Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Alan Cheuse Gets a Spanking, Part Two

Yesterday I shared the first of two gripes I had about NPR Book Critic Alan Cheuse's summer reading list. Today I'll tell you my second, and then I promise I'm done (for now!)

Cheuse loved Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL.  I loved GONE GIRL. So we're good, right?

Not quite. Cheuse makes no bones about the fact that Flynn's book is the "fun" one on his list, the frivolous one. I suspect that's because it's a thriller - commercial fiction rather than literary, as are the others on his list.

I've said it all before so I won't belabor the point too much: a genre work can be every bit as weighty, as relevant, as affective as its literary cousin.

I will admit my argument falls apart a little as GONE GIRL trundles along into its second half, where it does become a bit more of a set piece, with the emphasis on device perhaps more than language or character.

However, i would put Flynn's character work up against that of any contemporary literary writer. The book pulses with it; the device mentioned above would never work without it.

This is no trivial feature of a novel. It is the novel, and I'm not the first or only to make that claim; while I don't want to bother to find examples now (I'm supposed to be getting my other words done, my fiction words), great writers in every genre have said, each in her own words, that readers remember character and forget the rest.

Cheuse, when inviting the listener to consider GONE GIRL, says he is making a "descent into the lower tones," into "good nasty fun."

And yet I would say that the landscape for GONE GIRL - a flawed marriage - is no more "fun" than a 70's commune (Groff) or adult children recalling their parents' foibles (Ford). And by calling it that, we diminish it.

When my first book came out, I asked for a blurb from a writer I admire, one whose fiction is certainly beautiful and "important." He gave me a nice quote and then told me I had written a "fun little book," the equivalent of a pat on the head for an eager child.

I allowed his assessment to diminish my opinion of my own work for quite some time. It's only now, several years after A BAD DAY FOR SORRY came out, that enough women have come up to me at book events to tell me how much the book meant to them, empowered them (their words) that I realize I did something, well, important.

Please, Cheuse & Company, consider your words carefully. You called GONE GIRL "a beach book you won't mind being seen with this summer" - that praise is a bit too damning for my taste.


Thomas Pluck said...

I too, am tired of critics dismissing a gripping story as somehow less important than one that you can put down (or in fact, often want to put down).
I haven't read Gone Girl yet, but I plan to. If literary critics want to repent for enjoying a good story that eschews navel gazing, they can wear a hair shirt. A good story is a good story.

NikkiS said...

Sophie, I completely agreed w/both posts. I think most book critics are so out of touch with readers. They all review and cling to the same books, using very similar descriptive language and noting the same high points. It's infuriating as a reader to see the lack of variety in genre's, authors, and books, and then as you said, dismissing the work they give a high rating to as a nice attempt at serious writing. They're like a cheering squad for large publishing houses. I'm a biblio-nerd and have been reading book reviews to find awesome books since I was a pre-teen. I used to come across little gems of books and authors that I would follow for years or be inspired to read their previous work. But now, I find I'm rebellious and reject widely received books b/c I feel like if all the critics agree, there must be something wrong with the books. It's frustrating as a reader, that you can't even trust the reader reviews on the big book seller websites, with the padding of overly positive reviews. I have turned my nerd love to several book blogs. I love that they use a weighted system to rate their books, they openly express their love of their favorites in attempt to open readers eyes' to books they might have overlooked, and their reviews are fair and honest. Argh, I guess I could write my own rant. Oh, wait..I guess I did.

Dana Kaye said...

I adore these posts, well said.

Reina M. Williams said...

I used to be a bit of a lit snob myself. When I came across real lit snobs in grad school, I saw the error of my ways. Thanks for your thoughtful posts, Sophie. Now back to my fiction writing, as well.