I tend to worry about a lot of things, usually unnecessarily, but what troubles me most about the writing world, contrary to the popular trend, doesn’t actually involve the digital age. I don’t want to get too involved in the argument about books and the Kindle and all of that. What worries me now is instead the masturbatory nature of some of the writing I am discovering. Or perhaps it’s not the writing, now that I think of it. It is, in fact, the community that has been developed. In search of something enjoyable to read over winter break, I dove into the box of books I had been assigned for the coming semester. I knew very little about a lot of these writers, writers like Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Fred D’Aguiar and Andre Dubus III. I had only heard of Andre Dubus secondhand, through learning about his father, the short story master Andre Dubus II (who published under just Andre Dubus). Robinson and D’Aguiar were mysteries to me, and I had only experienced a few Lydia Davis stories before and was neither captivated nor turned off.
Now, there’s that old saying about judging a book by its cover, but to be fair, we all know that that’s a metaphor and doesn’t really refer to books, so I don’t feel so bad about what follows. I skimmed through the pile, and threw most of the books back in the box in disgust.
It wasn’t the books themselves, or even the cover art, that filled me with the feeling of disgust. It was the pompous criticisms found on the cover. Those books, and others, bore comments like…
“The best prose stylist in America.”
“…[the author] can write like a magical spider, effortlessly spinning out elaborate webs of words that ensnare the reader with their beauty and their style.”
“…[the author] brings a poets cadence and grace to his work…”
“…[his] writing is graceful and captivating…”
“so serenely beautiful and writing in a prose so gravely measure and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.”
Honestly. Shut. The. Fuck. Up.
What really troubles me about these comments is that they boil down to one thing: this writer writes well. It’s articulated in more words, but that’s the gist of it. And really, does saying that someone is “the best prose stylist in America” or that they “effortlessly [spin] out elaborate webs of words” tell you anything about the prose? I guess what makes me so furious is that, in the end, I see through all of the positive feedback. First, every book jacket and cover has some sort of praise on it, so are you expecting anything less? I’m certainly not going to be swayed by some criticism on the cover from some random journal that I’ve never heard of saying that this novel is “one of the best I’ve ever read.” First of all, critic, who are you? Secondly, who do you write for? Third, and perhaps most important of all, if you can say with any degree of certainty that this is the best book you’ve ever read, then shame on you. There are so many great books out there that it should be impossibly to choose. 1984 is my favorite for its intricacy, its dark premise, its gripping tale and its shocking ending. The Catcher in the Rye is my favorite because of its brilliant style, because it was the novel that taught me how to write. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is my favorite because of how all-encompassing the story is. The Grace That Keeps This World is my favorite because of the way that the author balances beautiful prose with an engrossing tale. If you write that any book is your favorite, I think, then shame on you. I know you like more books than this one, critic.
Second, the language is repetitive. When I think of reviews, I think of words like “gripping,” “lush,” “vivid,” “somber,” and “electrifying.” In fact, I used gripping in the paragraph directly preceding this one, as well as words like engrossing and shocking. There is a language to book reviews and it shines through on the covers of these books in particular. What the hell does it mean that a writer spins words like a magical spider? Is that even significant?
Perhaps the point I’m trying to make is that the comments on the book cover are meaningless. Really, when you think about it, would they put negative criticism on there? You will never encounter a book with a blurb on it that says, “This book is easily the worst book I’ve ever read!” from some magazine in Tucson, Arizona. Obviously the publishers aren’t going to put something positive on the cover; because they want you to buy the book! So, in the end, they’re not engaging any sort of critical argument, they’re just trying to convince you that the book is good, or that some random person out there in space thinks that this author is “the best prose stylist in America,” whatever that means.
In the end, I have to defer to one of my friends, who said that there is one blurb he wants to appear on his book: “This book contains words.” I think it’s one of the most accurate blurbs that could exist in today’s world.