Sacred Cows

I think I’m going to be a bit controversial today. What the hell, it’s almost the weekend. I’ve been thinking about reviews and opinion, and how subjective taste is. And I saw this post on Iain’s blog: Matters of Opinion, which contrasts positive and negative reviews of self-published work. It’s quite funny. I thought I might do something similar on books that are highly praised in some circles.

Stavrogin – aka Oli Johns, aka who knows? – had a thread running on Amazon forums for a bit where you had to guess the classic from its worst reviews. I lost hours of my life on that thread. But one that stuck in my mind was this one:

“I think this work is a good book for pseudo-intellectuals to cling to. I can’t see any merit in reading this book at all.”

Not much to go on there? Ok, what about this:

“I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so absurdly over-rated and over-hyped as [this book]. I found it shoddily-written, repetitive, dull and about 200 pages too long. Much has been made of [the author’s] attempt at capturing the 80s zeitgeist, but I felt this aspect of the book was crudely-done and clumsy.”

Getting warmer?

“The message is conveyed within 10 pages (well, less actually but let’s not be controversial). It is then 385 long dull pages of hammering the same thing home. Forget the brouhaha about ‘what it all means’ because all that is simply secondary to the fact that this is a dull, poor novel. ”

I got it from that last description, primarily because I agreed wholeheartedly with it. But ok, this has to be the clincher:

“The constant references to Labels, restaurants, bars and clubs, the obsession with physical fitness, the racism, the sterotypical ‘Wall Street workers’, the gratuitous, graphic violence and sex all become deeply tedious VERY quickly…

Other reviewers talk about how it’s poking fun at the Yuppies – Duh… if you don’t get that in the first 3 pages you’re probably on a life support machine.

This book could be subtitled “Irony for Dummies”, it’s so heavy-handed.”

Yes, it is of course American Pyscho. For me this is a very very strange book, because on the face of it it should be precisely the kind of thing I would love. Satirical, edgy, dark social commentary. And yet, I hated it. I didn’t finish it, I gave up. After something like thirty pages of references to nothing but labels I wanted to gouge my own eyes out. I genuinely don’t get the buzz that surrounds it and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have recommended it to me. ‘Irony for Dummies’ is a good label. The comment about it making its point in the first few pages and then hammering the same thing home again and again and again was precisely how I felt about it. It was so incredibly dull. And I know the author was trying to convey a sense of emptiness and, well, dullness, but then that to me should have been his challenge. How to convey dullness interestingly.  Am I being pretentious when I say there is no challenge in describing a piece of shit as “just a piece of shit”? I mean, I can see the aesthetic statement in that, but I don’t think you can sustain it for a 300 page narrative, or can you?

Moving on, there was this one on the thread also:

“…This book is dull, repetitive and dated. The labourious plot has been lifted with limited competence from the Scooby Doo cartoon, complete with thrilling wig lifting scene and a subsequent lengthy explanation of a pointless deception.”

Yeah, I didn’t guess it from that either. I spent a week wracking my brains over Scooby Doo. This might help a bit more:

“I read this novel years ago and have just watched the BBC adaptation in the (vain) hope that I may have missed the point of the book. Prepared to give a dull story a second chance, how wrong I proved to be. The book has no points to make other than fatuous, obvious ones. And almost zero plot. If this is literary fiction, then God help us all. It puts style above content and has nothing to add to the life of anyone who sits past average on the great bell (end) curve of human intelligence.”

Hahah, I love vitriolic reviews. As an aside, one of my favourites was a review of the eponymous album by the band Yes which was reviewed in a newspaper upon its release with the single word “NO”. Anyway, I digress. The book above is Money by Martin Amis. Anyone who knows me knows I dislike Amis. That’s a big opinion to have I know, and partially it’s my problem. I read everything he ever wrote up to Time’s Arrow when I was a teenager because my A-Level English teacher had told me he was great and in my naivete I just assumed this was what literary fiction was and that I wasn’t clever enough to be getting it properly. Because of that Amis has become caught up in this web of shame/bitterness/spite I cast about myself when I decided to reject what other people told me was good and work things out for myself. I have to be fair and say I actually quite enjoyed Time’s Arrow, and I thought Einstein’s Monsters was ok, but everything else left me cold. “Style above content” – yes, yes, yes. That’s what I feel about Amis. Great style, remarkable style, but so what? What does it tell me about anything? I see the purpose of literary fiction to be the analysis of ideas and the transmission of these alternative points of view into my head to make me think more. Slipping into my IT persona, that is what makes literary books “fit for purpose”. Analogy time. If I bought a mobile phone that looked fantastic, that had loads of little design gizmos on it, touch-screen, useful little apps, it even made toast for me, that would all be great but I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t send a text or make a call on it. “Style above content”, style without substance – bells and whistles are useless if there’s nothing of any purposes beneath them.

