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.

Kakutani, Limn Addict

There’s a piece today in Salon about Michiko Kakutani taking up her favorite verb “limn” again. Thrilling stuff, I know, but it recalled to me this list compiled in Harper’s eight years ago by Christian Lorentzen of Kakutani’s use of “limn” (the Harper’s bit is not mentioned in the Salon article) —

Limn an entire life in a couple of pages

Limn the trajectory of an entire life in a handful of pages

Limn the suffocating atmosphere of small-town life and the alienation experienced by those who defy its provincial mores

Limn the last days of an alcoholic frontierswoman living in a small western town

Limn a man’s sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss–all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor

Limn his inner life or probe the sources of his equipoise

Limn the inner life of people, surprised by the deceptions of time

Limn, with tenderness, wisdom, and humor, a vast array of human relationships, both straight and gay

Limn the rituals of hunting, trapping, planting, and canning with a wry mixture of amusement and respect

Limn the daily minutiae of life

Limn the human condition

Limn the complicated emotional geometry

Limn the delicate geometry of emotions

Limn a marriage of enduring passion and shared ideals

Limn Willy’s fears of losing Biff’s love and his own longings for immortality

Limn the brutal, perilous, and harrowing art of killing a forty-ton creature with a hand-thrown weapon

Limn some of its burgeoning manifestations

Limn the social and geopolitical fallout

Limn the surrealness of contemporary life

Limn the rhythms of the universe and an artist’s inner state of mind

Limn a future in which Pop Art gives way to Poll Art

Limn the nervous, almost flirtatious banter

Limn a hero’s efforts to achieve self-understanding

Limn girls’ secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual-revolution world

Limn the dangers posed by emerging diseases

Limn the spiritual yearnings and dislocations of an entire nation as it lurched from the certainties of the World War II years toward the confusions of the 1970s

Limn the irrationalities of history

Limn the impermanence–and emotional chaos–that threatens to overwhelm ordinary people

Limn the fabulous

Limn the ordinary with seeming nonchalance

Limn this deeply felt, if somewhat limited, theme with clarity and moral vigor

Tom McCarthy Reads from His Novel C (. . . and We Gripe about Michiko Kakutani)

At The Guardian, Tom McCarthy reads from his novel C. Here’s Biblioklept’s review of C.

And, while we’re on reviews of C, I want to gripe about Michiko Kakutani’s negative review of the book at The New York Times. If you don’t like a book, fine. But if you’re a critic at an organ that purports to be the nation’s beacon of journalistic excellence, you need to practice better criticism than what Kakutani’s done here. I think it’s pretty much a given that a critic should judge a book on its own terms–in terms of what the author was trying to do. Instead, Kakutani faults McCarthy’s book for not living up to a standard she finds in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, of all things–

But unlike Mr. McEwan’s masterpiece “C” neither addresses larger questions about love and innocence and evil, nor unfolds into a searching examination of the consequences of art. Worse, “C” fails to engage the reader on the most basic level as a narrative or text.

Kakutani provides no real evidence for that second claim but I’ll let that alone for a moment, simply because I think she’s wrong, and that she doesn’t bother to back her subjective judgment reveals a rushed reading. What really bothers me though is this idea that C was supposed to address “larger questions about love and innocence and evil”–where did she get that idea? She tells us where she got it: a novel by Ian McEwan.

Here she is again dissing McCarthy for not meeting the Kakutani standard–

Although Mr. McCarthy overlays Serge’s story with lots of carefully manufactured symbols and leitmotifs, they prove to be more gratuitous than revealing.

Just what was the novel supposed to reveal to Kakutani? The same mysteries that McEwan plumbed in his earlier novel? Why, exactly? One of C’s greatest pleasures is its resistance to simple answers, to its willingness to leave mysteries unresolved (I believe this is what Keats meant by negative capability).

