Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages

Genre fiction gets a bad rap from some readers and critics because it often rigidly follows a set of formal conventions, from plot to character to prose, to satisfy reader expectations. One mark of literary fiction, in opposition to genre fiction, might be that the literary work disrupts or destabilizes these conventions (works that get called experimental tend to explode these conventions or radically recombine them). Harold Bloom, in The Western Canon (and elsewhere), argues that it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power; in some cases, he argues, this strangeness assimilates us (the readers, the culture) to the point that we can no longer recognize its strangeness. While Bloom may be a pompous windbag (and really, what literary critic worth his salt isn’t?), and I don’t always agree with him (especially in his unrelenting agon with “The School of Resentment”), I think he’s given us a good rubric by which to measure or understand what sets great literature apart from the ordinary, the conventional, the ephemeral.

I bring all of this up because it seems to me that literary fiction is its own genre, one with its own conventions, tropes, and formulations. The genre of literary fiction is as much a marketing tool, of course, as it is a set of conventions, and publishers release these books because the author’s Great Ambition and Sterling Prose and Big Ideas (in theory) cast esteem back on the publisher. And while there are plenty of great books with major houses behind them, many books claiming to be “literary fiction” are simply conventional retreads of an antiquated formula, outfitted in the grand themes of the day (these days, that tends to “identity”). These books offer no strangeness, make no attempt to open the realm of literary possibility. They are intellectual comfort food. And there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there’s nothing wrong with a good mystery novel. But I think we lie to ourselves when we overinflate the powers of our “literary” novelists. I enjoyed Jeffrey Eugenides’s middlebrow Middlesex as much as the next lad, for example, but still find it wildly overrated. Another example: Michael Chabon is not my cup of tea, but I wouldn’t argue against his talent. Still, even when he attempts the strange (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, for example), he’s blandly trying territory already colonized by others. Give me Philip K. Dick or George V. Higgins any day.

My favorite novels tend toward strangeness; they upset or confound or baffle me. I love it when I have no idea what the novelist is doing. And while reckless innovation or experimentation for its own sake can sometimes fall flat (or fall apart), an interesting failure is better than another complacent, forgettable entry in the non-canon of contemporary “literary fiction.”

Which brings me to Chad Harbach’s wildly over-hyped novel The Art of Fielding.

Let me be up front: Yes, this is backlash. The acclaim directed at this novel deserves backlash—although I’d like to be clear up front that I’m not trying to attack the novel itself; that would be like attacking a run-of-the-mill sci-fi novel for indulging in run-of-the-mill sci-fi tropes. My aim is simply to point out that Harbach’s book is no great feat of literature, no work of astounding genius—it’s just run-of-the-mill literary fiction. And yes, I didn’t read past page 100, which conveniently is the last page of chapter 11. Why would I slog it out through 400 more pages when there are so many great books in the world that I haven’t read and precious little time in which to read them? And that’s the point of the rant that follows.

The book is not entirely terrible. It just isn’t very good, certainly not good enough to warrant the excessive praise that’s been heaped upon it. Cardboard characters, cliché after cliché (plot, character, prose), and plenty of bad writing. The dialogue is particularly heinous; I’m fine with unrealistic speech, but Harbach lacks subtlety or style. In fact, the book lost me on page 18, when the character Owen Dunne introduces himself to the protagonist Henry Skrimshander with this groan-inducing nugget: “My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” I suppose that the line is meant to be heard in a perhaps ironically self-reflexive sense—a metafictive gesture that extends from Dunne to the audience, like a knowing wink (and bypassing poor boring Henry), but it strikes me instead as utterly tone-deaf, showing us nothing about Dunne and his (supposed hip) cleverness and everything about Harbach’s inability to create concrete, real characters.

Dunne is a particularly grating character in a novel full of grating characters. The worst aspect of this character is that he is presented as an intellectual, but Harbach fails to harness his intellect in the text. We are told the names of some of the authors in his library; we hear some of his pretentious speech; he tells us how smart he is, and one senses that Harbach would have us believe him—only at no point in the first 100 pages are we treated to any real aspect of his intelligence. Critics, or people who write about books, have bent over backwards to call Fielding a smart book, to liken it to Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace or, Jesus Christ, even Herman Melville. But Dunne is the simplest illustration that Harbach’s bench isn’t very deep; there is nothing here to approximate the mind of Hal Incandenza or the heart of Don Gately; there’s certainly no one here on par with Ishmael. But this is hardly Harbach’s fault, of course. Who can make an Ishmael?

