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March 09, 2003

Fiction Books -- Taste Triangulating

Friedrich –

I haven’t blogged much about books, lit and writing, which along with movies is the current artform I know best. Why? Because I covered the field professionally for 15 years, and I just have too damn much to say, much of which runs counter to conventional lit-world wisdom. Where to start? And how to avoid being knocked over by the sheer pressure of what wants to be said?

But, gotta start somewhere, and it’s about time, or so says some inner voice of mine. Why not start by triangulating my peculiar taste set in contempo fiction-book writing?

Some of the usual major suspects: I read Rushdie and Morrison thinking “bullshit bullshit bullshit.” DeLillo? I read two of his books, and that’ll last me my next ten lifetimes. Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon? Brilliant, sure, but when I want ideas, I prefer to turn to actual philosophers, and besides, I’m a couple of decades out of grad school.

The “what’s great” sweepstakes: Reluctantly, I place my votes for three or four Garcia Marquez books, a couple of books each from Josef Skvorecky (“The Bass Saxophone” and “Dvorak in Love”) and Milan Kundera (but early Kundera, please), two novels (start with “Season of the Jew” -- better than Hemingway) by the almost-completely-unknown-in-America New Zealander Maurice Shadbolt, and four or five of Alice Munro’s books.

But, to be honest, those are conversations that I’m not much interested in taking part in. Age and fatigue probably explain this. But also, there are plenty of people clamoring to fight these fights and I’m happy to leave the brawling to them. Me, I’d rather explore pleasure, personal responses, and enjoyment, and do my best to be honest about my reactions. (And I love comparing notes with people I respect and enjoy who are also willing to let go of the damn “what’s great” argument.) I’ll take a pass on arguing over who should win the next Nobel and choose instead to admit that I was surprised to discover that I enjoyed reading Terry McMillan’s “Waiting to Exhale” and Jackie Collins’ “Hollywood Wives” much more than I did “Cold Mountain” or “All the Pretty Horses.” How about you?

The genres. I tend to respond most happily to erotic-philosophical novellas, to mystery, to comedy and humor, and probably best to psychological suspense. Straightforward horror doesn’t mean much to me; neither do political thrillers, sci-fi, or straightforward spy novels. The current lit genres (and, despite the pretences of the lit crowd, there are genres in lit writing just as there are in commercial writing) leave me cold -- the family-dysfunctional, the pinwheeling multicultural extravaganza, the austere farm-based tragedy.

My personal faves: So, wading through the thicket of my own rants, I arrive at the currently-active fiction-book writers (and I specify “book” because I also like the work of some screenwriters and TV writers) whose work I most happily look forward to, and most happily abandon myself to.

  • Ruth Rendell, an English specialist in mystery and psychological suspense. Her “Inspector Wexford” series -- straight detective fiction -- hasn’t hooked me, but her psychological suspense novels put a gleam in my eye. They’re often portraits of sociopaths, and they’re wicked and bent. You know how women, when they decide to lace into someone, can be about a zillion times crueller, more insightful and more incisive than any man? Rendell puts that kind of merciless female power to excellent work. She also has a way of using close-in third-person narration in neurotically insistent ways that I find daring and exciting. I’m currently halfway through “Going Wrong,” a high-strung and distressing portrait of a self-centered criminal and the girl he’s fixated on (and who, for her own reasons, allows him to do this). It’s got its longueurs and unlikelinesses but it’s also whacked and flakily brilliant, and I couldn’t be a happier reader.
  • For my money, Donald Westlake, the amazingly prolific author of mysteries, comedies, comic mysteries, and more, is America’s greatest fiction virtuoso. He’s a special case, because no single one of his books is a gigantic, self-contained, once-and-for-all wow. (He’s written 90ish books -- estimates, including Westlake’s own, vary.) I read him because I love dropping in on Westlake-ville -- his mind, his brain, his fiction-writing chops, and especially his rowdy and irreverent spirit. He’s got a deep vein of genuine good humor, and a tenacity and rambunctiousness that remind me of Henry Fielding. I think I could make a case for him as an impressive fiction innovator, too. But what really matters to me is that his writing gives my brain a tickle, my emotions a workout, and my spirits a great big boost.
  • Tom Perrotta, whose best-known book is probably “Election” (the novel the movie was based on), is like an American Nick Hornby -- an author of bittersweet, avowedly minor gems. “Bad Haircut,” “Joe College,” and “The Wishbones” are high-end and touching EZ reads, beautifully crafted, intimate, informal and entertaining, and full of insights and observations: I gobble ‘em up, then go back and savor them all over again.
  • I haven’t got a clue why Lee Smith isn’t better-known than she is. She’s done fine, but her work is open, accessible, and full of feeling in ways that make me think of great popular entertainers -- singers or actresses. So why isn’t she a star? Beats me. She writes mainly about Appalachian, Southern, and country people, and I find her novels and stories as full-bodied and emotionally satisfying as the big 19th century novels readers are forever complaining no one writes any more. “Black Mountain Breakdown” is the funniest book of hers that I’ve read; “Fair and Tender Ladies” is the saddest.

