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Literary novels and other trash

I know that, when something really gets under your skin, it’s a psychological red flag and that one should ask oneself what’s really going on. Whatever. But when I ask myself what’s really going on with my aggressive hatred of literary novels (or literary anything), I think it’s this: Literary novels are not merely bad, they’re also a fraud. They’re a fraud because they suck up so much oxygen, suffocating and marginalizing and demeaning far better work. Literary novels get all the attention. Everything else is carefully ignored by critics (though not by the millions of people who actually read for pleasure).

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is trash, not worth having been written and not worth reading. But just look at all the fawning reviews it got in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. I believe Gore Vidal called them “university novels,” though I’m not sure Vidal is entirely guiltless, literarily speaking. Orson Scott Card, a good writer in spite of his rotten politics, call it “pre-criticized fiction,” written to appeal to critics and for those who imagine themselves to be a literary elite.

So why did I read The Buried Giant? A friend was reading it, and I was looking forward to discussing it with him. Normally I would have flung such a book within thirty pages. But I kept reading even after I discovered it was a university novel, for the sorriest of motives: to have more credibility to rip it to shreds.

As is required in a literary opus, the title is meaningless. Clarity is forbidden, and vagueness and randomness substitute for plot. Most of the novel doesn’t make sense, because it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to be more like a Rorschach test, and the reader is expected to project great profundity into the vagueness that one can’t quite put one’s finger on and that — since the critics loved it — must surely have gone over one’s head. The reader is constantly taxed with an excess of words. But, worst of all, the ending is frustrating to the reader and cruel to the characters. To my mind, it’s a writer’s ethical duty both to readers and to the writer’s characters that a novel’s characters might be made to suffer, but that they will be compensated in the end by winning their heart’s desire. It is both a literary crime and a breach of ethics to leave one’s characters in hell because that’s “like life” or something. If I ever met an author like Kazuo Ishiguro I would berate him within an inch of his life for being a fraud, for possessing a mediocre mind in which a deliberate vagueness masks the mediocrity, for his pessimism and literary cruelty, and for being a mediocre and wordy writer to boot.

A friend from L.A. with a large eating-out budget once criticized me for liking cuisines that are “easy to like,” such as Thai. To his mind, stuff that is hard to like — raw eels in cold gummy rice and reeking seaweed, for example — is the real test of a connoiseur. My crime was refusing to go with him to a sushi restaurant.

I refuse to be shamed. There must be a thousand bodice rippers, ten thousand science fiction and fantasy novels, and a hundred thousand historical novels, crime novels, spy novels and mysteries that are better, better written, wiser, and deeper than the phony likes of The Buried Giant.


  1. Henry wrote:

    You seem angry in this post – or maybe you are being too much of a critic, like your friend
    Have you read Overstory?

    Best to you Henry

    Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry… I do get really steamed about how quirky, empty writing is thought to be good writing. I just tossed another book in that category, “Little, Big.” I’m not familiar with Overstory…

    Tuesday, June 22, 2021 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

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