DUD BOOKS (AND WHY WRITERS PRODUCE THEM)

I have recently come across a good number of dud books. In this category I include a) books which I end up abandoning, despite my good will to read them; b) books which I read to the end, often skimming and with great impatience, hoping against all hope that they improve towards the end. By ‘books’ I really mean ‘novels’ here. The common denominator of all these novels is that I have chosen them because of the hype surrounding them often in connection with an award. These are novels I very much wanted to read.

Just for you to see that I have tried all kinds, three of the most egregious duds have turned out to be: 1) En la orilla by the late Rafael Chirbes (Premio Nacional de Narrativa, 2014), 2) Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road into the Deep North (Man Booker Prize 2014) and 3) Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, first in the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hugo Award Winner, 2003).

What’s wrong with them? En la orilla suffers from the typical problem of Spanish literary narrative: the need to produce artistic prose eats up the need to give each character a realistic voice–if they’re low-class, they cannot speak as a literary author writes. I abandoned it on page 60. Chirbes died a few days later, and you can’t believe to understand how guilty I feel about giving up on him. It took me a little longer to abandon Flanagan’s novel, say 100 pages. The problem? Well, if you’re telling a harrowing story about Australian POWs in Burma during WWII (yes, building the same railway line featured in Bridge over River Kwai), why interleave it with the trite story of a pathetic adulterous affair? I don’t care if both deal with the same protagonist–stick to your topic, write separate novels if you have two stories to tell.

In Hominids Sawyer tries hard to imagine what a civilization with Neanderthals as the surviving human species instead of Homo Sapiens would have been like. My! This is a thrilling topic, I thought. Yet, I hated the story because quite early in the novel Sawyer has the female protagonist endure a horrific rape, for no justified narrative reason, except that this terrible attack puts her off sex with the Neanderthal male lead (at least she finds the energy to comment mentally on the size of the bulky man’s member… before the whole thing starts leaning towards formulaic romance). As many readers write in their reviews these days ‘Meh’.

A ‘dud’ is something that does not work properly. In the many WWI novels I have read, soldiers are happy when a shell thrown at them turns out to be a dud, but that’s the only circumstance in which duds are welcome. A Google search throws up two other meanings of ‘dud books’ I had not considered: a) books printed incorrectly (really?) and b) a category of bizarre books which has generated its own cult. An oldish article in The Telegraph refers to dud books as “truly awful books that you can’t put down” (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3656400/The-insider.html). The author, Brian Lake, explains that the furore over ‘dub books’ started back in 1982, “when antiquarian booksellers were encouraged to display their ‘Dud Books of All Time’ at a book fair in York”, running from the “unsaleable” to the “very funny”. One example will do: The Romance of Leprosy (1949). Now, the ‘dud books’ I refer to here have sold well, are not funny and are the opposite of a page-turner. As Miss Mouse writes in Twitter, “After a couple of dud books I’m happily immersed in a can’t-put-down-to-do-something-else one”. Precisely.

Now, a book I have swallowed whole in one sitting is Miguel Dalmau and Román Piña Valls’ joint effort, La mala puta: Réquiem por la Literatura Española (Sloper, 2014). Hemingway, the authors tell us, was the misogynist who originally called Spanish Literature a bitch and there is certainly plenty of misogyny in Dalmau’s segment of the essay, which seems to forget that, apart from smothering agents and adoring wives, the world of Literature has women writers in it. To be 100% honest, he does say at one point that the women writers who are serious about their literary aspirations are braver than the men, but he leaves it at that. Anyway, I digress.

