Friday, January 19, 2007
“Sacred Games”: Two Reviewers Who Haven’t Finished the Book
There seems to be something about Vikram Chandra’s heavily-hyped, 900 page Bombay gangster novel, Sacred Games, that has led reviewers to publish evaluations before they’ve finished reading the book.
I can forgive Sven Birkerts for his essay in the Boston Globe. He writes about the publishing industry’s hype machine, and how a million dollar advance and a $300,000 publicity campaign are actually pretty discouraging for a serious reader. The essay is well-written, and the paragraph Birkerts devotes to the novel itself redeems the thing:
I’ve been reading every day, not quite finished, so the one-man jury on ultimate greatness is still out, but I can say that “Sacred Games” is moving right along. It’s working. Page after page it plucks me from the here and now, from the world governed by marketing mentalities, ruled by tasks and anxieties. I really am for long stretches in some phantasmagoric, confusing, reeking, corrupt, overheated, overpopulated elsewhere, a Mumbai of the mind, with characters who surprise me with their look and sound, their twists of behavior. How strange. It’s as if I’ve needed to go through this peculiar re-immersion to get to my turnaround, to remember—again—why I got into this game in the first place. It was out of love. (link)
But I was bothered by the Malcolm Jones “review" in the online Newsweek/MSNBC, where he essentially says he can’t be bothered because he’s too lazy (and yes, he even uses the word “lazy"). He makes the rather original claim that committing so many hours to a long book can actually dampen one’s objectivity:
Book reviewers, if they’re being paid and if they’re being the least bit fair, finish the books they review. But this creates a strange, maybe unnatural, situation: the very people paid to be objective about a book are also duty bound to finish it, and believe it or not, this warps a lot of peoples’ judgment. Let’s say you read a 900-page novel and you don’t absolutely hate it. You even sort of like it. Are you going to say that? Apparently not, judging by most reviews I read. Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe? (“>link)
He might have a point here about the way in which your own investment of time can act as a kind of bribe—though I find the implications of this kind of thinking rather distressing. Reading a work of literary fiction is not really like having a lobbyist pay for a golf trip to Scotland, is it? Jones then comes dangerously close to admitting he’d rather be watching TV:
My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.
When I realized that I get paid to read and that I still don’t have time to read everything I want—in fact, it’s hard to just barely keep up—that was when I realized how up against it everyone else is. Almost no one has time to read indiscriminately for pleasure these days. You have to pick and choose and then pick and choose again, and if you choose wrong, well, there are few things more aggravating than getting well into a book and discovering that you don’t like it after all. You’ve wasted your time. Your money. And unlike a bad movie, where you brush the popcorn off your lap and forget the whole thing by the time you hit the street, a bad book just sits there on the shelf, reminding you daily what a miserable experience you had. It’s a wonder that anyone reads anything any more. (link)
There are lots of problems here. For one thing, I’ve never finished a very long book that I didn’t in some way like, and I can’t imagine there are many readers out there who would do so. Secondly, reading a long novel is a qualitatively different kind of experience than watching a film, and thinking of them as interchangeable experiences doesn’t speak well of Jones (I hope he soon gets assigned to an easier beat). The dangers of disappointment may still be real, but the kind of imaginative pleasures and discoveries possible make the risk worth it for most readers.
* * *
Pankaj Mishra in the New Yorker
It recalls that old E. M. Forster chestnut (said about _7 Pillars of Wisdom_ I think): “One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.”
So you agree with him!
I guess I’m defensive on behalf of ambitious novelists—the writers who want to try and give a broad image of a particular society or a historical moment. And I’m skeptical of these arguments that say we have too many entertainment options, and therefore attentive reading is on its way out.
This is easily explained with a little ethnic stereotyping. Asians have no sense of time, you know:
The Mahābhārata (Devanagari: महाभारत), is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa. With more than 74,000 verses, plus long prose passages, or some 1.8 million words in total, it is the longest epic poem in the world.
According to Alain Danielou (I think), the languor, disorientation, or boredom produced by epic recitatations and 9-hour musical performances is part of the aesthetic effect and takes the listener out of évènementielle unreality and confronts him with timelessness.
Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy” is 1488 pages.
Alternatively, we can say that India is in a quasi-Dickensian stage of early capitalism, and that as their economy catches up with that of the civilized world, increasingly they too will mostly be reading flash fiction about casual sexual encounters.
Caveat: the Kyrgyz claim that their epic, Manas, is longer than the महाभारत.
And yes, two data points makes a scientific law.
John, for every ambitious Dickensian epic, there are also a dozen works of disposable Chick-Lit.
