There was a time in the very recent past when I was quite interested in reading books on some “best of” lists and even more interested in reading books with shiny medallions imprinted on their covers – specifically books that had been awarded the Pulitzer, or the National Book Award or the Booker Prize. With the thousands of books published every year, some credible filter has to exist that can distill the great from the good and the very best from the great. Certainly, some group of people exists who have the credentials, the supernatural ability to review the many worthy novels and apply stringent criteria to select the few titles each year that will be marked for all time as award winning literature. I was never 100% invested in this idea, but as time has passed and as I’ve read more of these books and more importantly, more of what’s been said about the prize winners, I have adopted a much more jaded view of the process and the results.
While it is true that I’m not the most educated or discerning reader alive, I get better all the time. I look at the list of books I read last year and I wish I’d read fewer titles and I wish I’d read them more closely. The reality is that most of us don’t know why we like what we like. I can list a dozen titles that I loved, but I can’t tell you exactly why I thought they were good.
I recently read a piece, published in The Atlantic in August of 2001 that has given me a great deal of pause. "A Reader’s Manifesto" is, in short, “an attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” The author, B.R. Myers has been simultaneously attacked and praised for coming from completely outside the literary establishment with this manifesto. While I can’t say that I agree with everything he says and I find some of his criticisms to be arbitrary and not wholly representative of the authors he criticizes, he does make some excellent points and his examples are mostly on the mark.
It was interesting to reflect on two of the works he chose to attack (The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx and Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson) because I remember falling in love with both novels when they came out, but I can’t dispute the specific criticisms he’s made.
What I can judge about the books and about myself as a reader in the early nineties is that there is much to like about the books. At the time I read them, there were probably phrases and sentences didn’t quite make sense to me or that I probably didn’t notice because I was ultimately taken in by the entirety of both stories, by the characters and by the preponderance of description and fine prose that did resonate. Good enough for me.
To Myers’ point, perhaps it should not have been good enough for those professional literary critics who should have been reading more closely, nor for the reviewers who lauded the books with unqualified praise.
He doesn’t hold back in his criticism of a number of other popular and celebrated authors, specifically Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. I will confess to feeling a shameful relief when I read what he had to say about White Noise. I finished that book with a particularly empty feeling and a sensation that I must have missed something because others thought so highly of it. Perhaps I didn’t.
I don’t like negative criticism. In fact, I’ve always thought less of the person who writes it. It’s so disturbing to me that I’ve unsubscribed to a number of blogs and stopped following several people on Twitter because the negativity casts a pall over my day that can literally keep me up at night. More and more negative criticism escalates into the low art (or entertainment might be a better description) form called Snark -- if that’s what the kids are still calling it these days; my distaste for Snark in general makes me see myself shaking a crooked old finger at the kids whose baseball has rolled into my yard, but that’s who I am. The fact that so many bloggers find it not only acceptable, but entertaining confirms my belief that my disdain for it is generational.
Thoughtful analysis of writing done well is just as useful, if not more so, and far more positive an endeavor. Annie Dillard does this to charming effect in Living by Fiction and James Wood uses quite a few nice examples in How Fiction Works.
I've come to be able to assess my opinion on a book based on some fairly simple criteria:
1. Story. There has to be a cohesive story no matter what the type of novel. Story is the lowest common denominator required of all types of fiction, regardless of genre.
2. Fine Writing. The writing has to be better than average for me to enjoy the book. Whether the prose is tight and spare or whether it is expansive and descriptive, it has to be good.
3. More. My personal preference is to get something that goes beyond story and fine writing. The novels I enjoy typically make some reference to society or culture (post 9/11 novels like Man in the Dark, or cold war era novels like Hoffman's Hunger, or anti-war novels like Slaughterhouse Five come to mind). Or the novel needs to leave me thinking about some philosophical question about the nature of existence or life or relationships (again, Hoffman's Hunger, Sophie's Choice (which did both), The Stranger, Swann's Way).
The majority of published fiction probably satisfies my need for story and for people who read purely for escapism, story is probably plenty. But for a novel to be elevated to what I'd consider literature, I think it needs to encompass all three of my criteria, and before deciding how well the author did at writing his or her book, I really need to understand what I believe he or she was trying to accomplish.
I would never judge a police procedural harshly because the main character wasn't pondering the meaning of his existence, for example -- which is not to say that a police procedural can't do that too.
But when done properly, there is something to be learned from a constructive negative assessment, whether I like it or not. The fascinating thing about negative criticism is that people only spend time lavishing it on works they feel have been unjustly praised and therein is the crux of the problem. (Let's assume we're not addressing silly negative criticism leveled at books that have accomplished what they set out to).
The author of a competently written book with an entertaining story is rarely attacked by a credible reviewer. Although it shouldn’t need to be said, I don’t count flaming comments (or glowing ones, for that matter) found in Amazon reviews to be credible, unless I recognize the contributor. In this age of frantic book promotion, there are very few authors and reviewers who have not heaped hyperbole on books that, while they may be good reads, are probably undeserving of the superlatives they get. And the more competition there is, the more the praise becomes meaningless and the more likely the Snark is to fly.
On a side note, one of my pet peeves about negative criticism is that too often it comes off as a personal attack on the author. Negative reviews often give me the sense that the reviewer is alleging that the author is perfectly capable of writing a great book, but instead has chosen to dupe the book buying public and cheat them out of their hard earned money by writing something substandard. I doubt this is ever the case with any author who aspires to write literary fiction. It may well be that there are some author brands that have become virtual book writing factories that crank out formulaic crap, based on what people seem to be buying and if that is indeed what those authors are doing then shame on the readers who keep buying those books.
I stand behind my opinion that The Shipping News and Snow Falling on Cedars are good novels, even though my recent read of "A Readers Manifesto" has spotlighted some chinks in the armor. Was The Shipping News the best choice for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer in ’93 and ’94? Was Snow Falling on Cedars the best of all the candidates for the PEN/Faulkner Award in ’95? I now wonder and I concede that maybe there were more worthy choices.
What I will concede to B.R. Myers is that those people who are charged with bestowing the highest literary recognition in the land have a solemn duty to closely read and analyze. I may not continue my habit of writing about every book I read. Perhaps I’ll save my positive thoughts for those books that have made a significant impression on me. To do anything else renders my opinion worthless, doesn’t it?
Myers published an entire book on his manifesto and this page has a number of links at the bottom to the many responses that both the Atlantic article and the book provoked. Interesting reading and I'd love to hear more thoughts on this.
Whether your tastes lean toward literary fiction and all its incarnations or more traditional genre fiction, have you defined your own criteria for what an exceptional book must do to impress you?