Reading this acid denunciation of the sorry state of national Spanish Literature, I realized I had forgotten about a fourth ‘dud book’ category: the unpublished book. Michael Chabon tells in Manhood for Amateurs how after writing his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he embarked on a gigantic novel which he had to abandon eventually–this dud book featured prominently in his delicious Wonder Boys as the novel that Grady, the protagonist writer, can never control. Dalmau has a much bitter experience to tell. He was about to publish a biography of Argentinean writer Julio Cortázar when, mysteriously, the late author’s agents, Carme Balcells’ Agency, withdrew her permission to use any quotations from Cortázar’s books (see https://www.elmundo.es/cultura/2014/12/08/5481b1c8e2704e72268b4591.html). Apparently Cortázar’s widow just didn’t want this particular biography published.

Dalmau and Piña have many controversial points to raise about how the Spanish publishing industry burns the budding talent of new writers and how insidious marketing techniques are destroying the literary tastes of readers. I do recommend you to read the whole book. I’ll highlight here just one of Dalmau’s most provocative claims: the idea that writers have lost all ambition to produce work aesthetically bold, that is to say, to produce a literary masterpiece. Writers complain, Dalmau notes, that they are not rich and famous enough (em, or culturally relevant) but they never consider why there is no masterpiece among their works. Dalmau insists that writers lead a too sedate life to produce masterpieces (yes, he is of the Hemingway persuasion…) but just consider Emily Brontë or Emily Dickinson and you’ll see how literary ambition has nothing to do with living la vida loca.

How’s this connected with dud books? Here’s my thesis: dud books are the result of this lack of literary ambition. Counterarguments: Chirbes was ambitious and the guys in the Ministerio de Cultura who awarded him the ‘Nacional’ were acknowledging that (supposedly). Well, yes, but here in Spain the problem is that there are no longer critics offering negative reviews–somebody says ‘this is good Literature’ and the rest meekly follow. Readers count for nothing. Second: does this apply to Sawyer, as well, who is not working within a genre which values literary prose? Yes it does because science fiction is far more literary than you would believe and also a genre that attracts writers keen on outstripping the rest regarding the power of their imagination. How about the Man Booker Prize? Well, Flanagan’s novel is the kind which prompts the ugly question: “How could they award such an important prize to this… dud?”

Dud books respond to the culture of ‘making do’ (in Spanish ‘si cuela, cuela’). If you start lowering standards because you want to build a book market which succeeds financially even if it fails artistically (no matter the genre), writers stop making an effort. Those who do make an effort get no reward, either material or critical (most critics work for the same companies publishing the books, see my post on Ricard Ruiz Garzón), and either are pushed out or abandon themselves the literary field, often with great bitterness. Dalmau and Piña insist that the equivalents of, say, Borges and Steinbeck, exist today but first, they are not the big names you’re thinking of and second, they probably work in total obscurity, which is why they will never produce a masterpiece.

There is another kind of dud book (sixth category?): call it the ‘cute bad novel’ (do I mean the ‘cookie-cutter novel’?). Take Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train, 4.5 stars on Amazon.com awarded by more than 16.000 voters–only 1% think this is a dud. Kline is a professional writer with a number of books under her belt and a nice list of awards and distinctions. She has a terrific subject, so far little known: how American charities shipped for decades East Coast orphans to the Midwest for adoption since there was no official system in place to take care of them. Needless to say, many of the ‘train orphans’ endured very unhappy experiences of abuse and exploitation. Kline claims to have done extensive research for her novel, focused on Niamh, an imaginary Irish girl adopted in the late 1920s. Yet, she chooses to endorse Orphan Train in her own website with a quote from fellow author, Ann Packer, which describes it as “A lovely novel about the search for family that also happens to illuminate a fascinating and forgotten chapter of American history”. ‘Lovely’, or ‘cute’, or ‘nice’, or ‘pretty’ is not want you want to call an ambitious novel. Why? Because it smacks of superficiality, and this is what Kline’s book is: superficial. I just wished I had read a non-fiction book about the very attractive subject.

Unfortunately, I already know that my next novel, Neal Stephenson’s new work Seveneves is a dud. Yet I stick by him, hoping he’ll publish again something as ambitious as his crazy trilogy The Baroque Cycle. Bracing myself for disappointment, then…

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