(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
I cannot stand this book I’m reading right now.
It’s a novel. It’s by a writer who is generally described as Great, but who I’ve always personally felt is Pretty Good When He’s Really On His Game, Which Was Like For One Book, But Generally Speaking He’s Really Not That Good At All. Like For Example Right Now.
Ordinarily I would just stop reading it. But in this case for professional purposes I kind of have to keep going.
I’m not going to say what book it is. Which I know is going to make this column less interesting, but I’ve given up writing really nasty reviews, to the extent that I ever did, for any number of reasons, ethical and elaborately theoretical and boringly mundane (including: I hate running into people whose books I’ve panned). Plus I just don’t enjoy it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still hate books once in a while.
In fact I hate books all the time. Loathe them, even. I mostly write about books I love, but those books have beaten the odds. I throw books across the room. I throw them down the stairs. I throw them in the trash, lest they fasten themselves to some other human and drain away even more irreplaceable hours from humanity’s collective finite total.
Which I know I shouldn’t do. I hate this damn book so much that I cannot imagine another human being drawing strength and joy from it, but probably they could. I hate In Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck, too, but it’s got thirty five-star reviews on Amazon. (And I love my books—the ones I’ve written—or most of them anyway—and there are definitely people who hate them.) Statistically speaking, this book will almost certainly find a loving reader somewhere out there who is not part of the author’s immediate family. As far as I can tell what happens when a reader loves a book isn’t actually a wondrous explosion of literary greatness, an inevitable consequence of that book’s inherent value, it’s a complicated combination of all sorts of circumstances: like who the reader is, where they are in their lives, what else they’ve read, what mood they’re in at the exact moment when they pick up the book, whether they’re drunk or sober, what sorts of bullshit they will or won’t put up with (and all novels contain a certain amount of bullshit), whether the author photo looks like their ex-girl/boyfriend, etc. etc.
Likewise a similar confluence of events takes place when a person hates a book. Like I’m hating this book I’m reading now.
Why do I hate it? Part of the problem is that I know that I’m supposed to like it. It’s a terrible thing for a book, when you feel like you’re supposed to like it.
Though that can work in a book’s favor. Sometimes if I just assume a book is good, I’ll do a lot of readerly work on its behalf, pro bono. I’ll sketch in complex psychologies for characters based on a few lines of suggestive dialogue. I’ll invest chance observations and glib generalizations with a certain profundity I might not otherwise grant them. Like this one: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I have often maintained that this is utter bullshit, and I’m convinced that its bullshittiness would be widely recognized if it did not have the rest of Anna Karenina attached to it. But it does, and people give those lines the benefit of the doubt. Because, you know, Tolstoy.
But if I feel like a book is being forced on me, against my will, I can be a spiteful, surly reader. That book will get no help from me. I am doing that to this book right now.
But I don’t think that’s all that’s going on here. I’m telling you, this book: it’s like the sentences are dead tennis balls, no air in them, no fuzz on them, coming at me across the net with no spin on them at all. No verbal energy, no humor, barely even the occasional stab at a mot juste. It’s so. Very. Earnest. Is the author that convinced that his deadpan catalogue of the minutiae of daily life is that fascinating, just as it is? No need to give the words even a flick of the wrist, a smack on the ass, before he sends them on their way? No? No.
[Aside: I think humor is grievously underrated as a literary virtue. The older I get the less able I am to love books that are completely unfunny. (It does happen. Never Let Me Go, for example. Great book. Not funny.) I’ve always loved the descriptions I’ve read of Kafka reading his work aloud at salons in Prague and barely being able to go on, he was laughing so hard. I wish somebody had recorded it, or taken a picture: Laughing Kafka. It would be like those prints of Laughing Jesus that were such a thing in the 1980s.]
And not to go on, but would it kill the author to have given this book more than a limp, damp string for a plot? Yes: I understand your position, which is that life is just like that. That’s the world we live in. One damn thing after another. But a) it’s not, and b) so what?
Hating a book is not unlike hating a person; in fact it’s tempting to just go ahead and hate the author personally, by proxy, qua human being, except that I know that would be a mistake. How often have I met and disliked writers whose books I love; and conversely, hated the books and then wound up liking the writer? Too often. Often enough that I’ve figured out that when I hate a book, it’s usually just a miscalculation or a lack of skill, on the part of the writer or on the part of me, rather than an actual character flaw within the writer.
The worst part about hating a book, for me, is the despair that follows rapidly upon the hatred. I look at this book, which is expensively bound and covered and art-directed, and which in a few months’ time will be printed in vast numbers on thick creamy paper with tastefully ragged edges, and I think, God damn, a lot of people are going to buy this book. In every generation the literary world needs to crank out certain stories about writers, the same ones every time: the Wunderkind, the Outsider, the Mad Genius, the Somber Master, and so on. The machinery of literary fame has seized upon this guy to star in one of its stories. The machinery (with which I, as a literary journalist, am complicit) needs to fill a certain-shaped slot, and it has grabbed this guy and crammed him into the slot, even though in fact he’s largely without the talent he would need to be qualified to fill it. But it’s too late. We have collectively invested in the idea that he is great, and we can’t go back, because it would be too much trouble. We’re stuck with him. And thus every time this author publishes a book it will be a Great Event, and everybody will have to read the book, and labor mightily to find something in it, anything at all, to praise, even though there just isn’t much. I wish I could put up my hand and say, you know, I hate to be the one to point this out, but this guy’s work is actually not amazing? And maybe we should all just step back, re-assess, and re-assign him to his proper place in obscurity?
But there’s no point. It’s too late. The machinery grinds on while other, better books are passed over. It’s enough to make you despair. In fact I do despair sometimes, at what a totally broken culture we live in.
And then I stop and think: wait. Maybe it is just me. Maybe this book is perfectly fine. Maybe I’ve completely missed the point. Maybe other people will find joy and sadness and richness and beauty in this book, even though I didn’t. Maybe it really is a great book, and the problem is that I’m not a great reader. Probably it’s not the book, it’s just me. Maybe the culture isn’t broken at all. Probably I’m just wrong.
And I find that possibility perversely comforting.
Postscript: the genre and publication date, past or future, of this book, and the gender and age of its author may or may not have been changed to protect the guilty. It may even be a composite of several books, published years ago. Who knows. The one thing I can promise you is that you are not the author, and the book in question is not yours.
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