Monday, February 2, 2009

Was This Review Helpful? The Search for an Unassailable Masterpiece

Not long ago I asked the young students in a fiction workshop I was teaching to name a few novels that, in their view, stood the best chance of becoming seminal works of their generation. Among titles that came up more than once was that of Dave Egger’s first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity. Curious, I got hold of the book, read it, and found it awful (for the record, I’d very much enjoyed Egger’s memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, up to a point). Which made me wonder: was I completely out of touch?

To find out I did something I’d never done before. I looked up Egger’s novel on Amazon and checked out the customer reviews. If I wasn’t out of touch I was certainly outnumbered. The novel had earned an average rating of five stars (the highest), with enthusiastic reviews stacking up ten-to-one against those less favorable, and satisfied customer after customer proclaiming Egger’s novel the “best” he or she had ever read—making me wonder just how many novels those reviewers had ever looked into. To vent my indignation I submitted a review of my own—a drop of vitriol against the flood of unalloyed praise.

That calmed me down for about ten minutes, until an even more disturbing thought crossed my mind. What might the same unprofessional critics have to say about the books I’d loved as a younger man? If I looked up the customer reviews of, say, The Man With the Golden Arm, On the Road, Tropic of Cancer, or A Catcher in the Rye, what would I find? These were books that I’d not only read, but carried around with me in the back pocket of my jeans like talismans, cheap paperbacks whose acid-rich pages I dog-eared and fondled into ochre crumbs and dust. I had grown up with them no less than I’d grown up with my family and friends, and loved them just as much. What would today’s readers have to say about them? I hesitated to find out, yet I couldn’t resist.

I started with The Man With the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren’s 1948 novel about a heroin junkie set in and around Chicago’s seedy, neon-lit Division Street. I discovered the book at age thirteen, while alphabetizing Mr. Berg’s library (see "Dirty Books" below: where I call him "Mr. Boyd"). Mr. Berg was a parsimonious widower who lived alone in a modest shingled house at the top of a woodsy hill. The library was in his basement, in a room holding an army surplus cot and a dehumidifier. The room stank of mildew; the dehumidifier didn’t work. The books were all cheap Signet and Plume paperbacks, which, when he bought them in the fifties and sixties, cost somewhere between a quarter and seventy-five cents. As I pulled them from the shelves their desiccated spines snapped; their pages broke free and fluttered, like brown autumn leaves, to the floor. As I picked them up some of the pages caught my eye and I’d read them. The page of Algren’s novel that fell out happened to be the first page. It begins:

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep and lay his head across his arms upon the query room desk.

To date I’d probably read two books, both about ships and heavily illustrated. Still I went home with Algren’s novel tucked in my pocket and over the next week or so gulped down its four hundred-plus pages with the fervor of a parched man slaking his thirst. Something about Algren’s prose, the lilt of its sentences, gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. For the first time, thanks to Mr. Algren and Mr. Berg (who, in my mind, had merged), I fell in love with novels. Now, thirty years later, what would Amazon’s customers have to say about the book that turned me into a reader—and ultimately into a writer?

There were less than a dozen customer reviews posted, with the average review totaling a respectable four-and-a-half out of a possible five stars. Among these most were laudatory—no wonder, since the book won the first National Book Award. Still, as I scrolled through the reviews a sinking feeling came over me, a sense that the positive reviews were mostly by people of my generation or older, and not representative of contemporary tastes—a suspicion reinforced when I came upon this review by “mojo navigator”:

[The Man With The Golden Arm] is ponderous, turgid and lacks any sense of urgency and desperation that its central theme—heroin addiction— should necessitate. Situations and relationships are one-dimensional and cardboard-cutout-like rendering them thoroughly implausible. However, the real failure of this novel is in its dreadfully antiquated 'hip speech', a failed attempt on the part of Algren to capture the street lingo of the time ¼ [Algren’s dialogue] sounds false and clumsy, making the novel unnecessarily difficult to read. Bottom Line: If you're looking for an accurate depiction of drug addiction in '50s America, you won't find it here.

Ouch! A cyanide-tipped arrow straight through my literary heart! The worst thing about “mojo’s” review is that he (or she?) is right; Algren’s novel has dated badly. It was as if I’d been shown a photo of my first heartthrob only to realize that she had crossed eyes, pimples, and big ears.

Let’s concede that The Man With the Golden Arm had been a great book in its time, and remains a good one, but it’s an eccentric book and hardly one for the ages. I decided to try another favorite, one that, for my generation at least, certainly qualifies as a “classic.” Into the Amazon search field I typed “on the road,” and then, with breath held, scrolled down to the reviews.

The first two of five hundred and sixty-two reviews I found weren’t all favorable, but they weren’t that bad. One reviewer, having proclaimed the book “the classic beatnik novel,” confesses that it took him four tries to get through it. Some of the reviews are sharp. A Matt Martin of Fort Collins, Colorado damns Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece with faint praise, then distils the books’ main problem down to its “fusillade style” which “preemptively fore[goes] ¼ real character complexity or narrative development.” Ultimately, he dismisses On the Road as a “personal travelogue” and disses it with a paltry two stars.

