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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Essay in the Works: What Has Happened to Novels and Critics?

I’m planning an essay on the topic of poorly written books by writers who don’t seem to enjoy their own language, much less have a gift for using said language. The tissue connecting this essay shall be the roll of critics over the last twenty-five years (or maybe 100!), whereby such lackluster writing of basically poor, predictable or cliché stories, get laudatory reviews.

What’s going on? Who’s to blame? Is there “fault” at all, or is this issue simply an issue of perception? And why have most critics become mere book-report journalists, without an ability to engage the texts nor their readers?

This is a subject I think worthy of exploration. I love language, and like to use language in all its beauty and awful possibilities to create complex, poly-dimensional characters who have voices and do things that carry the story to a deep, cathartic conclusion.

Updike was a powerhouse critic, who enjoyed books and delighted in writing about books with such flair, erudition, and gusto that his reviews read like wonderful short stories. James Wood is perhaps the pre-eminent reviewer in the English language today, and his ability for “deep reading” and character investigation rivals the authors he reviews. I also must highlight a few women reviewers, but for the life of me none come readily to mind (perhaps Cris Mazza, or Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin … but no one better suggest NYT’s Michiko Kakutani).

I shall focus on a few books I’ve read recently that have shown a decided lack of imagination, or poor, non-inventive writing skill, and ridiculously banal characterization. Basically, the bread’n’butter of any novelist/story-teller. And I shall investigate the reviews each of these books got at the time of release; glowing reviews that, from a reader’s perspective, guaranteed a good book. Well I want my money back.

Baring that recompense … which has been bared … I’ll offer an opinion on James Wilcox’s “Polite Sex”, Joe Meno’s “The Great Perhaps”, and “The Possibility of an Island” by Michel Houellbecq. Juxtaposed to these poorly written stories will be Ian McEwan’s “Solar”, Rohinton Minstry’s “Family Matters”, and Cormac McCarthy’s “Suttree” … okay, oOOps!, no women are in here, so there’s a bit of editorial decision-making I’ll attend to quickly.

By comparing the stories of writers who love the language and use it with care (and passion) with those who may not (at least it seems so by their contribution to American belles lettres), and using the further contrast/comparison of their reviews, I hope to show that novel writing needs help, and criticism needs resuscitation from near death.

Stay tuned.

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