If I appear to be attacking Harbach, please let me clarify: I think that he’s written a passable novel in the genre of “literary fiction” (which I contrast here now, for the sake of clarity, with strong literature or even canonical literature, if you like). But this book isn’t another Infinite Jest or Moby-Dick (as if one could even speak of “another” Moby-Dick); it isn’t even in the same league, and its champions do it no favors in overpraising it.

Let’s take a peek at some of that purple praise:

Here’s Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who, granted, manages to be wrong about almost everything all the time, but her gushing here is especially egregious—

Chad Harbach’s book “The Art of Fielding” is not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud and “The Southpaw” by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.

Mr. Harbach, a co-founder and co-editor of the literary journal n + 1, has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without ever veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable and fully imagined characters who instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds. He also manages to rework the well-worn, much-allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life’s dreams, disappointments and hopes of redemption) and injecting them with new energy. In doing so he has written a novel that is every bit as entertaining as it is affecting.

She gets a few things right: Harbach’s characters are “quirky,” in the completely-unrealistic-and-totally-annoying sense; also, yes, the book is full of “tired tropes.” But the rest? I metaphorically throw up in my brain when I read her claim that these “vulnerable and fully imagined characters . . .  instantly take up residence in our own hearts and minds.” Get me the fuck out of your pronouns, Kakutani. Because Kakutani’s honeyed spewing was not enough, for some reason, the Times ran another glowing review just a few days later, where Gregory Clowes suggests—

Measured against other big, ambitious debuts by striving young writers (Harbach is a founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1), “The Art of Fielding” is surprisingly old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved. There’s some strained humor in the early going, when Harbach seems unsure of his register, but once he settles into a mildly satiric mode of psychological realism — the mode of latter-day Jonathan Franzen, rather than the high turbulence of David Foster Wallace — the book assumes an attractive, and fitting, 19th-century stateliness.

Franzen, whose blurb blazons Fielding’s cover, is an apt comparison (over-hyped, turgid, boring, middle class, middlebrow). And even though Wallace’s The Pale King was over-hyped in the wake of his suicide, I think the Franzen/Wallace disjunction is informative here: Wallace’s work is challenging, disruptive, strange.

When Clowes points out how “old-fashioned and almost freakishly well behaved” Fielding is, he signals the same sense of comfort that Kakutani finds in the work: Like most middling works of the “literary fiction” genre, Fielding provides its audience a sense of comfort, a confirmation that the literary constructions (and worldviews) of yore still exist.

Clowes then brings up the Herman Melville references in Fielding, which aren’t so much allusions as they are lazy infodumps about more interesting books. At least Clowes has the good sense not to find parallels between Melville’s grand, strange writing and Harbach’s bland business, unlike Ellen Wernecke at The AV Club, who wrote—

Harbach takes plenty of cues from other great baseball novels, like Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, but more so from Melville, in a display of cleverness that wraps around Westish life.

Harbach’s “display of cleverness” is absolutely the problem. Who wants a display of cleverness? To me, the first fifth of Fielding reads like a self-congratulatory wankfest of cleverness, where the audience is invited to alternately smirk or nod sagely (blankly), with protagonist Henry playing the small town rube (butt of the joke) and the fish out of water (audience surrogate in what is supposed to be the fascinating world of Westish, a stand-in for Harvard in the Midwest, which, let me just stop to say, is one of the more unconvincing settings I’ve ever read). There is no challenge to the reader; even worse, Harbach seems to rely on some sense of fellow-feeling or shared common ground from his readers to land his points. Home games are always easier. The reward Harbach offers seems to be a simple reconfirmation of the forms and tropes and tired language of the “literary fiction” genre.

I detest negative book reviews as much as I hate overpraise, so let me conclude by offering a short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask,  Lars Iyer’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise . . . but now I am riffing wankerishly—never my intent here. Just didn’t want to end on a negative note. I’d love to hear what I missed on this list.

51 thoughts on “Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages”

  1. To your list of the strange and ineffable I’d add most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s The Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy. I could go on but that’s what comes immediately to mind.


    1. I’ve not read T Bernhard or much of Dyer (just some essays), but will do so on your recommendation. Can’t believe Lydia Davis slipped my mind, b/c her work is exactly what I’m trying to point toward here as strong/strange lit.


