Two DNFs

When you hate a book, it’s always personal, I think. By which I mean that the book cannot possibly be as bad as you think it is – the hatred and dislike arise from whichever personal nerve has been tweaked, and reading through the subsequent red mist is never going to be rewarding.

adam gopnik winterIt’s quite rare for me to hate a book, but when Adam Gopnik’s Winter; Five Windows on the Season came along, it very rapidly fell into that rare category. I did not even manage to make it to the very end of the first chapter. I had three attempts at reading that chapter and any number of refusals at picking it up. The book arose out of a series of lectures that Adam Gopnik gave. Knowing that publication would be simultaneous with the lectures, he actually prepared the material that formed the basis of the book well in advance, and delivered improvised speeches to friends and family in his living room. In the introduction he writes: ‘These chapters are meant to sound vocal, and I hope that some of the sound of a man who has boned up on a subject – in several cases, just boned up – and is sharing the afternoon’s enthusiasm with an evening’s friends is still in place.’

He really need not have worried: he meets his own criteria perfectly. But he would have done better to include a few enemies amongst his audience of friends. What follows is, to my mind, the exact replica of those 70s slide show evenings, when the neighbours would bore their hosts rigid with photos from trips abroad. It’s like Adam Gopnik came for a visit inside my head, saying ‘Hi, I’ve just taken a fabulous trip through the world of art and brought back a few pictures, poems and pieces of music I’d love to share with you.’ And then for what seems like forever, he witters on about each slide, roughly grouped together under a theme – in the case of the first chapter ‘Romantic Winter’ – though you learn nothing from this whistle-stop tour with an amateur tour guide. It’s such a lazy format, and the insights gleaned from skating lightly over the top of so much ground just aren’t worth it.

But let’s be fair here; on the grounds that it can’t possibly be as bad as I thought it was, I should state my personal investment. I’ve spent the past five years hearing from agents and editors that immense care must be taken when transferring academic-type writing on art and literature into the commercial arena. No one’s interested in the old school style any more, it’s got to be new, bright, fresh, different. Okay, fine – I quite agree. So why make me read through this kind of tedious McRomanticism which is, to my mind, gaspingly old and sterile? Oh but feel free to go ahead and read it – and enjoy it, too. The problem with ranting reviews is the same as for gushing ones – they’re written from extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, and it’s highly unlikely that subsequent readers will find themselves in the same place, particularly not if they’re expecting it. With my own thoughts on the book in mind, I picked it up and flicked through it, and it didn’t seem so bad. Though I do have a theory that it reads better backwards; that way you’re not waiting for an argument to be developed.

lessons in frenchThe next DNF was, thankfully, not dreadful, it was just a terminal case of the ‘meh’s’. Hilary Reyl’s Lessons in French is a coming of age story about Kate, an American student who bags herself the holiday job of her dreams with ‘difficult’ photo journalist, Lydia Schell. The Berlin wall is coming down, Salman Rushdie’s in hot water, and Lydia is rushing about trying to make serious art out of these situations, leaving Kate in charge at her apartment in Paris. There Kate finds Lydia’s husband, Clarence, who is an academic with writer’s block, and Olivier, who is the boyfriend of Lydia’s troubled daughter, Portia. Kate immediately falls for Olivier (who is headed back to America) and then spends a lot of time angsting about what she may have ‘done’. And angsting about the difficult/inappropriate jobs Lydia asks her to do.

I picked this up thinking it would be a fun, jolly sort of read and it began that way. The main problem is that it suffers from too many ‘first novel’ issues. The writing is very patchy – there are a lot of nice sentences, but also far too much awkward, implausible dialogue, and the whole thing never really coheres into a compelling story. Then, there are all sorts of issues with character, most of which fall under the banner of ‘determined to make her characters “sympathetic” they become dull and incoherent.’ Oh this sympathetic character thing! Somehow the word ‘sympathetic’ had become unhitched from its mooring and taken on a demonic half-life of its own. I think it has come to mean: ‘characters who behave with the kind of integrity and moral courage that the vast majority of us could never access in the moment.’ But much worse than that, I think it’s taken the word ‘interesting’ hostage. What we really want is interesting characters, not sympathetic ones. In Dorothy Whipple’s brilliant novels there is always one character I loathe with a virulent passion. It means I cannot put the book down, because the idea that this character’s schemes might dominate the outcome and ruin the lives of those around him/her is quite intolerable. I have to read on to see that awful person (hopefully) defeated.

What’s a book without a decent villain? Or without a situation that poses a truly stark or upsetting ethical conflict? These things are incompatible with a bunch of characters for whom we are obliged to feel ‘sympathy’ all the time. Kate ends up beige bland, and Lydia is not the demon boss I had hoped she might be, just self-absorbed and pretentious. I would probably have limped to the end of this one if I hadn’t had quite so many books I needed to read. But about halfway through I began to feel that life was very short.

In all fairness, these books had the misfortune to arrive in my hands when I wanted something specific from them – I wanted delicious enlightenment from Winter, and I wanted entertaining comfort from Lessons in French. I did not read them in the spirit of ‘don’t know much about this, but let’s see where it goes,’ which is by far and away the most productive attitude for reading. So they already had high hurdles to clear, and they should be viewed more gently because they had to suffer my demands.