Ok, one more. And this is the one that people berate me for. I’ll make it easy because this post is getting too long:

“The passages on whaling are the most interesting, and give an idea of what it must have been like to go after whales in hostile seas in a small open boat with hand-thrown harpoons. What happen to the whales after harpooning is described in fascinating and gruesome detail. Disappointingly Moby himself does not appear until the very end of this whale-sized book. But insted of building up tension the disjointed rambling nature of the book just generates frustration and impatience.”

God, I had three attempts at this one. I finished it by sheer willpower alone. The fifty or sixty pages that described the different species of whale left me wanting to go swimming with sharks. Digression upon digression upon digression. Where was the theme of manic obsession? I think it might have been in there somewhere, it just got buried under a mountain of other things far less interesting.

Ok, I’d better wind it up. My point (if I ever have a point) is this: don’t believe the hype. Just because ‘they’ (the mysterious they, the ones who appoint themselves to be guardians of our culture and our intellectual capability) tell you something is great, don’t just take their word for it. You’re free to disagree. And don’t think disagreeing makes you seem stupid. If you can articulate the reasons why you think something isn’t so brilliant, then go for it. I look back at the seventeen year old me and think, “what the hell was WRONG with you?” But, of course, I was only in the same trap we all blunder into in. I didn’t want to appear an ignoramus. If nigh on twenty years of studying literature has taught me anything it’s that the people who try and shout you down don’t know any more than you do. They have theories and arguments, that’s all, and opinions. Maybe I’ve been reading too much sixties literature, but we do as a society seem to appoint people with the tag of “expert” far too readily and then abstain from challenging their ‘learned opinions’. Big words do not an intellect make. Tell them what you think, let them deal with it.

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8 thoughts on “Sacred Cows

  1. Marion June 17, 2011 / 1:10 pm

    I agree that American Psycho doesn’t work as a book. It’s a concept, not a story and it’s not even readable. However, to the author’s credit, it’s not just about the labels and the emptiness. The central conceit is that people don’t listen to each other — at all. Bateman tells or tries to tell people that he’s on a killing spree several times and they either don’t hear him because of the background noise and pretend they do, or they just don’t process it. It’s a clever idea and could have worked if the story made more sense, if there had been actual suspense, or if the reader was made to care about any of the characters. It was published to acclaim because Brett Easton Ellis was a young phenom who had previously written Less Than Zero. Had it been a first novel by an unknown, one wonders if it would have gotten published. Maybe, some editor would have seen it’s potential and made the author work a bit harder at developing it.

    • Neil Schiller June 17, 2011 / 2:16 pm

      Marion, you may well be right and I probably didn’t get far enough through it to grasp the point about talking and no-one listening. I was too bored by then. I haven’t read Less Than Zero as American Pyscho put me off although I have heard it’s good. Having said that, I also heard American Pyscho was good. It’s a tricky business trying to work out which recommendations to listen to and which ones to ignore…

  2. James Everington June 17, 2011 / 1:30 pm

    Personally I though the main point of American Psycho was whether the violence and sex was actually real, or all in his imagination, and the fact that because all his capitalist desires are always satisfied he couldn’t tell the difference…

    But anyway, I agree with the main points in this article, although I like all three books ‘dissed’ to a greater or lesser extent. But, contary person that I am, I can’t help but see another side, because I think that there’s a sense lost among today’s readers that forcing yourself to read something ‘hard’ can be a good thing. That reading, in itself, is a skill, and that the more the do the better you get at it. That if you don’t finish Ulyssess at 17, trying again at 37 might still be a good idea.

    I recently tackled Proust for the first time, and boy was it a struggle at first. And I’ll never love Proust, I know that now. But my enjoyment, and my knowledge of literature and how it works and how varied it is, was increased by reading him, and I’m not sure if I’d have struggled through if it hadn’t been for the fact that other people had been there first, and told me there was something of value there.

    • Neil Schiller June 17, 2011 / 1:45 pm

      James, don’t get me wrong, I agree with your main point. The one thing Amis said that I DO wholeheartedly agree with is that literature courses – in school and at degree level – should include texts that you wouldn’t otherwise read. Would I have tackled Chaucer in middle English if I didn’t have to? Or Malory’s Athurian tales? No. I’d like to say I’m intellectually curious enough to tackle things for their own sake, but the truth is I’m probably too lazy most of the time, even though I’m probably more willing than most. So yeah, I too think you should tackle these things but what I meant, I guess, is that I won’t take the intellectual opinion as gospel. I read Moll Flanders by Defoe as part of a course and I thought it was staggeringly good. Same with Rochester, Keats, Auden, Milton. Read Austen and didn’t like her. Rossetti I loved, Clough I thought was great, Tennyson ok, Yeats – good god what type of fairy juice was he sniffing?

