Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A rack of farts and other insults: the joys of being mean

Why is it more interesting when someone is telling you how bad a book is rather than praising it? Perhaps 'interesting' isn't the word; perhaps it's: 'amusing'.

I remember in August last year when Anis Shivani listed his 15 most overrated American writers at The Huffington Post, and the buzz that created on the internet. While I didn't agree with many of his selections, it was fun to read his takedowns (and nice to see some poets get some attention, any attention).

Was it so interesting because such candour about books and writers is rare these days? Was it even candour, or grandstanding parading as candour? Either way, there's something fun about saying mean things.

I was reminded of this the other day when I came across stevereads' Worst Books of 2010 . Luckily, I haven't read any of these books yet (though I own Freedom; it's about third on my TBR pile), and that's kind of beside the point. The joy of a good takedown isn't always in the lowering of someone too big for their boots, sometimes the takedown itself is enough.

Insert any book that raised your ire last year into a phrase like: "[X] was not only a viciously cynical, lazy, and horrible scrap of trash, but it also stands as yet untoppled as the Single Worst Novel Ever Written" and I defy you not to crack a smile.

Some other "highlights" include:
...a putrid little squib like this from an internationally-regarded novelist
As a result, his stack of tellingly slender novels are as stinky and insubstantial as a rack of farts. This novel, like his previous two, doesn’t even bother to conclude – it just appears, offends, and vaguely dissipates.
Not one sentence of this novel is energetic; not one paragraph was profitably revised, not one ounce of heart is present throughout this whole exercise of socially-relevant ‘topical’ fiction reduced to the mindless driving of cap-and-piston.
...a big fat speeding ticket of a novel that’s as long as it is bland, as strident as it is dull, and as stilted as it is silly.
Any sort of analysis of these short takedowns -- another sort of 'putrid little squib' -- reveals there isn't any real criticism going on here. There's nothing to sink your teeth into. No examples of why a book/author is 'lazy' or 'cynical'. No sample sentences to demonstrate a lack of energy or editing. It's hard to be convinced by anything more than highly skewed personal opinion, but easy to be amused.

Speaking of being unconvinced, I didn't read nearly as many novels as stevereads did in 2010 (he claims to be able to read a average-sized novel in 90 minutes), but funnily enough one of the ones that would make it on to my 'worst' list comes in at number one on his 'best' list: The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. Whereas I described it as, " so inconsistent structurally... and the writing so uneven that it feels like one of those paintings by Verrochio that would be long forgotten if it weren't for the cameo of a da Vinci angel", stevereads felt it was "haunting… a pure demonstration of the American spirit." I'm guessing most would find the negative comments more engaging, without knowing any more about the book, and that's my point.
[Another demonstration of the taste differential between myself and stevereads: He ranked Ferris' Then We Came To The End #1 on his worst list in 2007, whereas I enjoyed reading it so much in 2008 it made my top 10.]


Nazi Literature in the AmericasI'm not sure there's ever such a thing as coincidence when it comes to the books you are reading at a given moment - with so many books to choose from, it's difficult to ever get to the bottom of all the reasons you've singled out a particular volume (and why you devour it, persist with it, or leave it half finished on your nightstand). For whatever reason, I recently started reading Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas, which is a kind of fictional encyclopedia of mostly South American facist writers. (It is also a book you think twice about reading on the bus or in the lunchroom, due to the title.)

The key players in Bolaño’s entries are all made up but they are slotted so well into the historical world (they have an audience with the Fuhrer, feud with the Perons, hang out with Ginsberg, etc) that they seem plausible. It's kind of a reverse 'Shanghai Knights effect', as I discussed with reference to The Hut Builder by Laurence Fearnley: the point of the book is the fictional world rubbing shoulders with the real, rather than the real world being a cynical added bonus to the fictional world.

Bolaño's fictional flawed, self-important writers seem purpose-built for a takedown of Anis Shivani proportions, but so far (I'm midway through the book), the criticism is muted: [a certain book] was not well received, that sort of thing.

The combination of Bolaño's unlikeable fake writers and stevereads' good-for-a-laugh vitriol have made me eager to try my hand at excoriation…

All I need to do now is find a target (or, do a Bolaño and make one up).

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