Present Danger

When giving books as gifts, don't be fooled by hype and hacks.

If you love books, you’re going to be getting some in the next few weeks, gift-wrapped, from people who think they’re doing you a favor and blessing you with a little bit of their taste. These books will almost invariably be bad.

Bad literary fiction is hot right now. So hot that novelist Heidi Julavits helped launch a new literary magazine, The Believer, in part to broadcast an anguished defense of the bad novel. So hot that at least three national TV shows host book clubs.

TV book clubs are bad for you and your holiday shopping because they’re total crocks. They work like this: A famous hack writer goes on TV and pimps another, lesser-known hack writer, tossing words such as “revelatory,” “breathtaking,” and “illuminating” around like Wiffle Balls.

In truth, a story about a sad-sack pseudo-scholar who is also a bad husband teaching his dog to talk in hopes of learning the secrets of his wife’s mysterious death — at least the sappy, I’ve-made-a-breakthrough-at-therapy version of it we have — is none of those things. Neither are books about bees. But these are the novels on national best-seller lists.

We like to think the Bay Area is different, of a more refined and informed taste, but this past summer spent living La Vida Local is proof otherwise. And Now You Can Go, the debut effort from San Francisco’s Vendela Vida, was one of the year’s most widely publicized and highly praised novels. Reading all those love letters in the local papers, I learned that Vida is beautiful and smart, and a whiz at crossword puzzles. What I didn’t see was a single idea about why her book is worth reading.

Worse — while we’re talking about Bay Area authors — is the inexplicable cheerleading for Ryan Harty’s Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona and Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner. Harty’s monstrously pretentious title merely hints at the self-conscious emotional artifice in his collection of stories, and Mason’s debut novel is simply execrable. Despite reading like Snoopy channeling Joseph Conrad, The Piano Tuner somehow made several local best-of-the-year lists in 2002. Now that it’s out in paperback in time for the holiday shopping season, the praise is sounding all over again.

With only these bloated reviews to go on, people tell their friends to read these books — or, with high hopes, buy them for each other — but they don’t know why. Book reviews, TV book clubs: Nearly every part of our literary culture is free of opinion. The only thing anyone seems able to think to say about a book today is that it either is or isn’t “good,” and we’re being forced to care more for writers’ self-esteem than the quality of their work.

So when we push books on each other because we’ve read in the paper or been told they’re good, or because we think that surely all single mothers love reading about other single mothers, we miss the point of reading and sharing what we read.

Sticking a book under someone’s Christmas tree (and I’m not talking about indulging your friend’s trashy-romance mania) is a signal, an acknowledgment of that friend’s intelligence and curiosity about the world. Sharing a book provides a small revelation, an insight into another’s personality and character. You can judge someone on the book he gives you, and get an idea from it of what he thinks of you.

If someone gives you a gift-wrapped copy of, say, Lydia Davis’ Break It Down, you might not like it, but you will know that Davis can’t be intimidated out of her ideas about the way the world should be. Pronouns notwithstanding, Saul Bellow was describing Davis when he wrote of the need for the artist and the person “willing to pursue his ideal until his eyes burst from his head and his feet from his shoes.” Whoever tries to get you to read her is probably the same way.

The trouble with And Now You Can Go, Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona, and The Piano Tuner is that — despite their authors’ grand designs — they’re about nothing. They are exercises in memoir disguised as fiction, fashioned out of experience with little imagination, books of answers and no questions, fraudulent diagnoses of the “human condition.” They are what passes for great these days. They are all Amelior.

Amelior is a fictional, wildly successful book written by a fictional author named Gwyn Barry and despised by Richard Tull, Martin Amis’ stand-in in his 1995 novel The Information. Tull sees Amelior as a book with “no beauty, no humor and no incident; there was no hate and there was no love. … When he first read Amelior Richard kept forgetting what he was doing and kept turning abstractedly to the back flap and the biographical note expecting to see something like ‘Despite mutism and blindness,’ or ‘Although diagnosed with Down’s syndrome,’ or ‘Shrugging off the effects of a full lobotomy’ … Amelior would only be remarkable if Gwyn had written it with his foot. Why was it so popular? Who knew? Gwyn didn’t do it. The world did it.”

Like Amelior, today’s popular literary novels are cowardly. If they even bother to remind you that you were once angry or heartsick or ecstatic or so in love that you thought you’d die, they won’t end without assuring you that you’ll never feel anything that extreme again. They’re nothing more than picture books of emotions. No one has ever been offended or challenged by a picture book, and the last thing we’re supposed to do when we give someone a gift is offend.

But maybe we should. Challenge someone enough, and maybe he or she will develop standards and the nation’s bland cultural center will shrink just a little bit. I push The Information on almost everyone I know. If we can use Al Franken or Ann Coulter to find allies, why can’t we use Amis, Davis, or Bellow?

Assuming you’re intelligent and prefer books that strive to do more than entertain and aren’t motivated purely by a sense of the market, the nonfiction book you should be giving or asking for this year is The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by literary editor Paul Elie. That this study of the Catholicism of four 20th-century American writers wasn’t a finalist for the National Book Award is the most eloquent defense of this essay. This book isn’t only for Catholics. Through the lives and writing of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, Elie explores the variety of spiritual experience and confronts the social and moral issues that scare off awards committees. And since it’s nonfiction, he couldn’t make up a happy ending. Everybody dies.

One of the novels on your wish list or shopping list should be Julavits’ The Effect of Living Backwards, a smart and funny satire of sibling rivalry played out in the middle of what may or may not be a staged terrorist attack. Julavits — who has spent the year very publicly disparaging literary critics — must understand what many of her cohorts in the Dave Eggers crowd do not: that the best way to ward off criticism is to write well, and that a consciously hip book grows up to be a dated book.

If it’s going to be a book of poetry, make it Collected Poems by Robert Lowell. Even for readers like me who know next to nothing about Pulitzer Prize-winner Lowell, who died in 1977, this work is revelatory, breathtaking, and illuminating.

The rest of the shortlist: Behindlings, by Nicola Barker; The Bride of Catastrophe, by Heidi Jon Schmidt; The Middle of the Night, by Daniel Stolar; One Pill Makes You Smaller, by Lisa Dierbeck; Timoleon Vieta Come Home, by Dan Rhodes; Khruschev: The Man and His Era, by William Taubman; Sons of Mississippi, by Paul Hendrickson; and Goya, by Robert Hughes.

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