoned by her husband, treated with indifference by her lover, drugged, sexually violated and impregnated by her son. Does the novel lay the blame for Olga’s fate on the shoulders of the men in her world? Would you?”
At first, I thought this question might be a fluke or an oversight, but then I paged through a pile of other novels containing similar supplementary materials. Now it became clear to me that seemingly off-the-wall questions were a staple of the genre, deliberately included to shake up the musty old world of literature and force readers to think “outside the box.”
For example, the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of “Anna Karenina” contains this question: “Can ‘Anna Karenina’ be read as a cautionary tale, a warning against adultery?” A follow-up question runs: “Would divorce and remarriage have helped Anna Karenina? If Anna had lived in our time, how might her story have been different?”
To their credit, the folks at Barnes & Noble make a habit of challenging readers’ assumptions and sometimes getting right in their faces. For example, their edition of “The Picture of Dorian Grey” included the intemperate question “Is sin ugly or beautiful?,” while “Ethan Frome,” the unreadable Edith Wharton novel that ends in a toboggan disaster that simply must be read to be believed, even though the book is unreadable, got right down to the nitty-gritty and demanded: “Is this novel just too grim to be enjoyed?”
I soon discovered that a number of Web sites list proposed questions for book discussion groups, and that on these sites, a kind of down-home, no-holds-barred irreverence rules. On ReadingGroupGuides.com, readers who may not initially have grasped all the nuances of “The Diary of Anne Frank” are confronted by this brain-stumper: “Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann was asked how he could explain the killing of six million Jews. He answered, ‘One hundred dead are a catastrophe, a million dead are a statistic.’ Have we become more or less tolerant of murder since he made this observation?”
Often the questions drift away from the book itself, as in one I read vis-à-vis “Pride and Prejudice”: “Have you ever seen a movie version in which the woman playing Jane was, as Austen imagined her, truly more beautiful than the woman playing Elizabeth? Who doesn’t love Elizabeth Bennett?!!”
Every so often, a question seems to have been included merely to see if readers are still awake. Consider this one, from the paperback of Susan Fraser King’s “Lady Macbeth”: “Thorfin Sigurdsson, the Raven-Feeder, first steals Gruadh away from her father when she is 13 years old. Why? When does she see Thorfin again? Does she learn to trust him?”
Admittedly, these matters are open to debate, as raven feeders traditionally fall just below griffin trainers in the untrustworthiness hierarchy. A more relevant question is: How did Thorfin the Raven-Feeder maneuver his way into a book about the Macbeth family? But that’s the whole point of these questions: they zig when we expect them to zag.
Since throwing curves is second nature to me, I decided to take a crack at writing my own unorthodox book-discussion materials to see if some publishing house might purchase my wares. Here are a few examples:
After the fall of Troy, it takes Odysseus 10 years to return home. Since Troy was only a hop, a skip and a jump from Greece, do you think Penelope should have been more skeptical about her husband’s explanation for the long delay — a cabal of one-eyed, man-eating giants; a troupe composed entirely of homicidal, aquatic chantoozies; a sorceress who can turn sailors into pigs? Isn’t the whole thing kind of sketchy?
In describing a woman who can effortlessly turn a man into a pig, is Homer criticizing men in general? Or only sailors? Do you personally know any women like that? Are any of them named Brandi? What time does her shift end?
If it took Odysseus 10 years to make a short trip across a microscopic body of water, why does everyone in “The Odyssey” keep insisting he’s so smart?
Captain Ahab’s obsession with the white whale leads to complete nautical disaster in this novel, as the vengeful protagonist finally bites off more than he can chew. Do you think Ahab should have taken a page out of “Jaws” and gotten a bigger boat?
The Red and the Black
The penniless protagonist of this book has only two career choices open to him: the military or the clergy. Today, poor people have innumerable career options: personal training, consulting, cabaret. If Stendahl were writing today, what color would he use to symbolize a career as a private equity fund manager? Is teal just totally out?
Did you see the movie based on this book? Didn’t you think Laurence Olivier was too old to play the part? Boy, I did. I never thought he was all that good-looking, did you?
If Heathcliff had fallen in love with Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett instead of Cathy, do you think his house would have burned down?
If Heathcliff were alive today, would he mention Cathy’s death on his Facebook page and change his relationship status to “It’s complicated”?
Remembrance of Things Past
This novel is 4,000 pages long, yet nothing ever happens. Is Proust making some kind of veiled comment about French society?
Do you think this book would have been more interesting if Swann had been replaced by Thorfin Sigurdsson, the Raven-Feeder?
Frankly, I thought I was getting somewhere with my questions. Then I turned to the back pages of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and found this:
“What do you make of Hyde’s appearance? (He is small and subtly deformed.) Do you think he should have been depicted as tall and hypermuscular, or obese and debauched, or pale and cadaverous? Why? (Or why not?) Is there a specific meaning in, or reason for, Hyde’s appearance?”
That’s when I decided to bag the whole enterprise. I was a dwarf among giants. These people were totally out of my league.