Books May 2012

A Swing and a Miss

Why the latest hyped-up work of staggering genius fizzles

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only way to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison. I realize some reviewers mentioned Moby-Dick and The Art of Fielding in the same breath, which was certainly a bit much, but the point being made was at least an arguable one: just as we don’t need to like whaling to enjoy the one novel, we don’t need to be baseball fans to enjoy the other. Exactly what it is we need to be, I’m not sure.

All of this will come as small consolation to serious readers suckered into buying Harbach’s book, but they should have known better. As long as the classics remain more deeply relevant to our lives than the novels our own time produces, we should remain “untimely,” in Nietzsche’s still-dangerous sense of the word. This means being more and not less skeptical of advertising when it deals with new books. Testimonials solicited before publication are exactly that: solicited. They are scarcely worth reading at all, as the back cover of The Art of Fielding demonstrates. No articulate person who really “gave [himself] over completely” to a novel “and scarcely paused for meals” would then describe it (as Jay McInerney did) as “an autonomous universe, much like the one we inhabit, though somehow more vivid”—which is either meaningless or deranged, depending on how seriously you take the “vivid” part. To quote the British scholar Ian Robinson: “An emotion can safely be judged a fake if the language does not convey it.”

I don’t trust my own language to pull off the sweet nothings customary at the end of a negative review, or else I would say something about The Art of Fielding’s being “only” a first novel, as if any other kind had a better record, and claim to be looking forward to the author’s next effort. Let’s end on a positive note anyway. In a certain sense, every year’s Big Book delivers on the hype, and 2011’s was no exception. Whether those who bought The Art of Fielding liked it or not, they most probably got to discuss their impressions with one or two friends, or guests at parties, perhaps even strangers who spotted the familiar cover from across the subway aisle. They got the fellowship they paid for, in other words. I challenge anyone who reads “off the grid” not to admit to a little envy.

B. R. Myers is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).
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