Monday, January 5, 2009

A Reader's Growing Skepticism

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?


pattinase (abbott) said...

And one thing a good book must do is pull you into another world then send you back out feeling something has been gained by the time spent. Both of these books did that in spades.
You modestly insist you are not an educated critic, yet I think you are indeed. I think you make an eloquent and elegant case for your POV here.

Carleen Brice said...

Getting more jaded is part of learning more about how the business works. Always, the best thing to do is read what you like and if you like it, that's good enough.

Jennifer said...

I have a mangled draft of a post about writers reviewing other writers' work, and I couldn't seem to work out what I wanted to say exactly. This post has really helped to clear my head. Great stuff!

I'd like to read the Atlantic article before I respond, and, actually, I'm probably going to end up writing a new post instead of overloading your comment thread. :)

Lisa said...

Patti, Very good point! I suppose my list is a little spare, but yes -- a good story of any kind does have to provide that transport and the feeling that the time taken to read it was not wasted. Thanks for the vote of confidence :)

Carleen, It's a little sad -- sort of like learning there's no Santa Claus.

Jennifer, The article is a little long (something like 10,000 words). I printed it out to read it and knowing you, I think you'll enjoy it. I'd also recommend the articles at the second link in my post. There is some interesting agreement and disagreement with what Myers has said. I ended up ordering the book because I'd like to see what else he had to say. Let me know if you read it. I subscribe to your blog, so I'll know if you post on it...that's right...I'll know ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

I like your points 1 and 2, but I'm very different on 3. I almost never want to read books reflecting immediate political realities. I tend to keep up with those separtely from fiction. The "more" for me are those timeless realities, the things that resonate with humans since the beginning.

Elizabeth said...

I'm with Charles, I think. A voracious reader, I am mainly bored by literary criticism unless it's about linguistics or words or language itself. And I read reviews mainly to see what the book's about so I can usually tell by the first or second sentence whether I'll pick it up to read. I read really, really fast and always say that it's every five years or so that I read something that really blows my mind, rocks my world, etc. Otherwise I don't think that I can actually pinpoint what it is that makes a book good or great. It's something ineffable, I suppose, or so full of tragedy or humor or absurdity that one is lifted right up out of one's life for a moment or perhaps forever.
And by the way, I love your rambling posts -- they're so rich and interesting.

Anonymous said...

Everyone reads for different reasons and all reasons--escapism, prose, drama, entertainment, knowledge, etc.--but yes, from serious literary reviewers and the overall general reading populace we expect some accuracy and reason for their yeas or nays on widely acclaimed books.

But like any area of expertise and where money and fame are concerned, the old bugaboos still apply and it becomes a case of popularity, name, and cash cow all too often.

Thanks for this post and the links--I'll have to quit typing and read!


Melissa Marsh said...

Wow, Lisa, this is such a great post. What makes a book good for me is that I connect with it emotionally. That is an absolute must. If I don't care about the characters, if they do not become real to me, then the book, once finished, slips easily out of my mind.

LarramieG said...

Having been reading since forever, now I simply "know" what I like. OTOH, what has happened is that I also "know" what others would like and the reasons why.

Shauna Roberts said...

So the characters themselves and their growth, or lack of growth, is not particularly important to you?

One thing I particularly like in a book and that will elevate it above others for me is a lot of plot lines that seem to be independent or semi-independent but eventually come together.

Ello said...

You know I wish you would submit this post to a newspaper or magazine because I think it is an excellent post and I agree with your thoughts here. And I do agree that people seem to like to take people down a lot more these days. But not all negative criticism has to be bad. You can have a negative critique that is reasonable and fair without taking down an author or belittling those who might like the same book. And I like to read a balance of reviews both good and bad to know if I want to invest in a book or not. So I do read negative reviews also. However, I object to those who start to personally attack the author.

Hope I'm making sense!

Lisa said...

Charles, Number three definitely comes down to personal taste. I threw social issues and universal questions or issues about humanity in because typically, they are the extra that I look for in a novel. I've read a number of very well written stories, but my own personal preference is to get something more. The social issues or something that reflects political reality does fall behind essential human struggles for me too, but I'll take it in lieu of just a narrative story without that "special sauce".

