Forward to next post: Who is Edgar Harris?
“Brilliant Sri Lankan novelists, go home” by John Bloom is not actually that staple of unabashed Philistinism, the rant about highfalutin’ literature. Rather, it’s a rant about which books get reviewed, and how the reviewers describe them; and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t laugh when I read it:
The movie critic seems perfectly capable of praising Spiderman without thinking that it somehow demeans his critical reputation and makes him unfit for reviewing the next Merchant-Ivory saga about old ladies in India.Thank you, Dr. Doyle.
[Y]ou can forget entirely the guys at the next level, the the mid-list mystery and thriller authors who sometimes have one book out of ten reviewed by a major newspaper.
Instead, what have we got in the book review sections? Sri Lankan coming-of-age novels. Slice-of-life multi-generational family sagas about the Idaho back country. Painfully personal memoirs about single motherhood. Last week I read a review of a book called Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood by Nega Mezlekia. It had everything a book review editor wants — exotic to the point of obscurity, internationalist, multicultural (by virtue of the translation), with the promise of making us all Better People by condescending to understand the agonies of a Third World situation that we don’t really know diddly squat about.
But is it a GOOD STORY? You’ll NEVER FIND OUT by reading The New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, or any of the other Sunday supplements. Some of the reviews don’t even bother to DESCRIBE the book, much less tell us why we would want to read it in the first place. Instead they go on about “new voices in East African fiction.” My question is, “I don’t really care that much about East African fiction. It’s not high on my list of priorities. Will I like this book IN SPITE OF THAT?”
The strangest term the reviewers use is “unassuming prose.” They say it in a GOOD way, as though the BEST prose is unassuming. So how come they never review a book with ASSUMING prose? I don’t like my books unassuming. I want them to ASSUME something. I want the prose standing on its head like a Chinese acrobat and doing back flips.
A book of “literary snapshots” means nothing happens.
“A lyrical small-town reminiscence” means nothing happens.
“Full of wry insight” means nothing happens.
A “rumination,” a “pastiche,” a “twinkling little jewel of a novel,” “a quiet catharsis,” “a journey through memory” or a “poetic elegy” all mean NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.
Anything called a “three-generation family saga” will have a scene in which the bastard child of a ruthless entrepreneur is delivered by a midwife in a slave cabin.