On hating certain books

My friend Candyce Canzioneri took this photo at a lake near our homes. We're all—man, bird, and beast alike—freezing our butts off here in Ohio.

Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I’ve just finished reading two new books on writing. One was brief, began well, and then wrecked. Worthless! Almost shameful, from a well-known writer. The other, a little longer, possesses some virtues but left me deeply peeved at its author. I’m not going to name them or their books, let alone damn them, because it’s just not worth it, to spend one’s energy that way. Rarely I do it, usually if the author’s dead and thus beyond caring. I so loathed a widely beloved novel a year or two ago that it was all I could do to refrain from yelping about what a horrible, nasty, awful thing it truly is. I harbor spiteful prejudice against its author, for sentimentally loving its sentimental narrator. Yet better writers and readers than I love the damn book.

Having recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel whose insights and narrative sweep and realized ambition astounded me, I’m glad I (mostly) held my tongue about that other novel. I was so eager to talk about Freedom that I urged it on friends, and even bought copies for three of them. Two liked it almost as much as I did. The third despised it, and Franzen. I felt my friend was unreasonable and projecting qualities to hate upon the writer and his book. That’s what I probably did with the novel I hated. (Except: I was right—it’s awful, the emperor has no clothes! Trust me.)

Freedom received one of the most glowing reviews ever published in The New York Times Book Review, by its editor, Sam Tanenhaus. And Franzen was canonized by Time, which put him on its cover with the headline “The Great American Novelist.” The hype got hackles up. Franzen has said he was surprised by how kind reviewers were to the book, since he expected they’d be laying for him after his 2001 mega-hit, The Corrections. Turns out, he should have been worried about Regular Joe Reviewers. There are many rave reviews of Freedom on Amazon, but so many angry one- and two-star screeds that its average rating was brought down to a modest three stars out of five. And many ugly things were said about Freedom in The New Yorker’s online book discussion group, surely an irony for Franzen, if he read them, because of his long association as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.

What my friend’s anger at Freedom showed me was that I can’t bank on

Candyce's poster documents her good attitude

Amazon’s negative reviews—or even its positive ones—as reliable gauges of my reading experience. And more than that: it showed me how deeply personal and subjective our reading preferences are. Which I think is why the mainstream’s endangered reviewers are so valuable. Such folks are, or should be, I think, properly constrained by various existential pressures, which temper reviewers’ deeply personal reactions. It’s an art to write a mixed review; it’s easier, and more fun, to flay the hide off an author—some poor slob who spent years, nine in the case of Freedom, slaving to offer his gift to the world. Michiko Kakutani at the daily New York Times sometimes does this, I feel. She was cruelly harsh toward Franzen for his The Discomfort Zone, which I found a brave, funny book, but which seemed to trigger in her that odd outrage toward memoirists that afflicts many New York gatekeepers. I believe this is why Franzen called Kakutani, a Pulitzer winner, the stupidest person in the entire world. (Yet she adored Freedom, and to her credit, despite her prior review and Franzen’s comment, she raved.)

What is with this anger? What sets it off in so many of us? Some of it’s got to be wounded pride. Maybe some is genuinely offended taste—we’re proud of having taste, or a sense of art. But must we be so spiteful? Evidently some of us must, even though we’re talking about works of art here, not the criminal George W. Shrub administration or crass Hollywood revenge-fantasy movies.

I wonder what book you’ve loved despite the world’s negative opinion or hated unreasonably despite the herd’s vulgar affections? Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love seemed to set off many people on both sides of that gulch. I read it with growing annoyance, for it seemed dishonest to me, but had to marvel at her writing ability. Maybe that’s the thing about books: We also react to them like they’re people, and consider how few people become close friends, fewer still soulmates. How does one view and react to those who just aren’t one’s cup of tea? And how do you know when someone you actively dislike deserves it and when you’re just hating qualities in another that you possess yourself but can’t admit?


Filed under fiction, memoir, MY LIFE, reading

12 responses to “On hating certain books

  1. Richard,

    I heartily endorse your restraint. It is classy, and high-minded, AND, I think, really an act of willpower because you’re right; it IS easy to flay a work of art. Sometimes it’s prompted by pre-existing rage, as you say, but it also can be fueled by one’s inflated sense of self. When we put something down we are sneakily (we think) but transparently (in actuality) boosting ourselves.

    Freedom wasn’t my favorite book in the end. I was astounded by it for most of the time I was reading it (for Franzen’s breathtaking observations of the human condition, for how well he just knew people), but I was disappointed by its ending. But I did love The Corrections; in fact, it touched me as deeply as any fiction ever has, and triggered a crazy-ass transformation in my relationship with my parents. So, I never jumped aboard any Franzen-blasting wagon.

    As for a work of art I’ve loved despite the world’s criticism … I’m not sure just now. Let me think about that.

  2. Thanks for visiting, and commenting, Mathina. I think a lot of people had trouble with Freedom’s end. I didn’t—I loved it—but my two friends felt the book dragged just before that, in West Virginia and with the whole Joey subplot, where I got kind of confused myself. Still, as a writer, I thought he pulled off the Joey digression to an amazing degree for something that seemed so utterly conceptual—inspired by and plotted from the daily newspapers, basically.

    Since you commented I adjusted my post to admit my ire toward Eat, Pray, Love . . .

  3. Amy

    Excellent post, for reviewers and readers alike. As a reviewer, I don’t like to attack a book harshly simply because I realize what it takes to write one in the first place. I’m a would-be author as well, and I don’t see the point if the book simply didn’t click with me. I can only think of two books in two years that I raged on, and those simply because the author was so insulting to their readers (don’t worry, you’ve likely never heard of these books!).

