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 with such finality.
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 admirable 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 the sludge on the very bottom – 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:
“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”