July 20, 2011

Misplaced literary fame


Evelyn Waugh found his most famous novel's "rhetorical and ornamental language...distasteful."

The first book you read by an author is the ultimate first impression. Indeed, if you dislike a book, chances are you will never read anything by that author ever again. How many of us after finishing a novel that irritated and/or bored us thought, ‘Well, I bet her other ones are much better.’? Which means that you probably won’t read the author’s other novel—the one you will adore and admire intensely. It’s like meeting your destined soulmate, getting into a petty fight, and never talking to them again.

Since the first book you read by an author is such a big decision, which one should you read first? The first instinct would be to reach for their most famous work. If that’s up to snuff, then you can explore their lesser known books… However this logic can also get you into trouble.

At The Guardian, John Self (of the wonderful lit blog, The Asylum) discusses authors who are famous for the wrong book:

If someone reads Kurt Vonnegut‘s most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, and doesn’t like it, I’ll want to shout to them, “But it’s rubbish! Cat’s Cradle is much better!

He similarly finds Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 (“too long, messy and takes 100 pages to get going”) inferior to Something Happened, Kazuo Ishiguro‘s Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day inferior to The Unconsoled, Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisisted (which even Waugh found “distasteful”) inferior to A Handful of Dust, and Jeanette Winterson‘s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit not even her best book with fruit in the title—that honor, Self feels, goes to Sexing the Cherry.

(I would argue that Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled are BOTH perfect novels, even though they are unalike in almost every regard.)

When Self posed the topic on Twitter people offered the following suggestions.

Aldous Huxley: The Perennial Philosophy over Brave New World
Salman Rushdie: Haroun and the Sea of Stories over Midnight’s Children
William Golding: The Spire over Lord of the Flies
Gustave Flaubert: Sentimental Education over Madame Bovary
James Kelman: A Disaffection over How Late It Was, How Late

An example I thought of immediately was Jean Rhy‘s The Wide Sargasso Sea which I was assigned in two English classes and found to be vague and tedious. Fortunately, I later read Rhy’s After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, one of the most cruel and beautiful depictions of human loneliness I have ever encountered, and Good Morning, Midnight, a gorgeous dirge of a novel.

Why did Wide Sargasso Sea enter the English canon and become Rhy’s most famous work? I suspect the answer is that the book’s postcolonial manipulations of Jane Eyre are more delightful to write about than to read. In short: it is more academically interesting than it is artistically. Perhaps this is often the reason for a novel’s misplaced fame. Books like Slaughterhouse Five or 1984 are culturally, politically, and academically useful, and this usefulness is more important than their quality. Books that one can discuss easily and at great length tend to achieve a more exalted role within the culture than those that leave you speechless.