Monday, March 14, 2011

Excellence by association

Inspired by the abandoned novels post, we seem to have temporarily abandoned our blog.  Sorry, life intervened!

Rhian showed me a surprising review by Tadzio Koelb in the NYTBR this weekend.  What's surprising is how clearly and cogently it's written, and its willingness to take a step back and examine the context into which the book in question, Rebecca Hunt's Mr. Chartwell, is being published.

In short, Koelb calls the book "well-packaged chick lit" that "benefits from the reassuring aura of history."  (Winston Churchill is one of its three main characters.)  He compares it to another recent novel, Child 44, which he says "was in the running for two of Britain's most important literary awards."  This comes as a surprise to me, because I read that novel and thought it was rather poor, even as a piece of genre fiction.  In any event, Koelb contends that both books are mediocrities that the literary press has elevated by virtue of their subject matter, rather than their artistic value; he believes this is a trend in book reviewing.

I think he's right.  I am still bewildered by the fact that nobody seems to have recognized Freedom as Jonathan Franzen's worst book; it's a lopsided domestic drama with a lot of timely and unnecessary sociopolitical nonsense slathered over it.  (FWIW, I enjoyed it anyway--but it is not up to Franzen's usual standard.)  In that book, we were seduced, I think, by its ambitious title, its environmental subplot, its political undertones.

While I am enjoying the democratization of literary discourse that the internet has brought us, the trend Koelb describes is a consequence of the decline of newspapers and print magazines--hardly anyone is being paid to recognize artistic value anymore.  And so, I fear, hardly anyone is bothering.


Unknown said...

Tadzio Koelb seems to be intent on criticizing the critics as much as the books they claim to love. His first review (that I ever saw, at least) was of Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise. He basically argued that the book was well-received by the press because they were so excited to write about a "lost" novel by a holocaust victim that they didn't really care if the writing was any good. It got a lot of attention in some of the UK blogs, and I think you can still read it online here:

5 Red Pandas said...

When it comes to Freedom I can't believe they let him get away with Patty's autobiography written in the 3rd person. That came off more as a Franzen inability to write convincing first person narration than a Patty flaw.

I enjoyed the book, too, but I came away from it feeling that Franzen wants to write female characters but falls short with actually portraying their experience in a way that I, as a woman, recognize. He spent so many words on them, but I still don't think he captured them very well.

It also seemed to me that if Franzen was a lesser known author he would have been reigned in more, which would have meant a shorter book, but very likely a less flawed one. Perhaps having the stature to write whatever the hell you want to write is a very mixed blessing.

5 Red Pandas said...

When Franzen's novel came out there was that flap where people questioned why men can write domestic novels and still be considered capital "S" serious writers while women who mine the same veins are often not. Do you think there is a connection between that debate and the elevation of "Mr. Chartwell" in Britain? (As asserted by the reviewer- I have not read it and can't comment on whether it is overrated or not).

Like it's some sort of conscious or unconscious correction of sorts made by guilt ridden reviewers?

(Again, I haven't read the book so I'm just putting this theory out there.)

F's L said...

There's a review in the Guardian of Child 44 that doesn't make it sound very good... guess who wrote it?

rmellis said...

I haven't read the book, but the review is just devastatingly well-written: clear thinking, plain language. I swoon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these links--I must say I like his approach. He clearly is riding a hobby horse. Yes, Child 44 was badly written! I didn't bother with the sequel. It's one of those books, though, where I remember the trappings of reading it better than the book--I was on a book tour, and spent the day in Brooklyn reading in Prospect park and taking photographs of people and trees. I could even tell you what camera, film, and lens I was using. It was an almost perfect day, except for those sentences.