Here’s lookin’ at you, kids


Reading other peoples’ takes on Primo Levi, or Murakami, or David Eggers, and comparing them to my own, I get some sense of who we all are and what we’re up to. Sometimes this turns out to be far more interesting than reading the book itself.

If this is the case, then, the important thing would be, first, really to understand one’s own reaction, to observe it with great care; and, second, to articulate it honestly, without any fudging for fear that others might disagree.

Congratulations, book bloggers – I think we see this honesty more in our community than in the literary or commercial press. Don’t you think so? Have a drink or two and pat yourselves on the back.

Book bloggers, book hurlers and book ranters alike will enjoy this article by Tim Parks, in which he questions the popularity of some very big names. It isn’t an exercise in putting down certain writers or the people who enjoy them, but in wondering what it is that makes our different reactions to books, and wishing we would be more open about those reactions rather than falling into line with uncritical enthusiasm for whoever’s in favour at the moment. Nothing could be more common among the community of book reviewers than fudging, says Parks.

And here’s a nice example of someone thinking about why others might react to a book they way they do. In the same edition of the NYRB Daniel Mendelsohn explains the popularity of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life like this:

many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general. In a culture where victimhood has become a claim to status, how could Yanagihara’s book—with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence—not provide a kind of comfort? To such readers, the ugliness of this author’s subject must bring a kind of pleasure, confirming their preexisting view of the world as a site of victimization and little else.

16 thoughts on “Here’s lookin’ at you, kids

  1. A friend both well educated and travelled, described Eat, Pray, Love( Elizabeth Gilbert) as the best book she had ever read. She took great umbrage to my opposing view. Think we fall for he marketing, authors reputation and even the cover which I suppose is the point of it all!

    1. We all have our own responses to what we read. maybe EPL offered something inspiring or consoling to your friend. I suspect many of us have guilty favourites tucked away that we turn to in moments of need. Books to love in secret rather than to throw.Maybe we should survey that.

  2. I guess I’m from a different generation as I don’t feel like a victim. What ever happened to the movers and shakers of the world?

    1. It was so interesting to read recently of one of the university colleges I think in New York where an administrator put out a notice asking students to be sensitive to others’ feelings in their choice of outfits for Halloween, so they didn’t offend anyone. Another administrator said that she thought a university should be a space where people are free to express and debate opinions. There’s now a student movement to sack both those people because, as this group of students says, they have the right to “feel safe” – i.e. not to have their feelings hurt.

  3. Thanks for directing me to the Tim Parks article which I have been mulling over for the last couple of days. While I agree, in general, with his points about pre-packaged images and lazy writing, when I came to the section where he takes apart the passage from Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, it occurred to me that a reviewer/critic could do what he does with a passage lifted out of almost any work of fiction. Taken on their own, yes, some of the phrases are cliched, but meaning in a novel, short story or poem always consists in the relationship of the parts to the whole. A writer is in this sense exactly like a composer orchestrating a symphony, and that’s where I like to start from when I’m writing a review.

    1. Thanks Dorothy. I love the way you think things through. What you say about Ferrante I suppose is an example of his point, that we all come at things from our own inner landscape and it would be more interesting if people could identify that for themselves – as you’ve done! Glad to see you’re back online.

      1. Great article. I will share it with my MFA classmates and other literary friends!

        Here’s a new set of requirements for posting comments. Will we get to do those puzzles next, where we get to figure out a set of letters and numbers?

        Thanks, Gert!

    1. We know narthing about the requirements for signing in. Glad you managed to break through the barrier. We were wondering why we hadn’t heard from Paris Hilton recently, so she may be having the same problem.

  4. i really enjoyed the Tim Parks article. have to admit i only reached about page 50 of Ferrante’s first Naples novel. Murakami was mentioned and I loved Kafka On the Shore but have friends who probably wouldn’t. I like the idea that we shouldn’t have to hide our likes and dislikes. ‘outing’ sounds interesting!

    1. Yes, it would be interesting if reviewers tried to analyse their responses and why they might have them rather than just accepting something must be good if it’s by a big name, or dismissing it as no good for reasons that don’t have much to do with literary qualities.

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