Have you kept up much with contempo fiction-book writing? (I don't much these days -- and what a relief not to have to "keep up" any longer.) Eager to hear about your faves, as well as your reactions to the usual suspects. Let's have a Friedrich taste-triangulation, please.



posted by Michael at March 9, 2003


No takers? Eager to hear from anyone here. All it takes is filling out the following form:

1) How do you react to the writers who are generally considered the current big guns?
2) Who (who's still writing) do you think really truly is great?
3) How do you react to the various genres?
4) And who are your current personal faves?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 9, 2003 7:09 PM

I recall a somewhat similar post that elicited some very interesting diatribes on the state of writers today.

But, always game for a list, I herewith submit my "A" list:

Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman, Ian Banks (in no particular order)

There are hundreds of other writers, mostly dead, that I have not read, so I pay pretty much 0% attention to suspectness or not. I do look at offerings at the "new" table (or did when I had a real job), and based my selection on whether I thought I would like it. There are plenty of contempory writers that I enjoy a lot, but not as consistantly as the above short list.

My "A" list consists of authors with works that pretty much uniformly please me. No bad ones read yet. They also write in several, or across several genres.

Posted by: Felicity on March 9, 2003 9:29 PM

I agree with your evaluation of Donald Westlake; his novels are light reading with depth, humor, and bite. Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Kazuo Ishiguro, and early Haruki Murakami are four that left an enduring impression on me.

My latest literary enthusiasm is Jose Saramago, a Portuguese Nobel-winning author who writes strangely affecting novels. Saramago is a wise and witty writer.

And then there's Patrick O'Brian, who people either love and re-read or find impenetrable due to the nautical vocabulary. There is wonderful humor in his novels reminiscent of Dickens or Austen.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on March 10, 2003 11:19 AM

I'll give a hearty seconding of your raspberries to Morrison, Rushdie, and DeLillo. Gad what a bunch of stale vapors they are. I picked up (for the third try) "The Satanic Verses" after 9-11 - thought it was appropriate - and I would get so p!issed off at the terrible, showy, "Look ma! More obscure literary references in one paragraph than in all of T.S. Eliot!" I would have to put the thing down to avoid stroking out. (Why do modern "literary" writers think they have to create ugly, smelly, and freakin creepy lead characters? Is it more "realistic" to them?) Anyway, I gave up ever reading it, ended up searching the web for what the big offense was, reading that chapter, and being relieved I didn't have to slough through all the dreck just to see Mohammed accused of making up parts of the Koran. I won't even rant about DeLillo. I will only mourn for all the future lit. majors who will be forced to read his tepid, onanistic typographic flatulence. I disqualify myself as the intended audience for Morrison in the same way I'm not the intended audience for Joyce's "Ulysses," especially since I'm past the point of being assigned the annotated versions by each (for those of you, like me, in the intellectual cheap seats). I tried to get'em - never will. [After reading the other comments so far, I have to add Margaret Atwood's oeuvre to my "avoid" list. What a festering little ball of ennui and puss. Ever notice everyone but her heroine (it's never a hero) is three days past dead in terms of decay, odor, and color?]

I liked "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace very, very much. But, save a couple essays, yeah, so far the rest of his stuff is a little too meta-precious.

