I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation

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(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.

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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.

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[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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40 comments
JessalynWise
JessalynWise

"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 feel this way about Star Trek: Reboot.

When it's books, it's so much easier to resist (as a civilian, as it were, not a reviewer). "I just haven't had the time," I can say. Or any number of other excuses that sound plausible.

I've read the most appallingly awful books: books I've picked up on a sale table on a whim, books by writers I enjoy after those writers have wearied of that character/setting, but the publisher (and the writer's daily expenses) demand more sequels. But, as you say, some readers still love those books, as you say. I'm still always surprised when the rest of the world does not think exactly like me. :-)


MattMessana
MattMessana

I'm disturbed that you won't write negative reviews, Lev. What is this, a children's play centre where everyone receives a gold star for playing, and if we don't have anything nice to say we shouldn't say anything? That's a really weak approach to reviewing, in my opinion.

Yes, I understand that column space is limited, and you want to promote books you like. And yes, the days of book reviewers passing their judgments down on stone tablets are gone, and good riddance.

But I don't think those are the real reasons. I think it's just easier personally and professionally to only publish nice things, and never annoy or upset anyone. And to that, I say 'diddums, suck it up'. Your job isn't to win friends.

Put down markers. If we don't know which books disappointed you, and if you don't have the courage of your convictions to explain a promintent book's shortcomings, how are we to judge your value as a critic? Not all negative reviews are 'hatchet jobs'. Just because a lot of people like a book doesn't mean you shouldn't have the cohones to raise a dissenting voice. Or is your only role that of cheerleader? 

If the book critic of a prominent national publication won't take authors down a peg when they publish a poorly-realised book, especially an established author with a devoted fan-base and a sack of awards, that is a recipe for stagnation and complacency, and for an exceptionally boring and untrustworthy book review section. No author worth their salt should thank you for sparing the rod. 

MattMessana
MattMessana

I'm rather disturbed that you refuse to write negative reviews, Lev. What is this, some sort of children's play centre, where everyone gets a gold star for competing and if one doesn't have anything nice to say, one shouldn't say anything? This is a ridiculous approach to reviewing, in my opinion. Yes, I understand that column space is limited, and you want to champion good books rather than waste space critising ones that disappointed you. I also understand that the days of critics passing down their judgements in tablets of stone are long gone, and good riddance.

But it seems to me that that isn't the real reason you won't publish 'hatchet jobs'. It seems to me just that it's easier and safer for you personally to write nice things about books you like, than risk angering people with criticism. And to that, I say 'diddums, suck it up'.

Put down markers. Review books that disappoint you. If we don't know what you don't like, and if you won't explain which books you think are bad as well as those that you think are good, how are we to fully judge the merits of your opinions? Not all negative reviews are 'hatchet jobs' - you should be able to explain a book's shortcomings, in your opinion, without sticking the knife in unecessarily.

If book critics in major national publications won't take authors down a peg when they write a poor book, especially established authors with devoted fan-bases and a list of awards to their name, that is a recipe for stagnation and complacency and an exceptionally boring and untrustworthy Time book review section. No author worth their salt should thank you for sparing them the rod.

theliterary
theliterary

I can almost be certain which book Grossman is talking about, and yet it's a shame that he doesn't want to admit it, because the writer in question has so much "apparent" power in the industry, such that if Grossman did say something frank and honest, he could imagine losing his position at Time, his publishing contract, his career. Such is the sad world we live in. But I think the truth will set you free, Mr. Grossman.

michaelroloff
michaelroloff

I'd feel more assured with Lev Grossman's riff if she gave an example of one book that she liked and of the reasons why. Among the chaff that fluffs up in her piece... are a handful of irrelevancies.  

http://handke-magazin.blogspot...

Sharonburgh
Sharonburgh

This review made me laugh out loud, Lev. Thanks for that! I'm also in the midst of slogging through a book that I hate.  The fact is: her writing is sharp, fast, quirky, interesting. Her sentences have zip and pizazz. She's won a major European book award for this.  I just flat out hate her protagonist's  unrelenting cynicism--about her husband, her family, her life, her dead brother. All of the blurbs on the back call the book "Brilliant!" "Stunning!" "Earth Shatteringly Mindblowing!" (OK, I made up that last one.) But, the character's perspective leaves me drained, empty. I've finally buried the book under a pile of other books far back on my bookshelf.  I can't read this world view anymore, even if the whole world finds it "Brilliant!" Give me a character, who doesn't find life soul-sucking, please...

robertboswell
robertboswell

When Tolstoy writes that happy families are all alike, he is saying they are beneath the consideration of the novel you are about to read. It is not meant as a universal truth; rather, it is a statement of intention. The novel will investigate many unhappy families, and the novel will end with Lev and Kitty, after Lev has come to terms with marriage and fatherhood. The novel ends when they become a happy family. In this manner the brilliant opening sentence reveals the novel's intention, and the narrative is shaped by it.

HannibalV
HannibalV

I find myself worried that it's Michael Chabon's new one, which makes me sad because I really, really love his stuff. (Edited to add: Maybe Zadie Smith?)

