It’s painful when I don’t recognize the mastery of a novel that everyone else seems to love. I think of some the graduate students I used to teach at N.Y.U and how they seemed to hate much that was newly published. At the time I chalked up this disapproval to insecurity about their own abilities coupled with a need to assert their own choices of technique and subject matter. And as I’ve repeatedly said, contrary to what John Cheever believed, writing is a competitive sport. Most writers are genuinely filled with Schadenfreude and secretly revel when their contemporaries receive less-than-flattering attention. One should try to be generous toward fellow writers. There is enough room in the canon and in the marketplace for anybody who has ability.
I don’t need to weigh in about The Goldfinch, a book that has been praised to the skies and trampled into the dust. I will say that it seems to be more appreciated in the U.S. than in the UK where it has plenty of detractors. Everything good and bad has been said about this book, which defied praise and damnation and sold more than a million copies. Fact of the matter: Donna Tartt is a great storyteller and most discerning readers will forgive her novel its faults, whether they are linguistic or purely narrative. I had a problem with the opening section and didn’t believe a boy separated from his mother during a bombing would leave the scene of that bombing without trying to locate her. Even purloining a valuable painting is, for me, not enough to justify leaving the scene. But that’s my unvarnished, editorial opinion. And I must defer to Michael Pietsch, the book’s editor, one of publishing’s great editors. He obviously had a different take and most readers seem to agree with him. Enough said.
It’s more difficult to criticize a novel like All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a book that was edited by another of publishing greats: Nan Graham. The book is certainly possessed of some truly wonderful writing and descriptions and many touching and inspirational scenes, albeit a bit scant on psychological insight. And yet while I was reading the book, I was all too aware of its jungle of lush prose. I thought of Elmore Leonard’s axiom: “If if reads like writing, rewrite it.” That may be going a bit too far – after all, I love John Updike’s high octane sentences which have to be some of the most magnificent sentences of the 20th century. And while Updike seldom makes a false move, you are aware of his writing, but that’s precisely what makes him amazing. Another wonder of remarkably wrought sentences is Jean Stafford’s The Catherine Wheel, a novel at once beautifully rendered and rhythmic. It may be that Updike and Stafford had a hidden laudable talent to create noble prose that snugly fit their subject matter as well as their characters.
While reading All The Light, I felt constantly hammered with gorgeous images and turns of phrase that, after a while, began to blend together until I regarded much of the prose as frilled filler and wondered more and more if it really fit the characters who are simple folk: a French blind girl; and a German radio geek soldier. Should these ordinary souls be blessed with such detailed and lyrical powers of observation? By the time I was 150 pages into the book, the prose was sitting heavily on my shoulder. Constantly aware of it, I began in my kindle to mark where I felt the writing turned purple from its sheer over-ambition. I don’t think it’s fair to this gifted author to regurgitate any of these passages here. If fact, I think prose should be quoted in order to praised and not pummeled.
As the rest of my reading time is filled with submitted manuscripts, All The Light We Cannot See has been my only recent recreational reading. Oh yes, I have been listening to The Brothers Karamazov whenever I drive to Boston or to New York City. Although Dostoyevsky can be long-winded, I find his descriptions to be a lot simpler and less ladled on than Doerr’s. And yet Dostoyevsky does just as good a job of evoking the physical world; I’m just less aware of the writer and his whirring wheels.
It seems to me that both Tartt and Doerr did quite a bit of research for their books, and perhaps this research heavily influenced what they chose to describe as well as their prose style. You feel that both books are well imagined, but they don’t seem quite as real to me as other books perhaps less ambitious in scope but more rooted in settings that their authors perhaps know a bit more intimately. In America at least, fiction seems more and more to be backed by research about arcane ideas and pastimes and locations and history. Fewer writers are doing their field research purely in their own memories unless they are the memoirists who aren’t beyond inventing what they don’t remember.