  2. An important word I use for the kind of distinction you make is, esp w/ respect to literary fiction, is “consume.” Some works, it seems to me, are simply more apt to be consumed than they are to consume. This is not to draw a hard & fast line. For example, for some, Infinite Jest (for others, it might be Barthelme’s 60 Stories or maybe Markson’s Wittgenstein’s MIstress) is a product to take in, finish, digest, and, well, shit out in the form of cultural cachet. But, as time as proven, for others, such works proved to be laced with something else — something undigestable — something not finally consumable — something maybe even downright parasitic. Thus we return to them in various forms. Other kinds of (non-literary) novels serve this same end for different people, but surely generalities (tentative though they may be) may be drawn about which books more common do so than others. It doesn’t speak to their quality per se, & possibly not even their intent. But it does set them apart, and there should be no squeamish about gravitating toward such experiences.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Brad. I like your analogy, and I certainly have experienced a “consuming” book. Blood Meridian in particular has worked its way into my brain and ears, like some parasite that demands I read it once a year; ditto King Lear; ditto Candide, books that have been around for a season or two.


      1. Yeah, it does tend to be books that have been seasoned. But it is pretty delightful when you discover something really quite new that has the same effect. The most recent example of this for me is Danielle Dutton’s Sprawl. I was very much taken aback by not only how much I liked that book, but how much it has stayed with me and caused me to return to it. She is somebody, I think, to watch out for. And even if not, she has delivered one book at least. Which is more than most.


  3. But…but…I want to love baseball novels…and I’ve been looking for something to snap me out of my absolute lack of interest in contemporary novels because it seems every damned one is mundane and middlebrow, even the authors I do still love…

    Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and “pure literature?” I’m not familiar with it directly, as my Japanese is poor and I’ve read more Japanese authors than any of my Japanese friends, but Chad Post over at Three Percent discussed it in one of his podcasts, where basically literary fiction is admittedly genre, admittedly middlebrow, and pure literature is the stuff you and Anthony have started listing.


  4. You bring up an interesting point. I really enjoyed the novel but precisely because is was literary fiction comfort food, something we all need from time to time. I wasn’t challenged, but neither was I bored: in fact I read the novel in one night. What’s interesting however is how the massively hyped recent “literary” novels (Freedom, this and now The Marriage Plot) are in fact middlebrow novels or genre novels, with slight nods to postmodernism as if the authors are saying “Yes, we’re aware there is no difference in the content with popular fiction à la Sebastian Faulks etc, but we throw in enough references to literary works and make sure you the reader understand that we are aware of our postmodern heritage so that you can fit us in with the highbrow fiction.”

    The Tolstoy in Freedom, the Melville in Art of Fielding are appropriating the gravitas of those earlier works (and playfully acknowledging their debt in a slight postmodernist manner) and so let the authors get away with what is at heart incredibly formulaic fiction. Eugenides’ Marriage Plot takes it one step further with its references to Barthes and Derrida, where he’s basically grafted semiotics atop a basic rom-com (still an enjoyable read, but does not fit your goal of challenging the reader which I agree is the hallmark of great fiction). The question laboriously posed by David Foster Wallace in much of his later fiction seemed to be “how do you go about writing a novel after Barth, Barthelme et al exposed Oz behind the curtain?”, and it seems that currently the answer seems to be to just acknowledge what’s happened in 20th century fiction and then just write a 19th century novel, with cellphones (hadn’t it been for one early reference to an iPhone in the Art of Fielding, I would have had no idea it was set in the present day). These three can get away with it because of their credentials however: Franzen’s pre-Corrections novels show that he was working very much in the mold of the post-Pynchonian author, Eugenides earlier novels at least aimed for something more than just genre fiction and Harbach edits the well-respected n+1. Unfortunately, there is very little published outside of the Dalkey Archive Press or the French Editions P.O.L that poses such challenges that you mention.

    But to continue your list: Infinite Jest and Blood Meridian definitely. Mao II (rather than White Noise), Janice Galloway’s The Trick is To Keep Breathing. Gass’s the Tunnel. Saramago’s Blindness. Carole Maso’s Ava. George Saunders’ Civilwarland in Bad Decline, Gray’s Lanark, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual… maybe House of Leaves, too.