But compared to others Matt’s review is generous. After coughing up a single star for the book that sent me and thousands like me hitchhiking across America, “manwithnoname” of Melrose, California, opens his review with a typographic snooze, “ZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz........” —then apologizes for having fallen asleep while reading the book. Then, having proclaimed the book utterly plotless, he excuses himself and goes back to sleep again. Richmond “Spider” of Florida, having cast his own “death star,” describes On the Road as a “disjointed story” about a “dude with no background being lead around by a pseudointellectual jerk [Dean Moriarity, a.k.a. Neal Cassady] with no respect for anyone but himself.” So much for a classic.

Maybe On the Road wasn’t the best choice. Even when first published, it was a controversial book that earned mixed reviews. How about that other classic of youthful rebellion, A Catcher in the Rye? Surely the classic coming-of-age novel wouldn’t suffer an ignoble fate in the hands of Amazon’s loyal customers.

To be sure the book still has its fans, as indicated by the four-out-of-five star average. But the bad reviews come fast and furious, with Linda “Ayeldee” warning potential readers that, though funny in parts, the book will make you “want to kill yourself,” and pitying those forced, like her, to read it in school since “you can’t throw it out the window and get rid of it.” Two reviews down, things get worse, with another involuntary reader, “Cher630” of the Bronx, calling the novel’s protagonist a “whiney, immature, angst ridden teenager who need[s] a smack in the head.” Cher goes on to brand Salinger’s hero “a phony.” Holden Caulfield, a phony?

Oddly, some of the reviewers who hate the book most sound remarkably like its narrator. Listen to John Hechtlinger of Fort Lee, New Jersey: “This book killed me. . . somehow I never read it as a teenager or college student but it seemed alot[sic] of people read it and loved it so I wanted to finally find out what the book is all about . . .Well, anyway, it’s definitely not great literature, that’s the first thing I discovered, and he writes with this phony pseudo alienated-but-artistic-youth style that makes you pretty much wanna throw up.”

After a dozen reviews like that I felt pretty sick myself, as if it my own novel had been lambasted. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.

If this is what contemporary readers thought of Kerouac and Salinger, I hesitated to imagine what they’d say about my other hero, Henry Miller.

“Sex belongs in the bedroom, NOT the library!!!!” writes Jon Deepcreek in his review of Tropic of Cancer, and goes on to say, “This book is filthy. I had to take a shower after I read it. Why doesn’t he [Miller’s narrator] get a job? Why does he have to live in France? Why doesn’t he save his money instead of investing it in alcohol and hookers?” These are good, practical questions to ask of Miller’s protagonist, but also ones that fail to take into account the spirit of rebellion in which Miller’s book was written, and which, aside from its notorious (yet surprisingly scant) sex, is its chief virtue. The children of the counterculture that embraced works like Miller’s have apparently taken to wagging their fingers at their parents’ favorite authors, blaming them for the less-than-enlightened world they were born into. Which may explain why vast majority of the customer reviews of Miller’s book boiled down to three words: “Get a job.” So much for the spirit of rebellion.

Possibly a novel without a countercultural theme, one written by a man, would fare better? What about Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), a novel I’ve recommended to many without reservation. Gorgeously written (so I felt—and feel), with a cast of quirky, complex characters and the indelible image of a house half-submerged by floodwaters. What’s not to like?

According to Amazon’s customer reviewers, plenty. “This book is without a doubt the most dull, uninteresting, and painful piece of literature I have ever set my eyes upon,” writes Karl (no address given). How something can be dull and painful is worth pondering. Conceding that the author is “not without talent and intellect,” Karl berates Robinson for serving up “beautifully crafted scenarios” via “a multitude of metaphorical sentences” that add up to “no real meaning.” Karl concludes, “This book is an utter waste of time.” One star.

One star for a book I’d recommended to dozens. I should have dismissed Karl as a crank; it would have been easy enough, since his was by all means a minority view. But how can you argue with someone’s feelings? For whatever reasons, Housekeeping bored Karl stiff, such that the texts of Catallus and Cicero (which, Karl claims, he read in Latin class), though equally tedious and hard to understand, at least made some sense to him.

What it took Karl three paragraphs to say, “Nose in a Book” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, summed up in one word: “Blech!!!” While such outbursts don’t exactly flaunt a reviewers’ intellectual or verbal powers, who can deny their eloquence and concision?

By now I was all but convinced that there is no such thing as an unassailable classic. All but. Two final tests remained. To perform them, I’d have to find books that had been both popular and critical successes, bestsellers beloved by millions, and not just over a decade or two or three, but for at least forty years.

It took me three seconds to arrive at To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s perennial bestseller about murder and racial injustice in the deep south. True, the book has its flaws, including Atticus Finch, that stick-in-the-mud emblem of paternal righteousness, and also its child narrator’s tendency to favor words like “assuaged.” Still, what’s to hate? Right?

