Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Secret Least-Favorite Writer

(The writer in question is NOT Malcom Gladwell, I just needed a picture for this post and thought it was a good opportunity to point out the pretty funny Malcom Gladwell Book Generator.)

There is a contemporary author who pretty much everybody thinks is great who I think is not so great, and I'm not going to tell you who it is because I might get fired or killed.

Of course, I'm being a tad dramatic there, but the fear is real -- I've toyed with the idea of writing a scathing (or at least snarky) blog post about this author many times before, and every time, the potential consequences of my unpopular opinion seem to outweigh the satisfaction I would gain and the fun I would have doing it. But what are those consequences, really? And why, you may ask, would I hold back criticism if I feel that it's warranted and that voicing that criticism would help readers make a decision informed by at least one more opinion? It's not like I've been one to bite my tongue before, and I didn't get canned for that one.

In part, it's because the difference between my opinions on V.S. Naipul (linked to above) and my opinions about this author is that I've never read a book by V.S. Naipul, nor would I tell anyone else not to. My comment there was on a ridiculous thing that he said, not on the quality of his writing, and I can, as readers have long been accustomed to doing given the long history of, um, unsympathetic writers, separate the two. The difference is that I think that this one author, the one everyone seems to like who I don't like, just isn't as good as they get credit for being. And, as such, putting a criticism of such an author in a forum like this would be akin to saying "stop buying these books". And that's a statement that gives me some unease, not just as a bookseller, but as a book lover.

I think most booksellers would agree that there are books one sells somewhat reluctantly. Something you'd rather see fade into obscurity because for whatever reason it's bad enough that you wish it wouldn't exist (I've never entertained any hope of that in this case -- this author is here to stay.) Still, this is somewhat of a taboo subject in a literary and publishing culture that is so often considered to be under threat, in which the most commonly expressed opinion is that anyone buying a book, any book, is a good thing, and one that we shouldn't criticize too harshly or it will all just go away and there won't be books anymore.

This, then, is part of the reason why I don't want to name this author: because it feels irresponsible of me as a bookseller to dissuade people from reading anything. But this also isn't just anything: this author is respected, beloved even. Their works are not "popular fiction", they're literature. They are neither "trashy" nor intellectually snobby. If you are reading this blog, I'd bet the odds are that either you've read one of this author's books or been recommended one. I myself have both read a few of this author's books and have recommended them to customers and even friends, if I think it's something that the person will like. Nevertheless, I feel very strongly that there are some fundamental problems with the writing -- laziness with offensive implications, mainly -- for which this author should be criticized.

But I'm not going to do it here. Not because I don't think that there's a merit to literary criticism that is critical, though some have that view. But because my ideal that states that it's a good thing for people to buy and read literature is stronger than my ideal that states that this author contributes, at best, lame things to the popular consciousness.

Am I at peace with that decision? Obviously, not really. I still felt a need to write about it, which is what I do with things I'm not at peace with. What do you think, readers?

Monday, March 12, 2012

on choosing a Staff Favorite

It can be hard, after 18.5 years of working in a bookstore, to come up with a new Staff Favorite. We read so many good books, and so many good books don't need our help. The perfect fit for the Staff Faves display is an excellent book that most customers have yet to read, so one can revel in the joys of spreading the good word about a great book.

My best Staff Favorite ever was A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley, because:
  1. Many people had never heard of it;
  2. My shelf-talker was passionate and convincing (something about how cheated
    I felt that I had lived 26 years on this earth before someone told me about this great novel);
  3. it's awesome; and
  4. booze played a prominent role in the book, and San Franciscans love their booze (and boozy books).

My latest Staff Favorite was a bit of let-down, sales-wise. It was The Corrections, truly one of the best novels I've ever read. But almost everyone who might read it already has, so I was preaching to the proverbial choir.

My newest addition to the Staff Faves display is Fahrenheit 451. This pick could go either way: everyone has heard of it, but I'm hoping that many readers have just never gotten around to it, as I hadn't until a long plane trip to Nicaragua last month.

The thing about a book like this is that you think you "get it," even if you haven't read it. It's become so ingrained in our consciousness, like Pride and Prejudice or Moby Dick, that anyone who reads books pretty much "gets it."

But you can't, you don't, until you really do read it. Or at least that's what happened to me. The reason Fahrenheit 451 has held up for long is not just the easily imagined dystopian world in which books are burned, but in the powerful narrative, the eerie unexplained parts, Bradbury's prescience about wall-mounted TVs, the humor and lust and loss.

You just have to read it.