* * *
Once there was a book reviewer, named Pierre Menard (this was before he got famous), who was asked to review the Mahabharata. He was disappointed to discover that in the course of the reading the thing, he found the review he might have written (signed by his real name) already embedded in the ancient text.
So when he sent the editor his review (which he wrote anyways), he had to note that it was also an excerpt of the Mahabharata itself.
Beverly Hills Kali has been done, but a Beverly Hills Durga could start her own Manson Family. Now that would be some chick lit!
Though I agree that Malcolm Jones provides a bit of a shrug-off to the responsibilities of his position as book reviewer, I have to admit there is an annoying itch of reality to what he writes, not so much in content, but rather to whom he direct his comments. In the third block quote Amardeep Singh offers from the Jones review (“My time is precious. Your time is too . . .”), Jones directly addresses the reader of his book review. What I found the most interesting was what kind of reader Jones chose to address. Jones rather chummily offers his sympathies the life of the middle to upper class working person with family (“And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework.”). Did Jones refer to these activities with full knowledge of the chorus of nods and yeses he would inevitably evoke? He then separates himself from the pack by acknowledging that he is “paid to read,” thus directing his questions and statements to, it would be assumed (and thus not very clear, but bear with me on this one), working people not within the framework of literary studies, publishing, criticism, or instruction.
Let me list out some authors, then I’ll get to my point: Proust, Joyce, David Foster Wallace, Dickens, Pynchon, Eliot.
All of these authors have written extremely long works, and have gotten favorable reviews (throughout the years) for their behemoths, most authors writing what are considered “masterpieces.” However, even in my literature classes, among fellow English majors, it was admitted that one might never get to them all. If even in this context a sense of the insurmountable is admitted, what can be expected of the “average reader?” In that case, what IS the “average reader,” and what role do enormous novels have in their lives? Sure, Jones clumsily equates books with movies, but is he copping out, or does he just know his audience?
(I read here but don’t comment, generally, not being an academic and having only a shaky lit background...so please view what follows as stemming merely from the great unwashed.)
This might seem rather trite, but I don’t regard books I’ve started and disliked as a waste of time, or some kind of horrible paperbound memento mori. I read books because, at least in part, I like to think about them. It’s often fairly satisfying and interesting to think about a book you didn’t like much.
I’m also intrigued to find that the reviewer (and, I assume, his audience) feels that he must finish a long book if he starts it and likes it. I’ve read part-way through some long books, liked them a lot, and gotten sidetracked, but I still find it a funny idea that the pleasure/benefit of reading those books comes into play only in the last sentence of the last paragraph. Even if reading half of In Search of Lost Time only provides, say, one quarter of the pleasure of finishing it (and how to measure that?), you still get more out of it than if you never pick it up at all.
I feel as though Malcolm Jones almost resents long books for their mere, guilt-making existance.
Apparently, Jones’s dilemma is that he was paid to do a job but didn’t feel like doing it. A lot of people have “dilemmas” like that, but most of them don’t have the option of submitting a report about why they didn’t want to do the job instead.
If Jones wants to say “This book is not worth the time and energy it takes to read it,” that’s his right—after he’s read the book.
You know, this reminds me that for some time I’ve wanted to teach a class on long books. Indeed, that’d be the title: “Long Books.” With the guiding question: “why are some books longer than others?” I think it’s a good one.
Jon, I took a variation of that seminar, with Katherine Hayles, called “Big Books.” We read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest and Underworld. We didn’t discuss why some books are longer than others so much as what it is about the vision of the world presented in these books which required, in a certain sense, the length.
In my expience, the significant content of most non-fiction books is conveyed in the first couple of chapters. I’m anal enough to read the whole damn book in most cases, but I seldom find anything very rewarding in the last couple of chapters. Significant scientific papers are altogether different. The last paragraph often tips off the reader why the authors are pleased with themselves--both the practical applications and the larger theoretical implications of research findings are out of place in the long preliminary slog through the technical details. Philosophy books provide a second exception: I’ve noticed that the most unguarded and impressive remarks in such works is often found in a longish footnote about three-fifhs of the way through.
As someone who has read Frank Schatzing’s the Swarm (a book twice as big and one eighth as interesting as an ordinance survey map of Australia) for online review AND has read all of those recent stories in the dead tree press about how online critics are hacks, I think I have every right to feel aggrieved at this.
I also take issue with the idea that you get invested in what you read so as to produce either positive reviews or negative. I find as a critic that it’s quite rare that I produce reviews that are clearly positive or clearly negative. A massive majority of reviews I write are luke warm… because most things are okay with a few nice ideas and some flaws.