Nice to see someone in a name publication finally being honest about The Art of Fielding. Maybe next someone will say that the book basically got A+ coverage because Little, Brown sunk $500,000 in the advance and sure as hell was going to recoup its investment. Not saying that if the book was truly atrocious it couldn’t have derailed the PR machine, but obviously this is a case of a publisher realizing it could buy a book that was decently enough written to appeal to a broad segment of those who still read books in this country, and then basically flogging it to death and providing the financial incentives necessary to get it great placement at the nation’s leading bookstores and in the leading periodicals. The only question to my mind is if the Michikos of the world really think that all this PR muscle and packaging doesn’t influence them.
“The Art of Fielding” — a novel about Henry Skrimshander’s college baseball career, his teammates, and the college president who is in love with Henry’s roommate — was one of 2011’s most critically successful. (It is newly available in paperback.) The New York Times listed it as one of the top five novels of the year; GQ, the best; and the New Yorker, one of the best. In all the reviews in these publications, Harbach’s résumé is foregrounded as if to underline his novel’s seriousness, and I am convinced that its success is a product of the literary establishment celebrating a plot-heavy book it can pretend is sophisticated. Read this baseball book, reviewers exclaim, and feel pride in your intellectual labor! There’s nothing wrong with “The Art of Fielding” if you’re merely seeking entertainment, but if you’re looking for even a little bit more, look elsewhere. If Suzanne Collins had attended Harvard, founded n+1, and written essays about environmentalism and David Foster Wallace, her book could have been considered equally worthy of critical and intellectual respect. Which is all to say: “The Art of Fielding” is a simplistic children’s book in a grown-up costume.
This is the line all those critics should really read:
If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing books like “The Art of Fielding” as though they were examples of adult literary fiction.
Very true. Critics have a real responsibility to stick up for authentic literature and to articulate what that is. If they like the mass-consumer novels like Art of Fielding, there’s nothing wrong with that, but they should be honest enough to say that this isn’t actual literature in their reviews. It’s a fun read that’s ultimately not going to stick around very long. Telling readers that it’s anything more than that is simply dumbing down criticism and giving unwary readers a false impression of what good writing can be.