      I mean, yeah, it’s all a matter of taste really. Kerouac I think is overrated – hence my thread on him a while back – but Ginsberg I think was a genius, albeit a sporadic one. The main purpose of the post was letting off a bit of steam about my higher-education experiences I suppose. I don’t like being told what I should think if I can come up with a few good reasons as to why I don’t agree…

  3. James Everington June 17, 2011 / 8:10 pm

    Yeah, but there’s things I don’t like… and things I know *are* bad. So for example, Jane Austin isn’t someone you like, but would you say she was a bad writer? I don’t like Dickens and I don’t like Dan Brown, but I know who I have more respect for out of the Dickens fans and the Dan Brown Fans…

    A similar view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMjrXRgu8IU

  4. Neil Schiller June 17, 2011 / 10:04 pm

    It’s a fine line isn’t it? I can’t honestly say Austen is a terrible writer, not if you were contextualising the conversation with The Greek Seaman. Technically Austen is just fine, probably much better than just fine. And what she did, she did very well. I don’t like what she did, that’s true, but my main objection is the absolute fervour that some fans lavish on her which, in my opinion, is a bit misplaced. I think there are better social satirists at every turn – Vanity Fair was a better book than Pride & Prejudice, so was The House of Mirth – in my opinion of course.

    The problem with being a bit opinionated is, of course, that it’s all contextual. If I was locked in a room with a choice of two books – Emma by Austen, or The Slugs by Shaun Hutson – I’d pick Emma. Of course I would. Do I think Austen is a bit crap? Still yes. Compared to the literary work I do like. But compared to the non-literary work I don’t like, then yeah, she compares quite favourably.

    Blogs and forums are a bit like conversations down the pub aren’t they? Vastly oversimplified. (I still don’t like Austen though – it’s oh so ironic that everyone thinks a young woman needs a good, wealthy man, except that in the end that’s exactly what they need, and what they get, and they’re ecstatic about it)…

  5. Iain Manson June 21, 2011 / 8:59 pm

    I hesitate to say too much, since I sometimes think I’m a more than averagely stupid reader. Was it Kingsley Amis who said of some clever interpretation of Jaws, “And there was me thinking it was all about being scared of getting eaten by a bloody great fish”? Me exactly. I don’t know nuffin’ bout litricher, but I know what I like.

    And I like American Psycho and Money, and even Moby Dick, which Peter Benchley wrote under the pseudonym of Herman Melville.

    In invoking the name of Marcel Proust, James has prompted a thought which might be of some relevance. My own opinion is that reading Proust seems like a wonderful idea until you start. At which point not reading Proust seems like a still better idea. But my Proust-deafness doesn’t persuade me that he’s no good. I am in fact as sure as it’s possible to be of such a thing that he’s quite brilliant. Far too many intelligent and unpretentious people admire his work for it to be otherwise.

    Coward that I am, I’m always scared to condemn a much-praised book unless I’m absolutely sure I’m not missing the point. Usually, I just assume the fault is mine. How pathetic is that?

    Before I go, I’d better put you right on Jane Austen. Vanity Fair is a terrific yarn, but not in the same league as Pride and Prejudice. I share your weariness of the reverence of the Austenites, but even so, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t get one of them (my mate Lexi Revellian) to come over here and duff you up. I’ll think about it.

  6. Neil Schiller June 22, 2011 / 8:55 am

    Iain, I think I’m at the point where I would have recognised that post as yours even if it had no name on it 😀

    What I’ve learned over the past few months is that EVERYBODY bloody loves American Psycho and Moby Dick. I think I’m the only person in the world that doesn’t. Ah well. Here’s a confession for you: when I was an undergraduate a tutor asked me if I liked Jeanette Winterson and I said I liked her first novel but wasn’t fussed on her later stuff. Being a bit ignorant of magic realism at the time I came up with a toe curling reason for not liking her, it was something stupid like “she goes too far with the imagining stuff”. Oh dear. Maybe it was also because I wasn’t great at articulating myself at 18 either. And I remember some other terrible episodes, not from me, but from other undergraduates. The student who asked, for instance, whether the events in Naked Lunch – specifically the mugwhumps and their sexual experiments and cutting someone open with a rusty can – “really happened”. You’d think that kind of thing would make me shut up and, as you say, just assume the fault is mine if I don’t like something. But bizarrely, no, it just made me more determined to express why I don’t like things in a (slightly) less moronic way.

    I know, I know, I risk war with the Austen legion. If I’m being totally honest it isn’t that I HATE Austen. She’s not my kind of thing, and I wouldn’t read her by choice, but she’s obviously not awful, her perspectives just differ significantly from mine. What amplifies my opinion is the absolute adoration lavished on her. I have a similar take on J.K Rowling. She’s written some decent kid’s books, she’s done very well out of it, and good luck to her. But when I hear adults telling me they are the best books ever written I want to smack them about the head with something very heavy – maybe a hardback copy of the collected Orwell…

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