Mike Vidafar
Mike Vidafar

Lev,

I'm glad you decided against never judging books again. Good reviews are good too. The dark side is strong.

Also, you sound a lot like Maughm. And for the record, I hope it's Franzen too; the guy's a douche bag. Can I say that word? Will I be moderated? I don't really care...

Peter Clark
Peter Clark

My bet is on A Hologram for the King.  I don't want to pan it either, but after the article Sunday's NYtimes book review I feel like I must.  Honestly, they compared Eggars to Mailer so many times that even Mailer was posthumously yelling, "Woh now, I mean, I like people talking about me, but this not like this--not like this."

Peter Clark
Peter Clark

My bet is on A Hologram for the King.  I don't want to pan it either, but after the article Sunday's NYtimes book review I feel like I must.  Honestly, they compared Eggars to Mailer so many times that even Mailer was posthumously yelling, "Woh now, I mean, I like people talking about me, but this not like this--not like this."

Evan Gregory
Evan Gregory

It's okay, Lev, I didn't like The Art of Fielding either.

BEParks
BEParks

Hmmm -- I suspect you're reading Martin Amis or Julian Barnes.

Elias Barton
Elias Barton

It's quite hilarious when you read the Amazon reader reviews to many award-winning books and the general consensus is "WTF? THIS won an award?"  Then again, there are so many types of novels, some are meant to chew on, some are meant to digest.  Either way, they need to be able to keep the reader reading. 

MannahattaMamma
MannahattaMamma

all i can say is that i hope you're writing about jonathan franzen, who has sucked up way too much air in the literary in-crowd; on the basis of his dissing article about Edith Wharton in the NYer alone, he should be kicked out of the "in crowd" tent. 

Claire Potter
Claire Potter

A similar blog post of mine over at the Chronicle of Higher Education produced a debate over whether I had failed to fulfill my job as academic gatekeeper by not revealing the name of the offending author and book. It's an interesting difference in our audiences, isn't it?

http://chronicle.com/blognetwo...

Matthew Budman
Matthew Budman

Postscript notwithstanding, Lev, it's hard not to envision a "Citizen Kane" scene in which your dying words are "Jonathan . . . Franzen."

Susan KushnerResnick
Susan KushnerResnick

Exactly what I've been feeling for most of the summer as I read widely lauded literary fiction. Which explains why I'm much happier with creative nonfiction and Stephen King.

DwDunphy
DwDunphy

Books are tough things in that, unlike a movie with which you might lose a couple wasted hours of your life, you have to commit to the act of reading. This is fine if you get a satisfying payback, but if you don't, weeks of dedication can be capped with a complete letdown.

That's why I don't read. In fact, I'm typing this very message with my eyes closed. Amazing, isn't it?

sean1966
sean1966

Again, I like Lev. Brightens my day. 

I don't know the book he's on about, but I just finished a novel where you just knew the writer thought he was being 'clever' and 'droll', and possibly even 'tongue-in-cheek' - but he was actually just plain boring.

http://sdanielshortwintercom.b...

cottageindustrialist
cottageindustrialist

I love this so much.

And I envision a parlor game amongst book nerds, each of them sure that they've sussed out who the unnamed writer is—a la "You're so Vain," with Lev Grossman as Carly Simon coyly auctioning off the open secret to a bunch of well-to-do effetes decades hence.

Allison Balcerak
Allison Balcerak

I completely agree that where the reader in is life/what

they know greatly affects the reading experience. I hated Wuthering Heights

with a passion when I was a junior in college: the plot repeats itself, the characters

are pathetic, I could have been assigned Gulliver’s Travels for my semester

project, etc. As I’ve grown older I can now appreciate what Emily Bronte was

trying to say about co-dependent relationships, settling, the threat of being

doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes, and so on.

anon76returns
anon76returns

Come on Lev, you know you're going to have to pan this author in the review eventually, anyway.  Just tell us poor schlubs on the wrong side of the paywall who it is.  I'll sweeten the deal:  tell us the author, and I personally promise to never again mention the greatest sci-fi show that ever was or ever will be.

Bluestalking
Bluestalking

 I liked Hologram. It certainly wasn't GREAT but didn't SUCK, either, like the aforementioned JF.  If it's Mr. Grossman's Book of Concentrated Hatred I'd cry tears of shame.

Max Powers
Max Powers

Maybe we should get rid of said "in crowd" altogether?

Brian Krueger, PhD
Brian Krueger, PhD

 It doesn't help when you have uncivilized trolls like physioproffe constantly fanning the flames

Bluestalking
Bluestalking

Another good guess! Hilarious it's from a library, too.

Signed, a librarian...

Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman

I have to admit, that's a damn good offer

anon76returns
anon76returns

Not good enough, apparently.  And now I'm fresh out of sweetener.

OK, how about a different admission, then.  Don't you secretly miss Nerd World?  Wasn't the give and take fun?

And now poor Poniewozik is left as the only regular purveyor of nerdishness on Time.com.  It's a sad state of affairs.

olaf78
olaf78

I miss Nerd World.

Especially for the B__ references and digs. 

I think he's talking about Chabon (who I love, which...bollocks).

Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman

yes.

it's a fallen world we live in. we were born too late.