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February 03, 2010

Comments

Elaine

He sounds pretty arrogant to me. Basically, if you don't like his book, you're not intelligent enough to understand it, or you're simply not reading it the correct way. Hmmm.

Niall

Mark - I haven't read his book, but I kind of agree with him already. If only because we don't really have critics anymore (a profession James Wood is trying to revive in this country), we just have book reviewers. And all they know how to do is the "thumbs up, thumbs down" thing. These people are not equipped to deal with books that are challenging or otherwise require thinking to enjoy and understand. Also, they loved him for his first book, which means they feel they have to clobber him now to reassert their bona fides. So juvenile.

tobi

Does Wyatt Mason count as a "real" critic? He seemed to have a reasonably critical and, I thought, correct sense of Ferris's new book in the Feb's Harper's.
It was a strangely simplistic book to me and once or twice when reading it I found myself wondering if there was some piece I was missing.
Alas, I have been knocked back to the 10th grade by Ferris. I like his kind of Palin-esque reduction of those who don't like his book as "10th graders" and those who do as "adult readers".

TEV


To Elaine, I'd say before you decide one way another, you should read the reviews in question - Maslin, McInerney and others - if you haven't. Without that context, it's easy to read Ferris the wrong way.

Niall, needless to say, I agree with you, as usual. I am startled by how frequently reviewers show themselves as amateurs by criticizing a book for failing to be what they think it should have been. Like idiots who demand that short books fail because they're not longer.

Tobi, I am a BIG fan of Mason's, I generally find him a thoughtful critic, and I thought his review of Ferris was shockingly off the mark - not simply because I didn't agree with it, but it seemed to me to be unusually harsh and angry; there are, to be sure, passages of writing in the book that don't work. But there are many more that do, and I think Mason's normally acute ear failed him in this one. But there was something so determinedly scolding about the review - again, harking back to Ferris, it felt like he was being punished for not doing the same thing again, and the book was not being taken on its own terms.

Banville likes to say that he spends a lot of time on his first paragraph because it teaches readers how to read the book; which suggests that different books should be read differently, have their own internal rules. This, I think, is Ferris most important - and subtle - point, and it's one most of the so-called critics out there seem to have missed. In my opinion, of course.


Muzzy

Speaking of first paragraphs, that first page of the Unnamed is so heavy, so pretentious, so purple, I could not get through to the third. I mean, what kind of book starts with the weather of all things?

If Ferris wants to teach people how to read, he should try kiddie lit or volunteer for a literacy program.

Niall

"What kind of book starts with the weateher of all things?"

Robert Musil's "Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften" (The Man Without Properties), considered a classic of 20th century literature. It's (quite famous) first sentence is about the formation of a storm front over the North Atlantic. Which means Musil must have been some kind of hack.

Lolz.

Muzzy

I wasn't calling Ferris a hack. But he hasn't exactly risen to Musil's level, either.

Niall

Muzzy - Which means opening your book with descriptions of weather can't be a meaningful criterion of whether the book is going to be good or bad.

John Self

I have read the book and the reviews in question, though I haven't posted my own review yet as the book isn't been published in the UK until the end of the month. I have sympathy with Ferris as some of the reviews don't give the book a fair reading (and as for Jay McInerney's advice that Ferris should stick to comedy: if there's one writer who should heed that advice, it's Jay McInerney).

However I agree with Elaine that Ferris comes across as arrogant in his response, which seems to suggest that it isn't possible to dislike the book except through a misreading. We shouldn't expect him to be impartial or sanguine about negative reviews. But I say it's perfectly possible to read The Unnamed 'well' and dislike it: it's quite badly written in places, especially in the first third. ("Overcast was riveted to the sky as grey to a battleship"; "Futility made off with his heart.") Several times in the early stages, I was ready to give up, and it was only sheer bloodymindedness that kept me going. I'm glad I did, because I think the book rewards persistence, and for me did become "a wrenching, harrowing work".

The Unnamed is not a perfect book, but it is a very interesting book. (And incidentally, I disliked Then We Came to the End.)

Niall

John - Your examples show that overreaching on the metaphors and similes, or just not thinking them through, is one of the most common traps for fiction writers. They come off sounding forced, illogical, or just pointeless. They can be like sad velvet of night torqued around the iron heart of sadness. The fewer of those the better, IMHO.

Stella

Niall, I frequently love you. You need to start blogging yourself!

JMW

I find the rhetorical moves in this debate very strange. Those who defend the high quality of Ferris' work (including himself) should illuminate the book's strengths. To say it's been "misread" is a circular argument. Critics of it (such as myself) could just as easily claim that its champions are "misreading" it. I haven't read McInerney's review, but if he was guilty of expecting Ferris to repeat the same maneuvers from his debut, then that's bad. I don't consider that an interesting, or even legitimate, form of criticism. To me -- a fan of Then We Came to the End, but hardly a maniacal one, and certainly not one interested in Ferris replicating it over and over again -- The Unnamed just seemed, for most of its length, flat and sloppy. I thought Mason's review wasn't angry so much as it was disappointed. And I agreed with it almost entirely. If he seemed hung up on the first book, I don't think it was because he expected it again. It's more like, how does the writer of the first book come up with so many figurative duds and such two-dimensional central characters this time around?