I might be repeating myself here, but I think John Irving really delivers on his promise. "Hotel New Hampshire" and "Son of the Circus" miss their targets (though the "sorrow floats" image/joke in "Hotel" is wonderful), but other than that, he's great. "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and "The Cider House Rules" are and will remain classics. "Prayer" is probably one of the best novels ever written in the English language. His recent, light-hearted "The Fourth Hand" is probably the best one for readers unfamiliar with him. The first chapter alone is a gem.

I know Stephen King isn't considered a great literary writer just yet, but he should be. When we get a few years down the road, he will be honored much in the same way, and for the same reasons, as Charles Dickens is. No one else alive has the sheer writing ability he does.

I've read about 7-10 "literary" novels this year, and so far none of them have made a positive impression in that I can remember their titles, authors, or even "plots" - heh heh, as if literary fiction has such a thing as "plot." Two writers who got scratched off my list for good, however, are Jim Crace of "Being Dead" - the malignant tumor/twin/ball-of-hair-and-teeth dug out of the hero in SK's "The Dark Half" incarnated as a novel; and Jane Smiley of "Moo" - how can you write a slab of fiction when you hate all of your characters?

Oh! Wait! Just remembered! The two "literary" novels I enjoyed this year were, "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, and "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel. Wonderful books. "Pi" should be added to every high school students' "the one novel you have to read before graduating" lists. "The Lovely Bones" manages to cover the year after a teenage girl is raped and murdered by a serial killer, from her perspective, in a way that doesn't force the reader to feel like they need a shower afterwards. It manages to be uplifting even, which alone may disqualify it as a potential "literary" novel. Remember, all literary novels have to out-kafka Kafka to be taken seriously.

Snide Aside: Some weenie reviewed "The Lovely Bones" for "The New York Review of Books" (Jan 16, 2003) and spent half the review rolling his eyes at the fact that it was a bestseller, and the other half suggesting how she could have improved the novel - what a maroon. What was especially rich is his suggestions would have ruined the very thing the author achieved - dealing with the subject matter in a way that would be too harrowing to read had it been done any other way. He wanted a nasty, gritty depiction of the crime, for one. Sheesh. Alice knew what she was doing, pomo boy. I've noted through some research the guy hasn't ever had a hit of any sort himself, no surprise. His contributions to the literary world are two tomes on his exploration of his homosexuality as it relates to his specialty - Greek and Roman classics. I think that tells you all you need to know, eh?

High Lit considerations aside, I think a lot of folks would be pleased and surprised at how good Issac Asimov's robot novels and short stories are (but avoid the rest - oy!). The "Fletch" novels by Gregory McDonald are a blast. Dean Koontz's "Dark Rivers of the Heart" and "Watchers" are must-reads, too.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on March 10, 2003 12:46 PM


I posted this response to a January post of yours some time ago that is along a similar track. Once I chew this one over, I'll have a new one up (likely tomorrow).

Posted by: Ian on March 10, 2003 7:39 PM

DO NOT post these book posts on the weekend when I am at the ranch and on dial-up. I have to conciously avoid the Double Blowhards then, since that damn banner graphic takes easily 4 or 5 minutes to load, and I don't have that much time.

I shall have more to say momentarily, as soon as I stop fuming over your dismissal of Cormac McCarthy. I've re-read every single one of his books at least once, and some three or four times, and there is nothing in his novels that is "of an age" in the sense that I read that phrase. I'm gonna go off the handle here, and say that McCarthy is timeless, and he will be read 100 years from now. Suttree and Blood Meridian and the Pretty Horses trilogy are all gorgeous prose.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on March 10, 2003 9:48 PM

I've stopped, for the most part, trying to keep up with the latest in literary razzle-dazzle. McCarthy and Rushdie have thwarted my most valliant attempts to get through any of their novels, and, slow learner I, it took reading "White Noise," "Mao II," and "Underworld," for me to get completely fed up with DeLillo's cerebral smugness. As far as "what's great," my only answer is: Phillip Roth. "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist," and "The Human Stain," may not achieve the sustained elegance and power of "The Ghost Writer," but they're still probably the best contemporary novels I've yet to read. On a lesser level, I liked Brian Morton's "The Dylanist" and "Starting Out in the Evening," and I like Tim O'Brien, when he's funny.

