No Literary Consensus, Ever

A lousy writer, right?

I was at the Paris Review website, and came across this really engaging interview with John Bayley, the Oxford don and literary critic who was married to the novelist Iris Murdoch for many, many years. The interviewer asks Bayley about the prestigious British literary honor, the Man Booker Prize.
Does the Booker ever get it right?
Having been a Booker chairman myself, I don’t see how it can. One of the joys of the novel is that no two readers agree about the merits of any single one of them. It is the most subjective form in the whole spectrum of art. If War and Peace were to be submitted, he can be quite sure that the jury would split fifty-fifty. Half of them would say it was too long, contained too much boring history, was too much about the upper classes … no novelist can ever do more than please some of his readers for some of the time, and that is how it should be.
Bayley nails something here I was giving some thought to a couple weeks ago. I was on Amazon surfing around in search of some new fiction to tackle, and after more than an hour of investigation, I still couldn't come up with anything to read, since every book, no matter how great it has been judged by posterity, had tons of negative reviews. Dickens? Mobs of people hate him. Hemingway? The same. And so on. I haven't found anywhere near this level of dissent when browsing for music. Maybe it's because music doesn't demand as much from us as does a substantial novel. Thus, when we get far into a well-regarded novel and it's just not working for us, well, we feel betrayed. I also live in mortal fear of being bored by a novel. Then you have to go through that inner debate on whether to quit on the book or not.

What I've found is that when I like what an author does -- their voice, their humor, their dialogue, their sentences -- then I'm going to like all their books, no matter the flaws. I just finished Hemingway's Islands in the Stream and really loved it despite some slow stretches and the fact that Hemingway always refers to his protagonist as Thomas Hudson, instead of just Tom, Thomas, or Hudson. That pretense could really annoy people, but far from a deal breaker for me.


  1. No, no,no—no need for soul-searching if you are not enthralled with a book. Here's the trick:

    (inner dialogue)
    Not sure if I can go on with this.
    No, this definitely isn't doing it.
    [gaze into the middle distance]
    It must be me. Maybe I'm not in the mood for it. I think I'll put it down and read (insert never-fail book, Orwell's essays or anything by Beverley Nichols in my case) for a little while instead. Then I'll come back to it.

    This whole thought process should take less than a minute because you are not ending the relationship, just taking a hiatus. You may pick it up again and love it, or you may never open it again. But never struggle. (Remember this when I publish my book this summer and you can't get into it ;->)

  2. But Deborah, I have to think about all those hours I lost, hours when I could have been watching re-runs on HGTV.

    You better publish that thing!


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