I did think the book generated some power in its final third, and I don't think Ferris is the kind of writer who deserves to be dismissed. But that doesn't mean he needs to be coddled. It's a second novel. There will be more. I'm looking forward to seeing what they bring.

JMW

Oh, and my review, for what it's worth:

https://thesecondpass.com/?p=4249

Niall

JMW - Haven't you just illustrated how it is possible to criticize a book review itself, without having to point out the strenghts of the book in question? Ironic, no?

JMW

If you mean my comment about McInerney, I don't see how it applies. I'm granting that a reviewer's approach can be misguided, but I need evidence of it. Simply saying that any criticism of a book is "misreading" seems cheap to me. I didn't see Mason's review, to take one, as indicative of what people are complaining about in this thread. You wrote earlier: "Also, they loved him for his first book, which means they feel they have to clobber him now to reassert their bona fides." This assumes a lot, and I don't buy it.

Niall

" I haven't read McInerney's review, but if he was guilty of expecting Ferris to repeat the same maneuvers from his debut, then that's bad."

In the case you describe, the only "evidence" you would need would come solely from the review itself, not from the work under review.

By the way, your own review of the book judges it almost entirely in relation to "And Then We Came to the End". You are constantly using the his first novel as a touchstone for judging the second. You write, for example:

"Then We Came to the End managed to be both profound and funny, but humor has gone missing almost entirely in The Unnamed."

HOw could it possibly be relevant in judging The Unnameable that it is not a comedy like And Then We Came to the End? This is a critical non sequitur. The fact that The Unnameable is not a comedy "like the first" is not a meaningful criticism of its content and execution. You seem to be saying The Unnameable is bad because it's not like his first novel. Which I believe is precisely Ferris' point against his critics.

The only parts of the novel you seemed to like were its most stereotypically sentimental (the ones that are "touching" and "heartrending"), which makes it sound more like a Lifetime Original Movie than a decent novel. This to me would be a reason not to like it.

And you are welcome not to buy whatever it is I'm selling.

JMW

I never said the book was unsuccessful because it lacked humor. Simply pointing out that it does lack it is unfair? And is it off limits to ever mention the tone or concerns of a writer's work overall? If Philip Roth wrote a book from the perspective of a Pentecostal woman, would the very mention of its variance from the rest of his work be a non sequitur?

In any case, it still seems as if the book isn't being defended as much as Ferris is being defended personally -- but I have absolutely nothing personal against Ferris, and I don't think I (or any other critic, that I know of) have attacked him ad hominem.

I think what rankles, post-publication, is Ferris' broad implication that anyone who dislikes his book is a boneheaded reader at the 10th grade level. This seems to cut off even the possibility of any meaningful criticism or discussion. Like John Self, I almost gave up on The Unnamed, and might have if I wasn't reviewing it. And like John Self, I'm glad I didn't give up. I didn't think the scenes I found most powerful were "stereotypically sentimental" (power coming in many forms), but I did think they were too few and far between.

Niall

JMW -

Well, perhaps if you had just said, "Unlike his previous book, which was a comedy, his new one is not," there would be no issue. But you described the difference in tone between the two books in a way detrimental to The Unnameable. That does create an issue.

As for Ferris himself: His comments should just be ignored. They're not really important. After all, your discussion isn't with him, but with his actual and potential readers. Nothing Ferris says (or doesn't say) can close that off.

In terms of your review, I found both the reasons you liked and disliked the novel to be rather trite. The stylistic critique isn't all the meaningful, since I can think of writers with consistently worse styles who nevertheless produced brilliant works of literature (H. P. Lovecraft comes to mind here). And when you come to describing why you like the last third, you don't really give a precise reason why that third is better. You just said you found it hearwarming. Which is also meaningless.

I'm only dwelling on your review because you are criticizing others for not giving precise, insightful reasons for liking the book. I have to say I don't find those in your review either.

John Self

I was surprised when I read JMW's review, because it chimed so strongly with my own (which, as I said, is written but hasn't gone up yet): except that he dwelled a little more on the negatives and a little less on the positives than I did. Maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kind of guy.

I should add, as a newcomer to this site (though I feel a second-hand affinity as I do have a copy of Mark Sarvas's novel, and I share with him the dulling recent discovery that fatherhood and blogging make uneasy bedfellows), that I'm surprised by the rather personal firestorm that seems to have been unleashed by JMW's original comment, which seemed to me pretty uncontroversial and reasonably put. Maybe you guys all know one another and it's good knockabout fun, but it doesn't look that way to a stranger.

Niall

John -

I don't see any "personal firestorm" in the thread in response to JMW's comments, if by that you mean gratuitous personal abuse. It's just honest disagreement, and a critical stance towards JMW's own review, which is entirely legitimate.

The comments to this entry are closed.

TEV DEFINED


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."

SECOND LOOK

  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

    Bs

    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe

    Rider_4

    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."