By a not so strange coincidence, the same month sawVanity Fair put out a long puff piece on the novel, presented, à la movie puffery, in the form of behind-the-scenes reportage. Keith Gessen, a declared close friend of the novelist, took readers through The Art of Fielding’s production process: from first draft to final manuscript, then through agent hunt and auction, right down to the cover design. Little, Brown’s $665,000 advance was held up as a vote of confidence in literature, one “especially eloquent after the darkness of 2009.” Left unmentioned, though it should not be made too much of either, was the fact that, all things being equal, publishers generally pay more-eloquent sums for writers well connected to testimonial providers and puff-piece writers; Harbach co-edits a literary journal in New York City, and Gessen himself admitted, “We knew so many people.” Nowhere in the very long article was a single quotation from The Art of Fielding’s narrative proper, though at the end came a bit from a fictitious baseball handbook that one of Harbach’s characters reads. This as opposed to dozens of crawling lines e-mailed to the novelist by the young man who became his agent. “I can only imagine how long a novel this finely crafted must have gestated … If you’ll give me the chance, I’m going to work like hell,” and so on. It’s that kind of piece.
The market reacted as it was supposed to; when people have been waiting for a starter pistol to go off, they don’t listen critically to the bang. Within weeks, The Art of Fielding had climbed into the top 20 of the New York Times best-seller list. There ensued a minor variation on what happens every autumn. Avid readers who had not yet heard of Harbach were gaped at by their one-novel-a-year friends. Those with no plans to read him had to come up with a good excuse, or be thought intellectually lazy, curmudgeonly, even envious. “How do you know you won’t like the book, if you haven’t read it yet?” The question is routinely asked by people who know full well which movies to steer clear of. It’s as if orchestrated hype were a bad sign only outside the world of letters. The abused term catch-22 is in this case perfectly apt: you may not dismiss a highly praised novel as unworthy of notice until you have finished it. Never mind the classic fiction you’d rather take care of first, things having become very quiet on the immortality-drug front. We must all get our campus-baseball tale out of the way before the next Big Novel comes along, or the system falls apart.
Should we let it fall apart? By all means. But a reviewer should either obey his instinct to ignore such a novel completely, or read it and review something else, or read it and try to offer a reasoned judgment. Having in the meantime finished The Art of Fielding, I have to say that while Gessen is wrong about its being “impossible to dislike,” it’s not terrible either. The vaunted first pages are well done, with an undeniable flair for sportswriting.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond … He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
One reason this opener works so well is that the prodigy is seen by an observer, from a distance. Unfortunately, the young man ceases to be an enigma even before the page numbers get into double digits.