In order to sell the box the publisher needed it to be yea-big (250 pages at least). So what do you do when you only have enough material for 50?
August 31, 2012 § 1 Comment
More notes on Lesser’s book on rereading
Time was people wrote books in hope of others reading them. Today people write books in the hope of selling them — reading (and readers) be damned.
For all its good points (and there are a few), Lesser’s book is a “made book” — a book made to sell. She admits as much in her preface: the book did not grow out of her need to say something but out of her publisher’s suggestion. What she means is that the publisher saw a market opportunity — a way to sell a box — and got Lesser to make the stuffing for the box.
Despite the book being ostensibly about rereading (how her perception of certain books changed on rereading twenty years later) — more than half the essays have nothing to do with any change. Sadly, where there is a change it is usually trivial (reading D H Lawrence at 20 she did not notice, as she noticed rereading him again at 45, that he’s a lousy writer) or predictable (as a teenage-reader she was chiefly interested in Anna Karenina, at 45 she’s more interested in other characters of the novel — the more mature ones) or environmental (her perceptions of Orwell and Huckelberry Finn seem to owe more to the evolution of the mainstream liberal orthodoxy than anything else).
What’s far worse — much of what is in this book did not really deserve to be written at all. Lesser did not really have any material on Winter’s Tale or Paradise Lost. She persevered writing about them anyway, with the entirely predictable result of having produced pages and pages of words which say nothing. (“Words, words, words”, a frustrated young Scandinavian might say). This is the stuffing bit I mentioned above: in order to sell the box the publisher needed it to be yea-big (250 pages at least). So what do you do when you only have enough material for 50? You write — words.
Which is a pity: the concept seemed so promising. After all, if we read to learn about our world and ourselves in it, then the way our perception of a book changes reflects something about the way we have changed — hopefully matured, wised up. I don’t see much of this in Lesser’s book — except one chapter, about a book I have never read and probably never will (I capture the castle) — because, well, because Lesser related to it as a girl, a sister, and a writer’s daughter dating a Brit. (None of these are an option for me).
Why do I pick up books like this? Perhaps because I have been raised in an environment were books were discussed; but live now in an environment where nothing is. (You may have perhaps noticed all those youthful conversations on Art, and Love, and Fate, and Fatherland, and German Soul, and Beauty, and Music in Mann’s Doktor Faustus? Well, that was my youth growing up in Eastern Europe). I miss the old conversations from my childhood and adolescence and never can quite give up the hope I might one day have them again.
I am interested in the perceptions of others regarding the art I consume because understanding their reactions broadens my ability to engage with it (as well as helps me understand them). But to he extent that I engage in art out of personal need — because it helps me be more myself, or be myself better — I can’t be bothered with the literary criticism way of reading books. Lesser gives a good example of it — as a graduate student she was obliged to read Wordsworth and Pope, got absolutely nothing out of either (she admits freely to not having understood the poems in question at the time) and wrote papers about them all the same. What can possibly be the purpose of this kind of activity? It seems to me that almost every paper and every book on literary criticism written today is written because something must be written (and published), not because there is any need for it — either within or without.
I have gummed up so many of my days on made books — interesting concept, woefully bad execution — that I am beginning to despair. I can understand how badly made books arise — it’s all due to clever marketing on the one hand and poor quality control on the other (which might otherwise make sure the content corresponds to what it says in the sales pitch); indeed, I know for a fact from a Pulitzer-winning published author that both editors and reviewers only read as far as the first 50 pages. So with the whole world conspiring to pass a lousy product, how can we know in advance? How can we avoid wasting time?
Is the only way to avoid drivel — not to read?