Elizabeth, I don't think very many people are or should be concerned with literary criticism. Where my issue lies is with the criticism itself. For example, I will always love The Shipping News and Snow Falling on Cedars and I have no idea whether or not I was influenced to buy them because they had shiny gold disks on their covers. But -- if for some reason I was in a coma for 10 years and then came out of it, maybe I'd want to save time in finding the absolute best literary fiction published while I was out. Maybe I'd do that by buying all the novels that had won top literary prizes. That being the case, I expect that the people charged with choosing the best of the best should be capable of performing competent literary criticism and of really studying and understanding what it is that they are choosing. I've just read the backs of a half dozen prize winning novels and frankly, the praise on each could have been written about any book. I don't think we as readers need to know what makes a book good or great, but I expect those who are anointing and choosing had damn well better be able to articulate it -- otherwise, it really is a meaningless beauty pageant.

Susan, I'm afraid you're right. It just seems that as difficult a business as this is, "someone" would be capable of doing a much better job of this. But then again, who are the serious literary critics? Half of the awards are given out by boards of people who have written books and won awards themselves. Not the best judges, I'd think. Where are our Lionel Trillings?

Melissa, Emotional connection makes total sense.

Shauna, The characters are definitely important -- I suppose I've lumped them in somewhere with story and fine writing. Although some books I've enjoyed have had (intentionally) flat characters. It all depends on the book and what it aims to do/be. Multiple plot lines can be interesting, but for me, they wouldn't sway me in one way or the other. It depends on the kind of story.

Ello, This is a pretty rough ramble right now. I think I've got at least two or three separate thoughts going, but thank you anyway. I agree with you that not all negative criticism is bad -- I just don't like when it devolves into snark -- where the author seems to make a sport of trying to sound as clever as possible while leveling cruel and non-constructive swipes at the author or his work. I've read a number of thoughtful reviews that are critical of something an author does, but express the criticism kindly. You're making complete sense. I do think though that in this era of reality tv, where people delight in the humiliation and betrayal of other people that online snarky cruelty toward columnists and authors is a natural offshoot of that. Let's hope people tire of it soon. It's far easier to tear down someone who has done the hard work of creating something than it is to actually take a risk, do the work and create something.

Denis said...

Very nice post. For Ello you call it a 'rough ramble' but my review is that it's organized and clear. You don't demand everyone agrees with you which beckons us all to ponder for ourselves, well done!

Lisa said...

Denis, I appreciate that. I guess what I meant is that if I were to try to polish this up, I might skip the tangent on snarkiness or get more specific on my criteria for what constitutes the best literary fiction. But thanks :)

Sustenance Scout said...

I'm with Charles too re: "timeless realities." It's the "more" I hope my fiction -- and poetry -- someday capture. I treasure a book that reveals truths I know but have never perceived from that particular author or work's unique point of view. Finding and working from (or into) such a unique yet universal angle is a critical challenge for all writers, I think. K.

Carleen Brice said...

Remember, with knowledge, there is power.

Lisa said...

Karen, Since I am always most affected by the things I've most recently read, the idea of timeless realities and universal truths looms large -- I have been reading SWANN'S WAY, by Marcel Proust and I honestly can say I've never read anyone with such a "unique yet universal angle" on everything from sense memory to love to snobbery and to all manner of experiences.

Carleen, This has been a strangely fruitful time for me. Since I began seeking out a broader exposure to some fairly conventional/classical teachings, I feel like I'm approaching that scene in "The Miracle Worker" where suddenly Helen Keller understands how to make words. It's not quite that dramatic, but it's very powerful.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I guess to capture it most simply, I need a story/characters that stick with me. Characters who bubble up days or weeks later. This happens with classics (Caddy Compson, Atticus Finch) and also with what some might consider escapist (Travis McGee).

Some titles that come to mind right now would be "Crossing to Safety" and "The Things They Carried." I'll also toss in "The Shipping News" (I was not so taken with "Snow Falling on Cedars" but that's just me).

sexy said...


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf