Why read bestsellers

Someone wrote to ask why I bother writing about John Grisham’s weaknesses as a writer and implied in it is a second question: why read bestsellers at all? The first is a fair question and so is the implication in it: Grisham’s readers don’t read me and don’t care what I think; they don’t care that he’s a bad writer; and people who read me probably aren’t going to read him. Still, I read him because I was curious and I wrote about him to report what I found.

The answer to the second one is easy: Some are great! Not all, probably not even most, but enough to try. Lonesome Dove, the best novel I’ve read recently, was a bestseller. Its sequel, Streets of Laredo, is not quite as good but I’m glad to have read it. Elmore Leonard was often a bestseller and he is excellent. Others seemed like they’d be bad (Gillian Flynn, Tucker Max) but turned into favorites.

One could construct a 2×2 matrix of good famous books; bad famous books; good obscure books; and bad obscure books. That last one is a large group too; credibility amid a handful of literary critics (who may be scratching each other’s backs anyway) does not necessarily equate to quality, and I’ve been fooled by good reviews of mostly unknown books many times. Literary posturing does not equate to actual quality.

Different people also have different views around literary quality, and those views depend in part on experience and reading habits. Someone who reads zero or one books a year is likely to have very different impressions than someone who reads ten or someone who reads fifty or a hundred. Someone who is reading like a writer will probably have a different experience than someone who reads exclusively in a single, particular genre.

And Grisham? That article (which I wish I could find) made him and especially Camino Island sound appealing, and the book does occasionally work. But its addiction to cliché and the sort of overwriting common in student writing makes it unreadable in my view. But someone who reads one or two books a year and for whom Grisham is one of those books will probably like him just fine, because they don’t have the built-up stock of reading that lets them distinguish what’s really good from what isn’t.

Briefly noted: Camino Island — John Grisham

Somewhere I read an article, now lost to me, about Grisham that convinced me to try Camino Island. Unfortunately, it’s bad from the first page and even the second sentence:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged stationary, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald [. . .]

You don’t need the word “budding.” It’s a cliché and adds nothing to the description. Almost any “soon-to-be doctoral student” is a “budding scholar.” On the same page we learn that the letter “arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along [. . .]” How does one “duly” sort things? Are some things “unduly sorted?”

A little later, a sentence begins, “His was a gang of five [. . .]” Even something simple like “His gang had four other members” is less awkward.

Some dialogue is good:

“The manuscripts, all five of them, were insured by our client, a large private company that insures art and treasures and rare assets. I doubt you’ve heard of it either.”
“I don’t follow insurance companies.”

That comeback is nice, but even the first part is repetitive. If an insurance company is willing to insure manuscripts, then it’s obviously not, say, a car insurance company—we don’t need to know that it “insures art and treasures” because we already know it ensures this company’s.

I gave up after about a quarter of the book because it’s so consistently badly written. If you see any Grisham revisionism articles, don’t believe them. Read something else. The collected works* of Elmore Leonard are a fine place to start.


* This is no longer a figure of speech: the Library of America is in fact collecting his works and publishing them, as the link shows.

Briefly noted — Do I Make Myself Clear? — Harold Evans

If you’ve read in the vast genre of how-to-write books—everything from Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style to John Trimble’s Writing With Style to Zinsser’s On Writing Well—you’ve already in effect read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. It’s a good book, just not one that advances the art or covers material you’ve not seen covered elsewhere.

It starts with Orwell and “Politics and the English Language,” which indicts “bad English for corrupting thought and slovenly thought for corrupting language,” then goes to say that “eternal vigilance is the price of intelligent literacy.” Problem is that I don’t think we’ve been vigilant and I don’t see signs of increasing literacy—in political terms, if anything we see the opposite. The kinds of people who need to read Do I Make Myself Clear? don’t read and don’t care.

Elsewhere we find that

There is no compulsion to be concise on either the Internet or the profusion of television and radio channels; and in writing of every kind, Twitter apart, we see more words, more speed, less clarity, and less honesty, too, since with “demand media” you never know whether a review of Swan Lake will conceal a hard sell about toenail fungus.

I like a good rant as much as the next guy, but do we know we’re seeing “more words, more speed, less clarity?” How do we know? How would we even measure this? I don’t know. Does “speed” mean speed of writing, speed of reading, both, or neither? I don’t know that either. Knowing is hard.