    On the other hand, even a 5-star review on Amazon means nothing to me as a reader. My taste isn’t defined by stranger’s opinions, and there’s some stinkers with 5-star reviews. I’d rather decide myself!

    Now, you did mention Eat, Pray, Love….I liked 1/3 of it, but I think it was the food in Italy that appealed to me. Once I realized she had a book contract in place prior to her trip, that changed everything. A classic that I absolutely despise beyond all reasonableness is Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. It hurts my teeth just to type the title! Arrogant characters in ridiculous settings, stilted dialogue, plus a plot that hinges on ‘who gives a damn’: hated, hated, hated.

    Great post btw, as always!

  4. Thanks so much, Amy. You have nicely summarized why I turned against Eat, Pray: “Once I realized she had a book contract in place prior to her trip, that changed everything.” Her perceived trickery seemed to bother a lot of us writers, more than regular readers, I think.

    I haven’t been able to read Tender is the Night—and now won’t try! I do love The Great Gatsby, apparently unreasonably, per what the academy’s current view of the novel seems to be. But a writer is looking for what floats his boat! Take your inspiration where it comes, I say.

  5. John

    Despite Freedom’s storyline shortcomings, I found the sheer massive effort of descriptive thought that Franzen crafted into nearly every sentence truly mind boggling.

  6. cnfmemphis

    I react to books (and movies) first of all as ART, whether or not I “like” the theme, the subject, or the story line. I don’t immediately connect with the writer, unless the book is memoir. Art can be, I think, appreciated, whether or not we “like” it. On the other hand, I won’t keep reading a book if it’s turning me off or grossing me out, whereas I rarely walk out of a movie before it’s over. (Although I almost did, with “No Country For Old Men.” It was so graphically evil, but still, artistically brilliant.) Good post, Richard.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Susan. It’s funny you mention No Country, which I enjoyed—I love the Cohen brothers—but which set me off big time because of one thing. In the book, the sheriff’s back story is crucial to understanding him: he feels, based on his traumatic war service, that he’s a coward, even though he was decorated as a hero. The Cohens cut out that, with the effect that, to me, he became a disgustingly sentimental figure, not a tragic one; this undercut McCarthy’s intent and the work’s sad grandeur. Gotta reign in now, I’m getting mad again just thinking about it!

  7. richard moore

    This isn’t a comment on the effect of reviewers or popularity on what we like and not, but about the evanescence of our likes and dislikes. When I was in college, I was gaga over Magic Mountain, then later The Glass Bead Game. Years later, I went back to both and was bored to death. It probably works the other way, too, although if you once decided hated a book, you would be less likely to give it another whirl. The books, obviously, don’t change but the times do, and we do. Maybe wait another decade and then try again?

    I really like your web site: you engage so many interesting and important issues, then address them in such a thoughtful, low key way. Thank you.

  8. Richard,

    For me it’s not so much that we hate or love books because taste and truth are matters of experience. I am struck more by the biases that dominate our literary discourse, whose conservatism, yoked to a kind of post-grad infantilism for The Tradition, always astounds me. I wish I could hate bad critics. Rather I pity their small minds.

    At the recent AWP there was some talk of the NY Times review of four memoirs, about three weeks ago. The reviewer said that three of the four books under review should not have been written (the authors discovered nothing during the writing process that found its way into the text: a legitimate reason) and he believed memoirists shouldn’t bother publishing such books let alone write them in the first place. As you said, it was that NYT snarky tone so often done to disparage the form, an attitude in place for years. The self-appointed guardian of all things literary.

    Many of us wondered why the reviewer chose four memoirs and judged three bad. He easily could have done it the other way around. Laud three, rough up one. Or just be fair: two by two. Were those random choices? He didn’t say. But it gave the impression that 75% of the memoirs are utterly worthless and self-serving. I doubt that.

    What’s more—and this is typical of book reviewing—few critics try to enlarge the genre by seeing trends or alternatives in approach: it’s genre got-cha. The logic: three of four are lousy, therefore the trend is toward more bad writing. Huh?

    This would not happen with four books of fiction because the intent of each writer (plus the style and the technique used) would differentiate them and the reviewers would know that. They would have done their fiction homework. What many Times’ reviewers can’t see is that memoir is developing its broad shoulders in terms of approach and execution constantly. But that larger point seldom gets made.

    I think it’s because of a bias rooted in a literary mindset that is, by nature, conservative: oh sure, writers and editors and publishers are liberals socially but literarily they are constitutionalists, in hock like Antonio Scalia to some original intent of the framers of lit. By that I mean they owe (same is true in the classical music world) an allegiance to what has come before far out of proportion to what is current, risky, experimental, genre-breaking or genre-expanding, postmodern, and noncommercial.

    We are just beginning to understand the enormous range of memoir structure because we are busy creating it and codifying its hydra-head of possibilities. I’m reading daring new voices in memoir: Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Carmen Gimenez Smith. I go back to my shelf and find old ones, too, Richard Selzer, Kathleen Finneran, Roland Barthes. The great personal narratives are there but too often criticism won’t advance the cause. It’s about proving what one already believes instead of discovering how temporal one’s beliefs truly are.


  9. He..stumbles over some political stereotypes along the way but in the end..Franzens fatalistic message has an optimistic edge that there..just might be something noble about our freedom to fail… Thats good because Franzen is no connoisseur of policy..debates or the minutiae of political gamesmanship.