I know, I know, it’s pointless to expect a review of The Pale King on Fresh Air to have any redeeming value, but still, there is bad and then there is bad.
John Powers’ piece would be the latter:
Writers love to grumble about the popularity of self-help books, yet they, like everyone else, are always looking for someone who will teach them how to live. Just think of all those guys who learned their masculinity from Hemingway or those classy-sounding books with titles like How Proust Can Change Your Life or How To Live: A Life of Montaigne.
Pro tip: Don’t make it completely obvious that you don’t have even the most basic familiarity with the books you cite in your lede!
I just find it disappointing that a venue like NPR, which obviously has the resources to do much better, regularly pumps out book coverage of such low quality. And this is important stuff. Publishers completely love NPR because its coverage by far leads to the most sales of any venue. Lots of impressionable readers take NPR very seriously! If it actually had even mediocre book reviews a lot of good could be done.
But instead NPR listeners get nonsense like this:
Now, Wallace’s fiction isn’t always enjoyable. It reminds me of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, which can bore you comatose one minute and then, moments later, wow you with an epiphany that forever changes your way of thinking. Although his novels aren’t as emotionally satisfying as those of his friend Jonathan Franzen — the conventional Truffaut to his radical Godard — he was his generation’s genius, the voice other writers heard in their heads.
I’m getting a little tired of people peddling this idea of Wallace as a writer who was pretty painful to deal with but “worth it” for those rare flashes of insight. Whether or not you have this experience of his books, it’s just a dumb way to look at them. First of all, no one should read literary fiction for “an epiphany that forever changes your way of thinking.”
Why on earth would you read a book that mostly sucked except for some flashes of insight? But this is the idea of literature that is routinely being trotted out with The Pale King: Wallace as some kind of literary strip mine by which hardy readers managed to extract some useful life lessons. Is this really the view of literature that our nation has?
This view also completely contradicts the idea of Wallace as a writer of immense skill, which, of course, every hack dutifully calls him. If Wallace’s books were 50% dull crap and 50% epiphany, he’d be a mediocre writer in need of an editor. He wouldn’t be the greatest voice of his generation.
And then there’s this nonsense about his novels not being emotionally satisfying, another crime that lazy book reviewers like to tag Wallace with. I’m not going to bother to argue the merits of that one, but, again, why this bogus dichotomy between the “brainy” books and the “emotional” ones?
Why impoverish the idea of emotionality in literature by pigeonholing it into something like “a round character whose pain you can identify with”? To take just one example, I find Sebald to be an amazingly emotional read for the fact that he so expertly evokes the sensation of nostalgia (among others), despite having nothing resembling conventional “emotionality” in any of his books. Even if you were to admit that Wallace was cerebral to the point of ignoring character–and anyone who has read him at all knows that’s not the case–there are other ways his books could have been emotional.