To be sure, there’s a long history of language exhortations violating the very rules they posit (few of those who decry adverbs and passive voice fail to use both). But it can be interesting to apply the same principles being espoused to the work doing the espousing, to see if it follows its own command.

Briefly noted: Deep Thinking — Garry Kasparov

If you’ve read Average is Over you’ve gotten enough of Kasparov’s book to skip it; the abstract lessons from the second section of Average is Over are similar to Deep Thinking‘s. Still, human-computer play remain underrated and also remains a key metaphor for what human-computer interaction will look like in the near future. Computer-assisted driving is maybe the most familiar aspect right now, and that sort of dynamic will likely increase as time goes on and as the number of transistors that can inhabit a given area continues to increase.

Deep Thinking is most interesting about halfway through when Kasparov describes in detail the conditions under which he played the famous 1997 Deep Blue match. Before and after there is some interesting material but less than one would like. Maybe I’m just a sucker for narrative, and the middle section is primarily narrative. Still, the more I read of Kasparov the more I think I should read more, and his writing about Putin and Russia is consistently insightful. If you want a conventional review of Deep Thinking, Robin Hanson’s “Grandmasters vs. Gigabytes” is good.

There are few aesthetically beautiful sentences but still some useful observations. For example:

Connections between chess skill and general intelligence are weak at best. There is no more truth to the thought that all chess players are geniuses than in saying that all geniuses play chess. In fact, one of the things that makes chess so interesting is that it’s still unclear exactly what separates good chess players from great ones.

That last sentence is true of novelists and other writers too. “Good” and “great” can be felt and the critical faculty can be honed over time, but specific definitions remain elusive. Oddly, though, two pages later Kasparov returns to notions of greatness in a way that almost contradict the quote above:

When Der Spiegel asked me what I thought separated me, the world champion, from other strong chess players, I answered, ‘The willingness to take on new challenges,’ the same answer I would give today. The willingness to keep trying new things—different methods, uncomfortable tasks—when you are already an expert at something is what separates good from great. Focusing on your strengths is required for peak performance, but improving your weaknesses has the potential for the greatest gains.

So there is an answer to what separates good from great (“The willingness to try new challenges”) or there isn’t? Both sections are interesting and both might be true, but this is the sort of internal contradiction editors (or Kasparov’s ghost writer / assistant, Mig Greengard) are supposed to find.

Then there are sentences like, “It’s a privilege to be able to focus on the negative potential of world-changing breakthroughs like artificial intelligence. As real as these issues may be, we will not solve them unless we keep innovating even more ambitiously, creating solutions and new problems, and yet more solutions, as we always have.” Everyone else seems to be for innovation, making me tempted to come out as anti-innovation simply to be contrary.

But there are very useful sentences too, like the last one here:

How professional chess changed when computers and databases arrived is a useful metaphor for how new technology is adopted across industries and societies in general. It’s a well-established phenomenon, but I feel that the motivations are underanalyzed. Being young and less set in our ways definitely makes us more open to trying new things. But simply being older isn’t the only factor that works against this openness—there is also being successful. When you have success, when the status quo favors you, it becomes very hard to voluntarily change your ways.

Success is never final. Yet we, collectively, never seem to know that. Peak performance sustained over a lifetime may have to incorporate this idea.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI — David Grann

People who like true crime stories will love Killers of the Flower Moon, but I’m not one of them and find it unmoving, though the scope of the conspiracy it describes is fantastical, and the third part is amazing. Like The Name of the Rose, it seems to be a story of detection and reconstruction: who killed Anna Brown? Brown’s sister, Mollie Burkhart, worried about Brown, though Brown “had often gone on ‘sprees,’ as her family disparagingly called them.” But this wasn’t a spree and what seems to concern one murder, at first, turns out to concern many more.

One can see Killers of the Flower Moon in other ways than a story of detection: as parts of government wrangling with other parts of government; as how demand for government leads to greater supply of government (“For years after the American Revolution, the public opposed the creation of police departments, fearing that they would become forces of oppression”—whether they have is left as an exercise to the reader); of how bureaucracy organizes itself to solve problems; of how feudal or rural systems of justice and law enforcement give way to larger modern structures. There is something for people who want to read about ghastly murders and something for people who like Albert Hirschman. Not many books overlap in that venn diagram! There are many sentences about bureaucratic wrangling, like “Because of [x’s] power, a federal prosecutor warned that it was ‘not only useless but positively dangerous’ to try him in the state legal system” (this occurs late in the book and I removed the person’s name to prevent spoilers).

Large-scale conspiracies are so rare that when they do occur they fascinate (think of my post, “The power of conventional narratives and the great lie“). Imagined conspiracies are much more common than actual ones.

At times Killers of the Flower Moon reminds one of a Western like Lonesome Dove:

[Tom] White was an old-style lawman. He had served in the Texas Rangers near the turn of the century, and he had spent much of his life roaming on horseback across the southwestern frontier, a Winchester rifle or pearl-handled six-shooter in hand, tracking fugitives and murderers and stickup men. [. . .] Even when dressed in a stiff suit, like a door-to-door salesman, he seemed to have sprung from a mythic age.

The West as imagined today is built on myth, and so, too, is the FBI—which, in this telling, springs from the Rangers and from similar sources. Which I hadn’t realized. Maybe you hadn’t either. This book is not for me but it may very well be for you. Very few of the sentences stand out as truly excellent, and that to me is a key metric in a book.

Briefly noted: Somebody with a Little Hammer — Mary Gaitskill

The essays are not interesting throughout, but the most interesting ones are very interesting; pay special attention to her piece on turning “Secretary” (the short story) into Secretary (the movie) and the piece about Gone Girl which is a brilliant reading that is also wrong and misses part of the point of the movie and, maybe, of art in general. Brilliant but wrong readings are underrated and still help us see art and the world in new ways, and Gaitskill articulates the dark side of Gone Girl, and its popularity, well. Who cares if she misses the point? I’d like more works that miss the point intelligently than get the point boringly (as I may sometimes do, though I prefer not to).

Some sections on topical gender issues are more interesting than the usual, and Gaitskill acknowledges some things that many of her peers don’t, like: “My parents and my teachers believed that social rules existed to protect me and adhering to these rules constituted social responsibility.”

Her reviews often feel more interesting than the books she’s reviewing. Some of those books and their topics haven’t aged well (does anyone care about someone named Joey Buttafuoco, whose name rings a distant semiotic bell and who was apparently a brief ’90s tabloid item?).

Then there are paragraphs that are just very good and make up for whatever isn’t:

Popular music is the most banal and most mysterious thing imaginable, and it’s almost impossible to write about. A good song carries in each phrase fragments of thought, feeling, and sensation, all going by in a flash. It refers to things everybody knows, but it’s rooted in the specific muck of whoever wrote it / sings it. If it’s live, it includes the quick, erotic language of the body, a language at once to subtle and fundamental to be understood by the mind. So, along comes the intellectual writer and—oops! He’s squeezing down on the poor thing so hard, you think he’ll kill it, except he can’t even get his hands on it.

(By the way, John Seabrook is very good on music and doesn’t squeeze down on the poor thing so hard.)

Or this, on the short story version of “Secretary,” which contrasts with the movie one for reasons primarily but not entirely commercial:

In any genuine piece of fiction, the plot is like the surface personality or external body of a human being; it serves to contain the subconscious and viscera of the story. The plot is something you “see” with your rational mind, but the unconscious and the viscera–what you can smell and feel without being able to define–are the deeper subjects of the story. This is particularly true of “Secretary,” the heroine of which is a knot of smothered passion expressed only obliquely and negatively in her outer self. I conceived her as someone of unformed strength and intelligence, qualities that have never been reflected back to her by her world and so have become thwarted, angry, and peculiar. The deeper subject of “Secretary,” then, is the tension between the force and complexity inside the heroine, and how it gets squeezed through the tiny conduit of a personality that she has learned to make small, so that she may live in a small and mute world.

I’m not sure I agree with the notion of plot being advanced here—I think the plot shows us much more, if the writer wants it to—but one sees how plot functions for Gaitskill. It also explains why her short stories are more interesting than her novels: you can evade plot easily for 30 pages but not so easily for 300, with the longer length becoming tedious if the characters don’t act and react to things around them.

Briefly noted: Lonesome Dove — Larry McMurtry

Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.

Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.

I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.

In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:

The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”

Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.

Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:

The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.

If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.

There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.

It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).

The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.

There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.

I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.

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