Critical Darlings

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.



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I see you use “authentic literature” and “actual literature”. What is your definition of literature? Because a novel is literature, even if it’s bad and better to ignore it.

“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.”

Man, I read this and couldn’t help thinking that it also applied to A Naked Singularity, a book that has been obscenely overpraised by the lit blogosphere. How many times have I seen works that are clearly on another level compared to ANS. And I think part of the reason it gets this praise is not because of the work itself, but what it represents (independent self-published author writes fat book and is ignored by the mainstream etc.).

That guy who hates everything from The Atlantic also wrote a takedown of it rather recently.

“It’s a fun read that’s ultimately not going to stick around very long.”

What a hilariously pretentious sentence! Heaven help us when “mass-consumer novels” also function as art and stick in the craw much longer than some boring angst-ridden Bolaño knockoff. Scott, are you any fun anymore?

Seek out the May 2012 issue of The Atlantic and R.R. Mers article “A Swing and a Miss.”

After taking the book apart he writes:
“Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writng too little. Sometimes the only way to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art Of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mdiocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.”

Last summer I spent a week reading Franzen’s Freedom – thankfully borrowed from the library so it only stole my time and not my money a well. When I finished I remember thinking, “What was the point of this crap”

I’ve been mostly lurking through the big read posts on here, but I gotta say that I disagree with the commenter above about A Naked Singularity. I read ANS over five days at the beginning of the month and my only complaint is that my sunscreen did some weird stuff to the cover so that the plastic all peeled from the paper. I swear that this is gonna be the complaint of the summer since mine wasn’t the only copy of ANS I scoped out at Wreck, Kits, and English Bay that week.

What could possibly be on “another level compared to ANS?” ANS has so many levels and I am thankful for the people who post here and their abilty to explicate and elucidate parts of the book that were above me and my speed read of the book.

In the last few weeks I have recommended the book to people I run into using one simple word.
“What’s the word?”
“Swords!”

Also all Vancouver is beaming at being name-dropped on page 671. We’re such shallow bitches.

I don’t know Mr. Scott Esposito, but I am thankful that he brought my attention to A Naked Singularity. Yeah, he seems a bit uptight and nerdy – but if I ever met him I would definitely suck his cock.

So … it’s not about Henry Fielding, then?

Calling An Art of Fielding a fun read is already generous. Biblioklept has a good take down of it too.

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