Monday, January 9, 2023

More Thoughts About Books In Response to a Statement by Greil Marcus

Music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus has an eNewsletter called Ask Greil. Readers ask Marcus questions and he responds publicly. This seemed like an interesting way to get to know this writer and cultural observer as other people publicly pick his brain. In addition to being well-read, there's no question he's been around and seen a lot.

Here's a excerpt from his January 3 reply to someone who asked if he planned to review The Last Chairlift by John Irving. (Irving is author of The World According to Garp and more than a dozen other novels.)

"I’m unsure about The Last Chairlift." Marcus replied. "First, I distrust any book that says it’s about the last anything. Second, it’s so long I’m afraid I won’t finish it, or worse, look at it on my nightstand for a year before I realize I’m never going to start it."

I'M USING THAT STATEMENT as a stepping off point into a few thoughts about books. I, too, have a few internal red flags that cause me to distrust certain kinds of marketing lingo. Here are three.

First, I will revise his comment about "the last anything" to encompass "the last word" on anything. Is there really a last word on toppling statues or climate change? We can have convictions, but are we going to close the door on all discussion, even when new evidence comes in? Apart from the either/or manner in which most discussion takes place, there are countless nuances to most issues. 

Second, I distrust endorsements by Kirkus Review. Silly me, I used to believe that it actually meant something if a book review cited comments by Kirkus review. It wasn't till I got into self-publishing on Amazon that I discovered I can purchase a Kirkus Review and quote it in my marketing copy on the back of the book, or wherever else. This was a moment of disillusionment for me. 

Third, I distrust NYTimes Bestseller status as anything meaningful. Popular does not correspond to quality. Many important books have limited sales for a variety of reasons. Other books never make the Times' bestseller list because the Times only measures bookstore sales. 

Marcus also states his reluctance to start a massive tome that will sit unread on his nightstand for a year. Yes, I have a few of those massive volumes and I understand his hesitancy. This doesn't stop me from selecting long books when the urge is present. I usually have several books going at the same time, and the "long one" will be at my end of the dining room table which I'll plod through during my lunch periods. I'm not what it will be this year but last year it was Halberstam's The Fifties, and two or three years ago Solzhenitsyn's August 1014. As much as I love David Foster Wallace's writing, I've thus far managed to dodge Infinite Jest.

Another rule that guides my reading decisions is this: what do other readers think? The critics often praise something they've never read but feel they must weigh in on. Also, like movie critics they embrace what's trendy, which on occasion can be appallingly bad. Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays was her first film as a director. High praise ensued. "Women crossing over into the director's chairs," the said. We walked out after 20 minutes. 

A quick peek at the Amazon reviews by readers pretty much tells you that Marcus was probably wise to avoid The Last Chairlift. Here are comments from one reader who has been a big John Irving fan:  

I may someday forgive John Irving for this book, but not yet. I gave up about 35% of the way in when I realized that everything in this book that was not a repetition of a theme in his earlier work was badly described sex (and "badly" may be generous). I figured that, if I went any further, I might even lose the will to live.... If I were John Irving, I would probably complain that at 80, he may have used up all his novelist skills. Instead, I will try to pretend this book never happened and continue to list Irving among my top 20 favorite modern authors."

This review feels honest and very likely accurately reflects the contents. Sometimes, when books are political, you might get hostile reactions not because of the quality of the content but because the "other side" simply does not want the book read. That can go either way, if you know what I mean. 

Whether writing about them, talking about them or reading them, books are a great gift to all of us. May we never stop supporting our libraries and our authors.

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There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. Joseph Brodsky

For what it's worth, the QR code at the top right will bring you to a page describing my books. If you don't have a "Smartphone" you can just click on it with your cursor and reach the same destination.

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