21 thoughts on “Two DNFs

  1. I’m in complete agreement about Adam Gropnik, the man who had me hissing ‘bring back Lisa Jardine’ for far too many weeks as he destroyed Radio 4’s Sunday morning essay spot. I’m sure you can write the socks off him, commercial or otherwise

    • Oh! Oh! I thought it was just ME. You’ve made my day. And Lisa Jardine was fab – I cannot believe they swapped her for him. Bless you for the encouragement, too. It’s been a long week! 🙂

  2. Yes, it’s personal, but really any response to a book will be personal – particularly if we are reading for pleasure and not as a profession. We *can’t* all like every book – I really didn’t get on with “The Old Ways”, which everyone raved about. But a personal response, whether good or bad, helps others to decide whether the book is for them or not. And neither of them are going to be right for me!!

  3. Do you know what really pleases me about this post? The fact that you felt able to say that they weren’t for you and put the darned things aside. There are still far too many pedants out there who think that because you’ve started a book you should finish it. That might just have been a permissible attitude immediately post Caxton, when there were precious few books to get het up about but these days when there is no way anyone could hope to read even a thousandth of the output it’s positively stupid.

  4. The Adam Gopnik reminds me of A C Grayling’s The Heart of Things. This book has been sitting on my kitchen table for a few weeks now because although my head is telling me No, my heart tells me that the book would serve the world better by giving up its calorific value to the heat of my fire than by imparting any kind of greater knowledge to mankind. Its main fault is that all the chapters on “subjects” are extremely short. Which means that there is no useful background on what other philosophers might have thought on the subject nor is any serious argument developed.

    Your problems with Lessons in French reminds me of how I felt about The Tenderness of Wolves. Lots of people seem to love this book, but I agree with the Amazon reviewer who described it as boiling down to “people looking for other people in the snow.”

  5. I had to rush over and see what it was you didn’t finish. Though I own Winter, I’ve never finished it either. It is my favorite season, and I thought I’d love reading about it, but alas, no. I’d rather live it, and write about it myself, I suppose.

    After the fabulous literature I’ve been reading for the IFFP, I suspect everything else will pale in comparison for quite some time. Funny how something great makes something mediocre seem worse than it is.

  6. Poor Adam Gopnik–though I had to chuckle at your post. I liked an earlier book of essays by him, but this one (format-wise) does sound pretty dire! And I know what you mean by ‘meh’ books–sometimes I think it’s just me and my mood, but then again, I think sometimes it truly is the book. If you read it through to the end you are very good, ‘meh’ books tend to get shuffled quickly back into the reading pile (and sometimes–for good reason–forgotten). I see the Feigel book on your sidebar–that is one I want to read, too!

  7. I had a brief period of thinking I ought to finish everything and I’m so glad I abandoned that idea in a hurry. I haven’t read either of these and am not likely to, But I’ve given up on numerous books that others have raved about. And I so agree about ‘sympathetic’ characters. Nice post!

  8. Hugely enjoyed your robust no-nonesense-critique of Adam Gopnik’s Winter. Inferring from your post that music was part of the mix, I don’t dare imagine the anything-goes-let’s-be-relaxed-commentary likely to have hit Schubert’s Winterreise…

    Hugs, and keep up the good energy!

  9. winter sounds like one of those cases where the writer is having far more fun than the reader. I’m with you on the need for interesting rather than sympathetic characters. I don’t have to like a character to find them fascinating.

  10. How interesting to hear your views on the Gopnik. I must admit I haven’t read it, for a curious reason – good reviews. This book received no less than three gushing reviews on the Guardian website. Such over-reviewing only seems to happen when the author is another journalist, and makes me feel I can’t believe a word of them. When so many writers struggle to get any reviews at all, this kind of logrolling maddens me. Experience tells me that your taste in books is generally pretty close to mine, so your post makes me feel like my suspicions have been confirmed.

  11. I totally agree about the bane of “sympathetic characters” that is afflicting so many books out there. I wish authors would stop trying so hard to make their characters completely palatable for readers – it shows, and it’s usually to boring results.

  12. Wonderful to read a different point of view from my own—I have to say I quite enjoyed Gopnik’s book on winter when I read it last fall. It doesn’t have a whole lot of resonance—as in, it didn’t make me ponder for a very long time—and the overarching argument he was making felt a little forced, but overall I thought it was an enjoyable and immersive reading experience. I absolutely understand your point of view, however, and I see how it might disappoint. Like others, I’m glad you simply dropped it instead of wasting time in a mental space you weren’t enjoying.

  13. I can sense your frustration in reading these two books. I haven’t read either of them, but I can empathize. When it comes to books that frustrate, I can’t help but think if reading is always a good investment of our time. If you come by a good book, sure, but if not, just a waste of time, isn’t it, plus stirring up all the negative emotions, just not worth it.

  14. It’s not often I really hate a book; sometimes I’m not terribly interested in one, although I can see its merits, but to actively hate – even, sometimes, while acknowledging its strengths – that is personal, as you say. The last book which I really hated was, oooh, seven years ago I think, The Little Girl Who Played with Matches. Urgh. I feel revolted all over again just thinking about it. And it was clever and well written, but I loathed it.

    I am impressed that even when you rant you try to be fair!

    Also glad that things may be settling down again chez litlove, gleaned from your previous post. Is your back better now?

  15. Pingback: TGCU! Week 6: Adam Gopnik | Book's End

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