Friday, July 31, 2009

Homer nods

In preparation for a new project, I've been reading my way through an author's works and have finally come across a moment--all right, several moments--in which the most generous thing to say is that Homer was nodding at that point.

Are there any authors whose works are consistently even and excellent? Don't most authors have books excused with phrases like "She was going through a bad patch" or "She had to make some money with this one" or "If only she hadn't let Editor X get hold of it"?

Sometimes, if a work is flagrantly awful, we can excuse it in a different way: "It's a satire of a bad novel, see? That's why all the situations are so clichéd; it's an ironic take on that form."

I have a certain weakness for flawed books, if only because they show that the author is trying to do something different. I'm not exactly talking about bad fiction, which can be fun in a whole different way, but good fiction gone horribly wrong in some way, the kind that makes you want to knock on the author's tombstone and ask, "What were you thinking?"

So now I'm at the end of a novel whose main character is supposed to be a great figure and whose author has endowed him with what ought to be admirable attributes--and I can't stand him. Let me put it this way: I not only think he's a less-than-admirable person, but he's drawn poorly--his motivations make no sense, the foils that surround him are thinner than the paper they're printed on, and his actions are inconsistent. Oh, and the book, while well written generally, abounds in clichés like "piping hot," for which I have an irrational aversion from reading too many tray placemats describing the coffee at McDonald's over the years.

Maybe I'm just not getting it--always a possibility--but then again, maybe Homer is nodding here. Am I just asking too much? Are there any authors who haven't written a clunker from time to time?

(And please list some memorable clunkers in the comments!)


Ink said...

Memorable about What Maisie Knew by Henry James?

ps: very much liked your "piping hot"/placemat joke. :D

Moria said...

Ooooh. One of my favorites. There is a whole cottage industry - a whole industry-industry, even - on the relative quality of various works/passages by Shakespeare. Sometimes I think Brian Vickers' authorship-determining algorithms are just finely tuned taste machines: if BV thinks it's good, it's authentically Shakespearean, but if BV thinks it's bad, it's probably, oh, whoever the f***, Webster, whatever. Meanwhile, t was easy for the critical establishment to accept the non-canonicity of great hunks of the Henry VI plays; the Middletonian bits of Macbeth were harder to swallow.

Similarly used to determine timelines. For a long time, Comedy of Errors had to be early because it (allegedly) wasn't very good. Coleridge thought The Tempest was early, basically, because it was weird.

God, I could go on and on. A whole literary biography based on critics' ideas of what constitutes relative "quality."

ArticulateDad said...

My take on eating out is that I expect a restaurant to offer food at least as good as I can cook at home. [See Geeky Mom's for recent discusssion].

I apply the same principle to writing. If an author can't do a decent job at writing something better than I could dash off in an afternoon (or edit the damn thing--I hate reading typos in print... isn't that someone's job?), then it ain't worth my time.

Recently, I read "The Gum Thief" by Douglas Coupland (having seen it recommended by a blogger I value). But it was awful, just awful. And even though there was a novel within the novel, that was supposed to be cliched... I wasn't sure if it was a good parody, or simply a good excuse. [SIGH]

Is it Homer Simpson who's nodding, or that old Greek guy?

Sisyphus said...

Wait, Errors isn't early? I'm so behind on my Shakespeareana!

My favorite is the asterisk with long apologetic footnote explaining how Browning came to use the word "twats" as a synonym for hats in one of his poems, but that's not quite the type of asleep at the switch that you mean...

The dudes of my time period unfortunately did not die young, many of em, which means that their writing often goes steadily downhill as the drinking catches up with 'em, that and the writing ever faster to write their way out of a debt hole.

Now I'm trying to work on someone else who everyone else has ignored because, supposedly, his stuff is crap. ... but I _like_ it; does that mean I have terrible taste? Or that I'm nodding?

Moria said...

Sis - Sorry: I was talking about the strangeness of the evidence, not of the conclusions. Errors is early, yes. But we know this because of a record of its performance at Gray's Inn in 1594, a record of which early commentators were evidently unaware. Genre is another condition of quality: Errors is so heavily classicized, runs the argument, that it must have been written before Shax developed his own individual genius and gave birth to modernity. (The result of this vein of dismissal of the early, allegedly immature work, then, is an equally irritating brand of scholarship which consists in arguing, principally, "But no! It's really a very good play, and I shall argue for all of its very good qualities!")

Other dating mechanisms tend from the speculative to the outrageous, on which perhaps more comment later. (I'm still a fan of Coleridge's weirdo method, which I need to revisit. Perhaps a post. After orals.) If anyone cares, Gary Taylor's textual companion to the Oxford Shakespeare is the definitive reference guide for these matters.

undine said...

Ink, thanks! There are some who'd argue for The Ivory Fount, but is it possible that The Master had more than one clunker?

Moria, this made me laugh: "but if BV thinks it's bad, it's probably, oh, whoever the f***, Webster, whatever." Ah, the science behind Shakespeare studies! You should write that literary biography. Thanks for letting me know that Gary Taylor can be trusted on this.

Articulate Dad: D'oh! I meant the old-timey one, but now am seeing whole new possibilities in the title of the post. I totally agree about the eating out/eating home idea that Geeky Mom talks about, but sometimes you just have to slog through if it's a book that's supposed to be good or canonical (and let's not get started on literary criticism). The editing mistakes drive me crazy, too: I recently read a fairly recent bio of an important figure by a major scholar from Oxbridge U P--and it was filled with typos. If Oxbridge can't get it right, who can?

Sisyphus, if you're nodding by liking supposedly second-rate stuff, so am I; there are some forgotten authors whose stuff I just plain like despite its being labeled unfashionable or second-rate. I can see why it's called that but like it anyway.

ArticulateDad said...

Here's a couple canonical tomes I just couldn't stomach (let's just toss it up as "dated"): Grapes of Wrath & Atlas Shrugged. I find the characters like cardboard cutouts, and the dialogue to be laughably stilted. I mean, Shakespeare is stylized (assumedly even for his day)... but those two are something entirely different. I forced myself to down large chunks of them (I may even have finished Grapes)... like I used to swallow those horse pills they gave me for allergies back in the 1970s, hoping that I'd be better off in the end for having gotten through it.

I think of that old quote: "A classic is a book that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read." (Who said that?) There are times...

undine said...

ArticulateDad, I think Atlas Shrugged (or The Fountainhead, which is shorter, but basically the same book) only works if you're 18. I haven't reread Grapes of Wrath in a while but am thinking that the John Ford film might be better than the novel--if you cut off the film with Tom hiking across the horizon rather than with Jane Darwell's "we're the people" speech.

That quotation--that's Mark Twain, one of my favorites!