Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are big books doomed?

Matt Yglesias wonders if the giant novel is in fact dead in this world of multiple entertainment opportunities. He uses the example of his dissatisfaction with the very long Infinite Jest.

But in a fundamental sense it struck me as very unsatisfying. Not just in terms of the weird ending, but in terms of definitely not feeling like I got more out of reading it than I could have gotten out of reading three books that were one third the length.

I probably won't read Infinite Jest, for just the reason he lays out. I do think though that big book is doing fine. There seem to be more ginormous fantasy novels every day.


Anonymous said...

The comments to that piece are just awesome. I thought DFW was really overrated but I think Don Delillo and Denis Johnson are overrated too (Tree of Smoke? Really?), so what the hell do I know? But it makes me smile to see that there are a lot of people who still care enough about the novel to get all pissy about whether one man's work is or is not up to his reputation. We'll know we are f-cked when a post like that gets no reaction. Steve

Tripp said...

Did you read Infinite Jest? I just can't rally the strength to do it I am afraid.

Hey I like Tree of Smoke, but I can see why you think Johnson's coverage is a bit much.

Who else is overrated?

Anonymous said...

Did not read Infinite Jest. I already read a book about the struggle to be real in modern America, and it was called "every other post-modern novel ever written." I liked Tree of Smoke, too, but was it really one of the year's best books? It seemed heavily derivative of other Vietnam fiction to me. Nothing in that book surprised me or made me look at things differently because it had all been done before.

My thoughts on other overrated writers (this is sure to get me in trouble - I'm not saying these writers are not very good, simply that they fail to justify the fawning acclaim heaped upon them):

1. Bolano, but only because he can't live up to the crazy hype. The Millions review of 2666 says it "encroaches upon reality." WTF does that mean?
2. Roth. I've liked a number of his books but jeez, how many more books about what it is like to be jewish and old do we really need? shouldn't a "great" writer have some range?
3. McCarthy. Again, I loved Blood Meridien and liked All The Pretty Horses (I admit with embarrassment that I have not yet read The Road, but that kind of post-apocalyptic stuff is right in my wheelhouse so I will probably love it), but the rest of the Border Trilogy just wasn't very good and No Country, while very enjoyable, was not literature. Can a "great" writer go 2 and a half for 6 and still be great? Writing ain't baseball.
4. (This one is going to piss you off) Philip Pullman. I must be defective but His Dark Materials just didn't do it for me.

Who would you propose?


Tripp said...

This is the sentence of the week: I already read a book about the struggle to be real in modern America, and it was called "every other post-modern novel ever written." - thanks for that.

Holy eff (or should I say Unholy eff), you don't like the Pullman (shakes head in bewilderment). Oh well we have our differences.

I would agree that McCarthy is spotty, but I urge you to read the Road, as it is really good. The best he has written I would say.

Here are some thoughts for mine: John Irving - lots of emotional pap, no thanks.

AS Byatt - This one pains me as I loved Possession, but I haven't enjoyed much else she has done.

Ayn Rand - 'natch.

John Banville - based only on reading The Sea, but man did I hate that book.

Anonymous said...

Funny - I received The Sea as a gift right after you told me how bad it is and it has remained on the shelf ever since. I will try the Pullman again one day - I may have just been in the wrong mood and only read The Golden Compass.

I wonder if Irving might be a writer whom you must read at a certain stage in your life to enjoy - I read and liked Owen Meany in college but wonder how it would stand up to a re-read. Sort of like how you need to read Ayn Rand when you are a young, self-centered asshat convinced of your own brilliance. Unless you never grow out of that period and instead move on to write for conservative blogs.

So a slightly different approach, how about authors whom you suspect to be overrated and have therefore never tried? Byatt falls into that category for me - Possession stares at me from the bookshelf but I can't make myself do it. I'm not saying I'm right - Margaret Atwood was in the same category for a while until I read Oryx and Crake and realized that she is awesome - only that I, at least, develop an odd mental block when it comes to certain writers. Steve

Tripp said...

Oh I certainly avoid writers I probably shouldn't. I too avoided Atwood, thinking her overly political, and then adored the astounding Oryx and Crake.

I also, perversely, avoid books that people keep telling me are awesome. I stayed away from Straight Man for far loo long because of it.

I actually avoided the whole genre of crime for a long time because I had this antique vision of it. Silly me.

I skipped out on Bolano because I thought he couldn't be as good as people were saying.