Kakutani devotes a few sentences to C’s dominant theme of emerging technology and communication–

As for the repeated references to radio transmissions and coded messages sent over the airwaves, they are apparently meant to signal the world’s entry into a new age of technology, and to underscore themes about the difficulties of communication and perception, and the elusive nature of reality. But while the many technology references also seem meant to remind the reader of Thomas Pynchon’s use of similar motifs in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Mr. McCarthy’s reliance on them feels both derivative and contrived.

Notice how instead of talking about McCarthy’s novel she retreats to another novel? Why? Why does she assume that C is echoing Gravity’s Rainbow? This isn’t a rhetorical question–she doesn’t bother to tell us. She just uses Pynchon’s book to knock McCarthy’s, not to enlarge any analysis of it. That is the laziest form of criticism.

The New York Times did better by publishing a review of C by Jennifer Egan this weekend. Egan’s review is positive–and I loved C–but that’s not why the review redeems the Times’ standard. Egan’s review actually considers the book, discusses its language and themes, and tackles it on its own terms. When Egan does reference another book–Dickens’s David Copperfield–she does so in a way that enlarges a reader’s understanding of McCarthy’s project–not her own ideal of what a book should be.

Yeah Yeah YA — New Novels from Laurence Gonzales and Simon Rich

Once upon a time, young people who were lucky enough to have the leisure to read what they wanted gravitated toward texts like Little Women, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Great Expectations. These books weren’t necessarily written for or marketed to teenagers, but they found (and continue to find) a hungry audience in adolescents. The rise of the modern publishing industry saw a way to feed these voracious young readers, and Young Adult–YA–has since solidified into its own genre, complete with its own set of conventions and tropes, found in fantasies, romances, adventures, and sci-fi novels alike. YA tends to enlarge themes that predominate literature as a whole–alienation, isolation, shame, transformation, and (of course) identity. The best YA literature speaks to adolescent fear, channels it into thought experiments and fantasies that help teens to cope with their changing identities. However, YA, like any genre, puts a writer at risk of being ghettoized, of having her own work thrown in with a good many bad books. In recent years, established writers like Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby have purposefully written YA books and worked to have their books marketed as such, but perhaps many writers don’t want to be pigeonholed into a genre by having their books directed squarely at teens.

I was thinking about this problem today when I read Michiko Kakutani’s somewhat negative review of Laurence Gonzales’s new novel Lucy in the The New York Times. I received a review copy of Lucy back in March and breezed through it in a few afternoons. It’s an enjoyable read with a preposterous plot that somehow doesn’t come across as a gimmick. The eponymous Lucy, you see, is a genetic experiment, a humanzee born of a bonobo and raised in the middle of the jungle by a (not so) mad scientist named Stone until the age of 14, when insurgents murder her erstwhile dad/creator. Lucy is summarily adopted by another scientist, Jenny Lowe, who takes her to Americaland where she learns to be a normal teen. That is, until her super-chimp powers are revealed to the good American people, who come after her, mob-persecution style. Kakutani insists on reading Gonzales’s work as a Frankenstein story, and picks at it for not explaining its science as well as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. What Kakutani is failing to see is that the novel is not really about scientific hubris–it’s about how hard it is to be a teenager; specifically, it’s about how hard it is to be a teenage girl with a teenage girl body. Kakutani, apparently mistaking books for gravy, also takes Lucy to task for being “lumpy.” If Lucy lacks the finesse, explication, or subtlety that Kakutani would like it to have, then perhaps that is because she misunderstands its audience (to be fair though, Kakutani seems to frequently forget that not all books should be written to her taste).

Again at The New York Times, Tom DeHaven made a similar, if less boorish mistake, earlier this summer in his review of Simon Rich’s début novel Elliot Allagash. Here’s his lede:

If I were in the eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I’d love Simon Rich’s first novel, “Elliot Allagash.” I might even press it on my friends. (“It’s about this 13-year-old evil genius who does whatever he wants because he’s, like, a billionaire. And it’s funny. And short.”) But since more than 45 years have passed since I took up space in a middle school, I simply like it, very much — while wishing this flippant little parable about the puerility of greed had a deeper, sharper bite.

