WANTED: Brilliant, cantankerous literary curmudgeon who is not afraid to tell us what he/she really thinks about a book

Harold Bloom - The Paris Review
Harold Bloom

I began reading a new novel recently.  I had high expectations.  The book had been long-listed for a prestigious prize and all of the leading publications – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Kirkus Reviews, etc., etc. – were unanimous in their praise.  So I settled in for what I anticipated would be an enjoyable reading experience.

Less than three pages in, I closed the book, in awe at the author’s ability to alienate me so quickly and completely.

I won’t name the title or the author – it would not be fair as I have not read the whole book.  In its entirety, it may have worth, may contain beautiful prose or offer some message.  But I’ll never know because in those first few pages the author used such a pretentious, distracting, off-putting stylistic contrivance that he prevented me from seeing any promise of meaning or beauty.

This was not an isolated experience for me.  All too often in the last few years, I’ve been excited by enthusiastic reviews of a new book by reputable sources, only to be unpleasantly surprised, disappointed, and asking myself – what am I missing?  I’ve learned not to put my money up so eagerly for a book – to download a sample first or wait for availability at the local public library.

Different readers have different tastes and preferences, and respond (or don’t) to a book in individual ways – I get that.  It is part of the mystery and allure of literature.  I have tried to analyze and deconstruct books that I think are masterpieces, but I am never able to adequately parse out the strands of magic that create a transcendence like John Williams’ Stoner or W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants.  I may not understand the how or why of it, but I recognize the magic when I am transported by it.

You make an acquaintance with a book as you do with a person. After ten or fifteen pages, you know with whom you have to deal. (Shimon Peres)

When most of the professional critics are shouting out praise for a work that seems to me to be, well, less than fully deserving of it, I wonder what is going on. Could it be that in our brave new digital interconnectedness, where we can shout to the world what we think about anything (just like I’m doing here), and can know what everyone thinks about anything, that we are drowning in such a river of mediocrity that when we happen upon something (like a new novel) that is simply less bad than rest of the sludge  – we are ecstatic?

I have a fond memory of Harold Bloom speaking his mind about the first Harry Potter book.  He answered the question:  can 35 million book buyers be wrong? with an unequivocal  “Yes, they have been, and will continue to be so for as long as they persevere with Potter . . . Why read it?  Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better.  Why read if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”

Those are pretty good signposts for navigating the murk, Professor.  I have a few of my own that I’ve collected.  If you have just read a favorable book review that induces an urge to buy the book now – STOP and reread the review.  If you see anything resembling the following plaudits (taken from actual reviews), proceed at your own risk:

“stylistically daring”
“builds its own style and language one broken line at a time”
“the whole is greater than its parts”
“many structural and technical virtues”
And my personal favorite:
“judicious and absorbing, if not fully convincing”

6 thoughts on “WANTED: Brilliant, cantankerous literary curmudgeon who is not afraid to tell us what he/she really thinks about a book”

  1. Linda:

    I’ve had that experience many, many times. As you point out, that is the great value of Kindle samples. You can try reading the book and if you don’t like it, the book won’t cost you a penny.

    The samples of phases you list at the end reveal the book you disliked so much. I’ve not heard of the book and won’t mention it here. But a google search let me know the book, as well as the review in the Times

    Perhaps I should download my own sample to see what you had in mind and why you disliked it so much.

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you’re back to blogging again.

    Richard

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  2. Ha! well, so much for me trying to be fair to a book I have not read. But I did try. And I would be very, very interested in your opinion if you do download a sample. Maybe I’m just a contrarian or a literary luddite. The author seems to be considered very talented. If he is, why would he want to distract readers from his talent? I can tolerate a variety of styles but this was just too much.

    Thank you for commenting. After I wrote it, I almost deleted the post – I mean, who am I to criticize? But I keep a quote in the back of my mind that i read decades ago and I repeat it to myself every time I begin to think how presumptuous I am to comment on an author’s creation – I think it was Edward Weeks or Maxwell Perkins, but I can’t remember, who said: “Being a sinner does not preclude one from worshipping at the altar.”

    From now on, I am just going to write about books whose magic works for me.

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    1. I read the review in the Times and from what I learned, it is not a book I want to read, not even a sample.

      When I read a review, I look for the subject matter of the book, the story, the theme, etc. In light of that, I either download a sample or buy the book.

      I am not too concerned about stylistic matters at that point. That will come in due course. But as I think about the matter, the book’s style is less important to me than the story.

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  3. The story is everything, I agree! If this author had a story, he was not letting me see it.

    Thanks again, Richard, for commenting. And now, I’m going to start a post about a book I really liked.

    Cheers!

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  4. dear Linda,
    Is there an other way of getting in touch with you?
    We are/were both readers of Marks in the Margin
    and you reacted once on my mentioning
    Florida Scott-Maxwell’s The Measure of My Days.
    I’d like to inform you about something.

    cath van der linden
    The Netherlands

    Like

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