    1. Thanks so much for your considerate response, Agri. Your second paragraph illustrates exactly the problem I was trying to highlight in my post—that authors crib the major ideas of postmodernism while simultaneously retreating to the 19th century novel. Thanks for your recommendations as well. Your mention of Gass reminds me that I should’ve added Omensetter’s Luck, and also William Gaddis, whose name also begins with a G.


  5. Enjoyed your article very much. The line between middle and high brow has been blurred, intentioanlly by many, for years. To add to your list of recent greats: anything and everything by Javier Marias, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Thomas Bernhard and Lydia Davis.


  6. thanks for this review — it seems to be the only full-on negative one in existence at the moment. i’m working on a review myself for a friend’s website so i’m stuck reading all 500-odd pages even though i knew after a few chapters that it was going to be a waste of time. in fact, within a week of starting the book i ended up unloading on my own blog [http://andrewivers.typepad.com/theblog/2011/10/the-fart-of-fielding.html] because i couldn’t stand all the undeserved promotion and praise this book was getting. glad you’ve moved on; you’re better for it.


  7. He’s written something like 70 novels (although I’ve heard as high as 90), only six of which have been translated into English (soon to be seven). I concur with P.T.Smith, and I’d add ‘How I Became a Nun’ and the latest translation, ‘The Seamstress and the Wind.’ I’ve just picked up ‘Ghosts’ but haven’t read it yet.

    Bolaño had a pretty high opinion of Aira, most of the time.


  8. I would suggest ‘The Dictionary Of Khazars’ by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list.


  9. You might look for suggestions into my newly opened Tumblr at http://jelimarco.tumblr.com/, in which I will post every Tuesday (men) and Friday (women) the first few lines of works by authors I like, spanning several genres and languages (I’ve got the full year schedule laid out and the quotes waiting patiently in the Drafts). Not everything will be groundbreakingly experimental perhaps, but I daresay nothing will be generic.

    Next tuesday’s book in particular is most definitely not a “retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved” – strange, uncompromising, beautiful.
    And yes, I may have chosen the beginning of “The Lion…” over some other of Hoban’s novels because your post reminded me of it.


  10. How on earth did Kakutani get a reviewing gig on the Times? What a mess.

    Anyway, a third recommendation for Bernhard. I’d start with The Loser or Woodcutters. Prepare to be blown away.

    Also, Peter Handke: Slow Homecoming, The Weight of the World (both of which, I think, were included in Bloom’s Western Canon), Repetition, or Across. Incredible.


  11. Well, I just read the whole thing, and while I don’t regret the time I gave it (and at least it’s a quick read), it was indeed wildly over-praised, and I might be less annoyed with the book if the reviews I read hadn’t raised such high expectations. One of the year’s ten best? If it was, what a terrible indictment of contemporary fiction.

    I wanted to like it, I really did. I like baseball, I like northeast Wisconsin, and I can generally tolerate campus fiction (well, not Moo, that was odious). I am resolutely middle-brow, I was ready for a genre novel, I didn’t expect another Moby Dick. But way too much self-congratulatory cleverness, too much name-dropping, and too many silly digressions. Given a choice to be annoying or not, Harbach often gratuitously chooses the former (Opentoe College? Quintin Quisp in left field?). More substantively, the problem with writing a novel about an otherwise dull young man with a profound gift for playing shortstop is that when he suddenly loses his ability to throw the ball to first, he doesn’t become more interesting.

    There’s one interesting and sympathetic character here, Mike Schwartz. His story, or the story of this novel told from his point of view alone, might have made a good novel. It would be a quiet novel about a young man’s acceptance of the talent he has, instead of the talents he wished he had. If you set at at a small college in Wisconsin, it might be poignant, funny, wistful and ultimately satisfying, kind of like how adult life is at its best. There would be no “Sperm-Squeezers”, no Cambridge flashbacks, no love affair between a man in his sixties named Guert and an annoyingly self-possessed twenty-year-old right fielder who reads Proust in the dugout during games, no exhumations of corpses and throwing them into Lake Michigan (you missed that part). The New York Times would have ignored it, and therefore, probably, so would I.


    1. Hey, Jeff—

      Thanks for your comments on “the whole thing” — you provide a real review of the book here, with details, examples, and reader response — which is far more than I did.


