“the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, ‘Lots of people seem to like it.'”

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dear _________,

The scorn directed at [_____] is way too self-congratulatory & back-slapping for me to participate. Consensus in hating something rarely, if ever, ends particularly well. (Something similar could be said about liking, I suppose.) In some ways, I guess [_____] is bearing the marks for those who need a target for their frustration about the publishing industry knighting a new genius white male author. Had he not killed himself, I wonder if [_____] would have eventually suffered the same. Perhaps not, as he was seemingly years away from finishing a new novel to adore. He was also self-reflecive in a certain palatable (mannerly ironized & Midwesternly sincere) way, whereas [_____] comes off as insular and aloof.

These days, I read while wearing a number of different hats. ‘Can I sell this?’ asks the craven bookseller, keen that his shop doesn’t close and he find himself back on unemployment. ‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread. I very occasionally read as a critic — less so now that everybody is so busy writing essays these days to actually read (or pay for) them. From time to time, I read as a writer, fancying myself within that particular club, defying the supposed need for evidence. Sometimes I’ll go philosophical and wonder “Is there any truth in this?” More often than not, I stick to “Am I enjoying myself at all?” — joy being a precious, involved thing. Only occasionally do I find something so bad I can’t at least gleefully read aloud horribly constructed sentences. Mostly, I distrust myself, and conclude: “This is not for me.” Or “Maybe next time.”

While I don’t discount the possibility I was infected by [_____]-scorn before shelling over a portion of my unemployment check for his hardcover (I’m pretty bad with money), I think I gave it a good try. I even pushed it on my wife, in hopes that maybe she (who pays no attention to social media or literary culture) would like it. Alas … she never finished it. I now recall a story, though, where she threw it at a guy in downtown Oakland who was creeping on and tossing trash at her. Flinging his bag into traffic proved more effective, but the book probably helped. Anyway, back to me: it just didn’t work. I didn’t care about the characters (no major sin, this); many of the sentences made me cringe; but mostly, there was a joyless tone to every page. There was no distrust this time around. I didn’t recall his earlier books being so limp. and resented not buying a pretty nice bottle of wine or second-tier bourbon instead. I wanted at several times to stop reading, but refused. I even took it to the beach! Are you kidding me? A fucking beach-read? Instrumentalizing cliche didn’t help.

Best,
B.

P. S. A comment about “‘Should others really be reading this?’ wonders the tired man quietly, just before sleep, sequestering ethical reasoning to subconscious dread.” I just meant that in the course of keeping a general bookstore open — and able to sell stuff this bookseller really likes and deems worthwhile (of time, effort, opinion, judgment) — I sometimes have to sell very many copies of books that I think, frankly, though I waver and reconsider even in this, bad. Because most books are not going to be — or possibly even meant be — good, right? That’s not cynical, is it? That most books exist is usually enough — only a few are aggressively bad, in the sense that you can’t help but marvel at (& flee from) how bad. Most are readably bad, like a taco-truck dinner. But few, in the scheme of commerce, or history, are good. Most may not interest me, but few these days cause me to flinch or flee. A couple of years ago, though, one of our bestsellers was [_____] — whose sloppy stylings were barely fit for an open letter or personal blog. As a rule, we don’t invite people to return books they disliked, but I made exceptions for that one. As I’ve been in the business longer, I’ve learned the art of saying, with a mildly indigestive grimace, “Lots of people seem to like it.”

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