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If it’s written poorly, it’s crap (no matter what the reviewers say)

6 July 2010

Did you read the essay from the previous post? I hope you did, because what follows in this post won’t be anywhere near as good.

I’ve always felt guilty that, if given the choice, I often pick a genre book (SF, fantasy) over an “award winner.” A few years ago at a dinner party, one of the Consort’s colleagues asked me what I had read lately/what would I recommend, and damned if the only books that came to mind were genre (Kushiel’s Dart and A Game of Thrones [as well as the subsequent novels in both series] were the two that immediately came to mind. I felt like a fool.

But no American must-read book has really appealed for a very long time. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was so bad I stopped halfway through. None of the characters was compelling, and the sexual appetites of both father and son just turned me off. Although I finished it, I didn’t like Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, either. (And I don’t think that if a man writes a novel from the viewpoint of a seriously messed up woman, that makes the novel so fabulous, just because he decides to cross the line for his main character.)

Most recently, I read Joyce Carol Oates’ Little Bird of Heaven, and the language was just so ridiculous that I kept a few notes:

How can fog creep across a road “like amnesia”?

How can a person have “hungry-looking teeth”?

Pebble in a shoe, irritates the walker; pebble in an easter egg, unexpected normalness?

You can *see* a voice glittering like a sharp knife??

“I saw that her crimson lipstick was chipped” – uhh, what?

No wonder Alan Sokal didn’t have a difficult time perpetrating his hoax — it seems like words don’t really *mean* anything anymore in higher literature!

I like an author to mean what she says and say what he means. Don’t play silly games with my reading time, bub.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Three of Four permalink
    7 July 2010 10:34 pm

    I agree! I agree! I *hated* “The Corrections” so much I couldn’t even make it halfway through before tossing it aside. I’m so tired of being beaten up by lofty, senseless prose. AUGH!

  2. KathyR permalink
    8 July 2010 10:31 pm

    Hmm. I thought the sample of dislike-able lit fic in the Myers article was a bit false. I think your sample is skewed, but not for the same prove-a-point (nefarious disingenous) reasons.

    The Corrections was OK. It starts well, falters and clatters to an uncomfortable stop. Franzen knows what he’s doing. Nothing especially great, but I do remember the scene where the old man plunges by the window on the cruise ship. That was well done and there are other similar bits in there. I liked his essay collection. He had a good story in the New Yorker recently.

    Wally Lamb? Blech. Please. I would not dignify his stuff with the title “literary.” It’s overwrought bestsellerish in the worst sense.

    Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read exactly one of her many, many books. (The Oprah one.) I was not a big fan. But that wasn’t much of a sample.

    These do not fit my description of “literary fiction.” These are Oprah books. OK, The Corrections was famously NOT an Oprah book. But you know what I mean.

    I guess what I’m saying is, the media-anointed must read book is not all there is. Try David Mitchell. Either Black Swan Green or Cloud Atlas. Both! He has a new one out, too. The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Compelling AND readable AND literary. Margaret Atwood writes in genres sometimes, but I wouldn’t call her stuff genre fiction. I know you liked After the Flood. She’s so smart. If you’ve read the Odyssey (the Fagles), you’ll love her Penelopiad. Jonathan Lethem. I liked The Fortress of Solitude, mostly. Honestly, I can take or leave Michael Chabon, the poster boy of modern lit fic, no? Zadie Smith? I like her. Doctorow? Mostly yes. John Irving? Mostly no, with a couple of big, big exceptions.

    But hey, I like genre stuff, too. Elmore Leonard. Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch books. The Ladies Detective books.

    The summer blockbuster must read book? The Passage. It is big and baggy and has, well, vampire-ish creatures in it. But it’s real good. And in a literary style. The first half or so is brilliant.

    Gah. I’m running out of battery. Probably a blessing, huh?! Looking forward to the rest of your series!

  3. isabelita permalink
    9 July 2010 8:10 pm

    Well, try Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel “Lavinia”. It’s beautifully done, giving voice to the woman fated to be Aeneas’s second wife, who in the Aeneid has no voice.

  4. 14 July 2010 10:45 pm

    LeGuin is awesome… Guide to Woman’s Country.

    Every once in awhile, I have to just stick with nonfiction for awhile. Fiction can just burn me out.

  5. Cateling permalink
    22 July 2010 10:32 pm

    Next time: sex in modern fiction.

    So … will this include a reference to the works of Jacqueline Carey?

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