As far as genres go, I'm partial to detective novels, but I enjoy horror and sci-fi, as well (fantasy tends to bore my socks off, though--I'd rather read Barry Windsor-Smith comics). I like Ruth Rendell, a lot, but except for "The Bridesmaid," prefer her Wexford books. "Death Notes" is one of the most elegant mysteries I've ever read, and the solution(s) is truly the work of a virtuoso storyteller. I'm also a big Stephen King fan: I thought "Dreamcatcher" was a real hoot, although the build-up was better than the pay-off. For sci-fi, my current favorite is Michael Swanwick: his books "Vacuum Flowers" and "Stations of the Tide" both avoid the basic traps of the genre (over-reliance on dry technical details and lack of compelling characters) as well as the failings of most "literary" sci-fi (obtuse style, allegory, inconsistent setting). The ideas in these books are derivative ("Flowers" deals with hive-minds and has cyberpunk trappings, "Stations" deals with terra-forming, and deliberately echoes "Forbidden Planet"), but Swanwick manages to put an interesting spin on everything.

Posted by: JW on March 10, 2003 11:18 PM

Well, Rushdie and DeLillo are a bit up and down in interest, but I really liked Rushdie's "Haroun and the Sea of Stories", whereas I've tried "Satanic Verses" a number of times, and have failed completely to make it through. Likewise, "Underworld" lies half-eaten on my shelf, and I found "White Noise" to be a delight. Similar estimates for Pynchon ("Gravity's Rainbow" a resounding yes, "Mason Dixon" so far no). Hence, assigning them to my "B" list (vast, and inappropriate), of authors who miss the mark as often as they hit.

I forgot Murakami! Definitely "A" list!

Posted by: Felicity on March 10, 2003 11:29 PM

OK, I've dealt with the McCarthy dissing here.

On DeLillo - I've never gotten a sense of smugness out of his work, and I detest smugness. I'm surprised that so many dislike his work. I thought Underworld was brilliant, but then I was reading it for the story and the prose and the characters, not the portentuous philosophical underpinnings that have been assigned to it since it's publication.

On genres: I am a hard-boiled freak. Ellroy is the master. He's another one who doesn't publish enough for me. Dennis Lehane is a good hard-boiled example, as well, and he falls into my next category of...can't get enough of serial police procedurals - Ian Rankin is my current favorite...slowly working my way through his catalog.

On classics: Steinbeck is tops, bar none. Desert island material.

On "Being Dead": oh, Christ, kill me now. I wanted to drive to the corporate offices of B&N and demand my money back times ten, at the point of a gun if necessary.

Godallmighty, I love books. Why do I spend all this time writing and reading blogs?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on March 11, 2003 1:29 AM

Hey Felicity, I've never given Iain Banks a try. Care to suggest a good one? I'd love to hear what you enjoy about Atwood too. I read "Surfacing" back in those days and remember it as having some power, but I have to admit that I tend to choke up with exasperation when I cast my mind back to the era of '70s-feminism fiction. Agghghh. But that's not Atwood's fault.

Hey Scott, I'm looking forward to reading your posting on Cormac, although with a slow AOL connection it'll take me an age to get over there. "All the Pretty Horses" struck me as a well-done art Western, but it didn't hook me at all. I remember feeling impressed by the book but put off by it at the same time. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for laconic-Biblical language. But I've got friends who swear by two or three of Cormac's books.

Early Murakami, yes! But is anyone else looking forward to his next book?

Roth, Roth... How do the rest of you react to Roth? I read a half a dozen years ago, enjoyed 'em, and have never wanted to read another one since. I found he got tiresome. All that heroic brilliance and concentration, all the (to my mind tedious) "I'm not really writing about myself/Yes I am" gamesplaying ... Friends rave about two or three of the recent Roths, and I'm pretty sure I'll never get to them, and it doesn't bother me much. I just got to the point where I thought, "Enough!"