Of a whopping 1,529 customer reviews, the majority were decidedly uncritical, with “AWESOME CLASSIC!!!” a typical response, down to its orgy of exclamation points (with “I love this book!” coming in a close second). I had to scroll through seven pages to find a dissenter

“Picked up this book from the library due to the reviews,” Yoo Win writes, “plus heard from the conversation between 2 colleagues that it is a page-turner. However, it is to my disappointment [sic] from page 1 to page 40. I could not drag myself to wade through page 40.” Okay, so English isn’t Yoo’s first language. Still, he gets his point across. “It seems like a book with no clear objective to convey. It might be the greatest literature book as is claimed, it is just not my kind of book.”

Not a knockout punch, but no love-tap, either. The decisive blows were yet to come, like this one from “Kid,” whose staccato caption delivers its verdict like a judge pounding his gavel: “Worst. Book. Ever.” Kid continues: “Let me just say this: the book is boring. It starts out with Scout talking about how her brother once broke his arm. Who cares? The book’s most exciting part [the trial?] is extremely confusing, and don’t tell me I’m stupid; I have an IQ of 140.” But even this review is a rave compared with what Nadia of Wisconsin says. “This book is very nasty. It depicts scenes I would not care to see if I was being PAID. It’s just a sick book. Don’t read it, kids.” So much for the inviolability of To Kill a Masterpiece—ur, a Mockingbird.

I tried one more book, one that had not only been soundly embraced for a solid century. What sort of nasty things would Amazon’s reviewers have to say about Jane Austen’s greatest novel, Pride & Prejudice?

This time I had to scroll through seventy out of seven-hundred and fifteen reviews to get to one that was even mildly excoriating. “Read this,” writes Ikaro Silva, “if the sole goal of your life is to get married.” Ikaro goes on to reduce Austen’s novel to “just a new version of Cinderella” and one that “portray[s] all women as conformists.” Take that, Jane!

But even this reviewer gives the book two out of five stars. The only one-star review I found was by Juan Camarillo of San Antonio, who writes: “From a fan of IMMANUEL KANT, this was too boring.” Juan proceeds: “I had to study the Diamond Sutra and the Book of Job to get the vapid feeling out of my head." Juan then quotes another reviewer who had written, “as Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, so did Austen see the world in a drawing room.” To which Jake responds, “There is a vast difference in seeing the world in a drawing room and thinking that the world IS a drawing room.”

What strikes me about even the most outrageous of these reviews is that they all hold some truth, if only the truth of one reader’s experience, and novels are meant to be experienced intimately, by individuals, not en masse. And just because the views expressed are those of a minority doesn’t make them any less valid. Nor can they be written off as the opinions of amateurs, since by and large novels are written for amateurs, not for critics.

And I also have to confess to taking some comfort—and even a certain twisted pride—in the fact that great works are as subject to censure as my own modest performances: a fact that makes it possible, through the following syllogism, for me to equate my work with theirs:

Major Premise: All great works are subject to criticism

Minor Premise: My work is subject to criticism

Conclusion: My work is great

On the other hand there’s something undeniably upsetting about having your favorite books flogged in public, even if the flogging is administered by one or two cranky dissenters amid throngs of rabid devotees. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out with characteristic wit, a critic laying into a novel is like someone putting on a full suit of armor to attack a banana split.

Still, ours is a democracy where—so far, anyway, at least about harmless things like works of art—people are still free to say what they think. That leaves works of fiction not only open to interpretation, but subject to opinion. What touches one reader may injure, offend or bore another. So it goes.

That said, though a novel may be subject to opinion, its greatness isn’t. That masterpieces exist is all the evidence we have against artistic relativism, but it’s damning evidence. The quality of a work of art isn’t a matter of opinion any more than the shape of a snowflake or the smell of rotten eggs: it simply is. And like those who so freely give them, opinions come and go. But masterpieces endure. In the end the only stars that matter are those cast by time.

Meanwhile, since we have no choice, we should welcome the opinions of others—even if we have to take them with a Taj Mahal-sized grain of salt. And remind ourselves, while doing so, of the immortal words of G. C. Lichtenburg:

“A book is a mirror. If an ass looks into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”


john said...

Hi. This is John Hechtlinger from Fort Lee, NJ. I wrote the negative review of 'Catcher in the Rye.' I have to laugh. You commented that I sounded much like the narrator of the story. That was deliberate! Sheesh! I must have done a good job, maybe too good. In any event, I still maintain that the novel is not great literature by any stretch of the imagination. I understand why young people may love it; it speaks to teenage angst. Ok, I get it. It doesn't speak to middle-age angst however, or old-age angst. It's not universal in its appeal and it's not well-written (IMHO).

Peter Selgin said...

All of what you say is arguably so, save that last remark: Salinger's book not well-written. By what standard? Here you're on soft ground. Salinger does what he sets out to do: tell a story in the voice of an adolescent of a certain era. So wherefore badly written? More badly-written novels line bookstore shelves than you can shake a dead rat at. A Catcher in the Rye isn't one of them.