DeHaven wishes Rich’s book had a “deeper, sharper bite” — like Kakutani’s quibble with Gonzales, he wants the kind of acuity that ultimately is not best suited for the eighth and ninth grade boys who will love this book, who will press it on their friends. In my own review of Elliot Allagash, I wrote: “I don’t think that Elliot Allagash is being promoted directly as a Young Adult novel, but it will have a ready audience in the same smart crowd who dig funny, bright novels like C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian .” But even though Elliot Allagash and Lucy aren’t being promoted by their respective publishers Random House and Knopf as YA, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a potential audience of young adults–and it seems impossible to me that seasoned critics like Kakutani and DeHaven could be ignorant of that. Older readers might enjoy Lucy or Elliot Allagash but young readers might love them; critics shouldn’t condescend authors for not overreaching. A pretentious book is a sin and neither of these books is pretentious.

Kakutani (and The Onion) on Sustained, Analytical Reading

In her recent essay “Texts Without Context,” New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani argues that web two-point-oh innovations have led to a world where–

More people are impatient to cut to the chase, and they’re increasingly willing to take the imperfect but immediately available product over a more thoughtfully analyzed, carefully created one. Instead of reading an entire news article, watching an entire television show or listening to an entire speech, growing numbers of people are happy to jump to the summary, the video clip, the sound bite — never mind if context and nuance are lost in the process; never mind if it’s our emotions, more than our sense of reason, that are engaged; never mind if statements haven’t been properly vetted and sourced.

Kakutani’s piece seems to be prompted by David Shields’s recent “manifesto” Reality Hunger, which she points out is a symptom of “a culture addicted to speed, drowning in data and overstimulated to the point where only sensationalism and willful hyperbole grab people’s attention.” She continues–

Given the constant bombardment of trivia and data that we’re subjected to in today’s mediascape, it’s little wonder that noisy, Manichean arguments tend to get more attention than subtle, policy-heavy ones; that funny, snarky or willfully provocative assertions often gain more traction than earnest, measured ones; and that loud, entertaining or controversial personalities tend to get the most ink and airtime.

Kakutani keenly points out the stakes of such a facile media-land, even as she posits the real good that can come from technologies. In short, we seem to be heading into a future obsessed with immediacy to the point that sustained, analytical reading will not only no longer have place or merit with the general public, it will also be increasingly difficult as we learn to “read” new media in new ways. Put another way, we are becoming shallow.

I see this first-hand every day. I teach Advanced Placement high school English courses, mostly to kids aged 16-18. I’ve noticed that in the past seven years my students are less and less able to sustain concentration on challenging–or even particularly unchallenging pieces of rhetoric or literature in the classroom. My current students are less likely to read for pleasure than the kids I taught at the beginning of the last decade. They have all bought into the fiction of multitasking, the belief that one can frequently interrupt one’s reading of Shakespeare or Henry David Thoreau (or hell, even Stephen King or a Harry Potter book) with a quick text message, or, worse, a change of the channel (I have to literally begin each year by explaining to students that it is basically impossible to read something by a writer like Herman Melville or Cynthia Ozick with one eye on the television screen). You can imagine what how these shallow reading habits affect their research abilities. It’s not just my students though. Nationwide, the NCES reports that almost a third of high school graduates need reading remediation courses in college and that remediation classes are necessary for those students to earn college degrees. It’s pretty much an open secret in education that these numbers are drastically under-reported, with remedial classes often given euphemistic names to hide the appearance of shared institutional/student inadequacies. As Kakutani points out in her article, shallow attention spans, weak readers, and poor research skills could lead to drastic balkanization, cultural inertia, and just plain ole stupidity.

Kakutani’s article points to a future where “the blurring of news and entertainment” is normalized, so what better way to end than with an article from The Onion, published a week before “Texts Without Context.” The headline: “Nation Shudders At Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.” The first paragraphs:

Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

“Why won’t it just tell me what it’s about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I’ve looked everywhere—there’s nothing here but words.”

“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about.