      1. BK — Thanks. Rereading what I wrote, I’m annoyed at myself for using “annoying” and “annoyed” so often.

        I found your blog by Googling “Art of Fielding Negative Review”. I wanted an antidote to the unreasonable praise I’d read. The negative reviews on Amazon tell me that many people have had the same reaction as I did — we’re a little bit angry at the author for giving us such a juvenile book, puzzled by the failure of anyone to offer meaningful editorial guidance that might have made it much better, and even more dismayed that what passes for our literary establishment anointed it as a serious novel.

        My favorite coming of age novel (or as Chad Harbach probably would say, bildungsroman) with a baseball setting is Mark Harris’s The Southpaw. Henry Wiggen, a hugely talented, callow young man moves from high school to the minor leagues and into his rookie year in the majors, has the green rubbed off of him, faces moral crisis, grows up. In the process, all of the great themes — race, class, ambition, envy, fame, friendship, and love — are touched on, lightly, deftly. Unlike Henry Skrimshander, Henry Wiggen doesn’t have a ridiculous Melvillian name, he is a smart, lively, unconventional young man, and the book he inhabits is much shorter.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I should preface my comment by saying I’m only some 60 pages into The Art of Fielding and that I really like some middlebrow literary fiction such as The Corrections and Middlesex as much as one of my favorite books that I read last year, C by Tom McCarthy (which I guess would be considered higher-brow) along with your aforementioned 2999 and even more so, The Savage Detectives. However, while The Corrections isn’t challenging, I think it’s well written and I felt a connection to the characters. The Art of Fielding is not the same thing with it’s cliched and cardboard characters, wildly implausible events (Owen reading French literature on the bench during games) and unrealistic dialogue. I agree with you 100% that Harbach tries soooooo very hard to be clever and its cringe inducing. I’m going to stick with it since it’s part of a reading challenge I’m a part for 2012 but I don’t have high hopes for the remaing 450 pages to be much better. It’s not the worst thing I’ve read (that would probably be Vernon God Little) but it’s definitely over-hyped. While this book made Harbach rich, if I was an author and this was the culmination of 10 years of my work…… sad times.


  13. Thanks for this post and this blog in general, which I found while looking for a recording of Joyce’s Ulysses that I heard years ago (surely the RTE version!). You’ve clarified something for me: “literary fiction” is pretty much a genre like the others. In that, you’ve reminded me of A Reader’s Manifesto by Myers, which is withering. To the readers’ list of outstanding novels, I’ll add Andrei Bitov’s The Monkey Link and John McGahern’s Amongst Women. I’d given up on novels, but you are tempting me to try a few more.


  14. I was thrilled to find this review. I started The Art last night and wanted to throw it across the room. What hype! What awful, awful dialogue! And it’s so big and going to take up so much space on my shelf.


  15. Excellent comment on this novel and on the hype surrounding it (although I think that much of this commentary could also apply to some of the books recommended in the final paragraph).

    Jeff the lawyer’s two comments are excellent as well, even wise.


  16. First off, I really enjoyed your rant. I’ve not read Harbach’s book but I have a rather unkind spider-sense for middlebrow, middle-class tripe of the Franzenesque and I’m glad to hear it wasn’t so far from the mark on this occasion.

    I haven’t been able to take Cormac McCarthy or Don DeLillo entirely seriously since Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto savaged them, but I second the mentions of Sebald, Vollmann, Gass, McGahern’s Amongst Women and enthusiastically commend the suggestions of Gray’s Lanark and Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. To them I would add Harry Mathews’ The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, The Western Lands Trilogy (most especially because it annihilates the literary/pure/genre fiction distinctions) by William Burroughs and something by Nicholson Baker and Iain Sinclair, but I can’t quite decide what…


    1. Hi, Laurence, thanks for your comment and suggestions. I’ve read the Markson and the Western Trilogy by Burroughs and Baker’s latest pornography. I’m sorry to hear that Myers deflated your esteem for DeLillo and McCarthy; I love McCarthy especially (I tend to disagree with Myers everywhere though; I like Toni Morrison and Denis Johnson as well).


  17. I’m enjoying your reviews having just tripped across them after finishing Cormack McCarthy’s ‘Suttree.’ I had the same experience with “Art of Fielding” which was given to me as a gift .. didn’t make it past the halfway point. I don’t like giving up on a novel but actually found myself becoming angry reading this book and thinking ‘is it just me or is this really weak?’ Nice to have the opinion affirmed. I’ll stick with a book I’m occasionally struggling to grasp (ie Suttree) but refuse to do the same with one not worth grasping.


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