DeLillo ... I found I could be impressed by his verbal production numbers -- the descriptions, the mood-setting, the eerieness. It could be like watching a glacier move, pretty damn awe-inspiring. But the two books I read ("End Zone" and "White Noise") also struck me as childishly obvious in terms of their meanings. I mean, "End Zone" -- football in a small Texas town as a metaphor for American militarism. Puh-leeze. And it wasn't as though the stories or characters were of much interest -- though I'm fascinated to hear that the story and characters in "Underworld" do have some power.

I haven't tried Rankin yet. Can anyone suggest a good one to start with?

Has anyone else noticed that none of us have mentioned Bellow or Updike? How do y'all respond to their books? (I like a few early Bellows and then tire out with "Henderson the Rain King"; Updike I can live entirely without -- the only book of his I'd press on a friend is his story collection "Too Far to Go." Otherwise, spare me; there's such a thing as being too fluent and facile for your own good.)

Do any of you find any of the book reviewers to be of much use? Where do you get your reading ideas from? Comparing notes with friends?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 11, 2003 4:00 AM

On Rankin: has a brief synopsis of all of his novels, and the chronology of their publishing. If you are the type who likes the serial, then you probably want to start at the beginning, so you can see the accretion of characters and the changes the main protagonist (Inspector John Rebus, in this case) goes through. I happened to start somewhere in the middle by pure happenstance, and I've been all over the place chronologically since then. I haven't been disappointed, but then, I devour hard-boiled cop fiction. As a bonus, they are set in Edinburgh (Rankin is Scottish), and you get a real sense of the city and the country and the people. Having been there, it fits with my sense of the place.

On Roth: I've never made it more than a hundred pages into any of his work. I just plain don't get it, or him, or his character, or or or. Maybe if he wrote a western :-)

On Updike: I really try hard to like Updike, but I have failed miserably for the last ten years. I admit that I quit buying his stuff because I got tired of seeing it on the shelf with a bookmark in it slap against the front cover.

On reviews and tips: that's a great question. I read some book reveiews, but they are usually so laden with agenda, I just give up. I still haven't found a better source for tips than people I trust. Which is why I'm bookmarking every single commenter here, and stalking your blogs.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on March 11, 2003 10:14 AM

One of the more endearing traits of Iain Banks (sorry about the misspelling in the earlier comment!), as well as Margaret Atwood, is that they are comfortable in both the science fiction and the "mainstream" fiction genres. Banks more so. The two works of Iain Banks that epitomise this for me are "Feersum Endjin" and "Canal Dreams". His use of language is extreme, poetic. In every work, he is able to assume with scary ease different voices and attitudes. This is dramatically displayed in "Feersum Endjin" (sci-fi). For a mainstream example, I could choose "Whit" or "The Crow Road", but "Canal Dreams" is about an eccentric cellist, so a theme closer to my heart.

I haven't read everything Atwood has written, not by a long shot. I found "The Handmaid's Tale" a few years ago, and must admit I was hooked. The book of hers I think I liked least was "Alias Grace". I really liked "Cat's Eye" a lot. As for your remark: "...I tend to choke up with exasperation when I cast my mind back to the era of '70s-feminism fiction...", there is truth there, and certainly it is evident in such works as "The Robber Bride".

Let's face it, though; I am basically a '70s female! Perhaps, partially, that is why Atwood resonates so nicely for me; she speaks for my time. "The Handmaid's Tale" is chilling, literary, and creepy as all get out. First time I read it, my skin was crawling, I couldn't stop reading (albeit not an unusual symptom with me), and I cried at the end.

I am a pretty enthusiastic sci-fi fan, so all recommendations and other commentaries of mine should be taken with the grains of salt they deserve.

Posted by: Felicity on March 12, 2003 12:53 AM

Late to the game I know, but I have to stand up, since nobody has mentioned them, for the only two living novelists whose books I actually look forward to: Martin Amis -- personally nasty and has only one plot (the hourglass), but the best prose stylist going; and Richard Price -- Balzac of the projects.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on March 13, 2003 10:19 AM

That's the category -- "living novelists whose new work I still look forward to." Many thanks to Aaron for nailing it better than I did. And thanks to all for the helpful recommendations.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 14, 2003 12:12 AM

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