The Bad Book Kiss and Tell

young-woman-readingA Young Woman Reading, photo by cliff1066

Recently, a good friend received a book to review because it was related to her interests and she would really be the best person to review it. But, she said, she hated it. The book was just awful. She tried really hard, but she couldn’t review the book in good conscience because her publication doesn’t print negative reviews. The reason is simple enough: They want to give their readers suggestions of things to read. What good is a negative review to a reader?

Well, this conversation caused me to rethink my approach to book reviews. As you all know, I love to write reviews because doing so requires me to reflect on the books I’m reading and think about what makes them work, and also because there are a lot of bad books out there and writing a review gives me a chance to say, “Hey, guys? You’re killing trees for this? This is not acceptable.” That means, of course, I write negative reviews. Not always, of course. I try to give a legitimate critique when I hate a book, but I don’t try too hard to nice it up.

You see, I have an ideal book in my head. It is a book in which everything works like a move-in ready house. It is a book in which all the important ideas are fully developed, the narrator is totally believable, the exact right amount of editing has been done, and it all comes together just beautifully. Reading my ideal book isn’t like reading at all. It’s sublime.

I’m looking for a book that will recreate a very specific reading experience, one I imagine all passionate readers have had. For me, it was the first time I read Sylvia Plath’s “Elm,” which just knocked my breath out. When I read “Elm,” I thought I was going to die. No kidding. I was sitting at a coffee shop talking poetry with a couple friends, someone handed me this poem, I read it, and I didn’t speak for 20 minutes. It was just. fucking. incredible. I’m looking for a book that can do that, and I’m not sure there are any out there.

Are my expectations too high? Do I need to find something to love in the average, mediocre, and rather dull books that come my way? What about the ones with offensively poor editing? The more I ask myself these questions, the more it sounds like I’m talking about potential boyfriends rather than books. And when I think about books in terms of boyfriends, I remember all the terrible dating experiences I had and how I didn’t know how great a relationship could be until the right one came along, and then… yes, it was like reading Plath for the first time again, except way hotter.

So, getting back to the point, what’s one to do about bad books? Here are some thoughts on the matter. Feel free to replace the word “book” with “date” as you go along.

  • If a book is particularly bad, don’t bother finishing it, unless it is so very bad you feel compelled to study it and figure out how something that bad can exist.
  • If a book has potential to be good but just doesn’t quite get there, don’t get attached, but do reflect on it later (perhaps in a review) to pinpoint where it went wrong. You can learn from this.
  • If a book is really fantastic, be prepared to be at a loss for words. You may spend the next 20 minutes or 20 years trying to put your finger on why you love it so much. Enjoy.

Finally, should one write negative reviews — of books or boyfriends? Yes. In school, my girlfriends and I ran with a relatively small circle in which everyone pretty much dated everyone else. It was standard to give a full report after a party as to who kissed like a washing machine, who was an annoying drunk, and so on. Thanks to my girlfriends’ information-sharing policy, I avoided a lot of pretty horrible dates. Shouldn’t books be the same way?

Friday Meditation, Sortof.

I was thinking of posting another Friday Meditation video today to help everyone round out what has been a very busy, at times stressful, but ultimately rewarding week. So, I went to Youtube, but the first interesting thing I found was this — not exactly a meditation in the traditional sense, but good grief does laughing feel good right now. I don’t know about you, but I needed this:

(Pro tip: Best viewed with sound!)

Or even better, can we just acknowledge how much Teen Witch shaped our formative years?

To Whom It May Concern: You’re Doin’ It Wrong!

My father-in-law, like many people I know, misuses the word whom. He may or may not be doing this on purpose since our primary form of interaction is irritating the shit out of one another for no clear reason. I’ve pointed out to him that he is misusing the word, and he says, “I know,” but the fact remains, and he continues to misuse the word.

Imagine that you are standing in the kitchen of your in-laws’ house, having a pleasant enough conversation with your mother-in-law. Something like the following exchange is going on:

“So, I was talking with her about the wedding, and she’s stressed because she hasn’t received all the RSVP cards.”
“Well, we sent ours in.”
“Yeah, we sent ours, too, but apparently some of their friends haven’t.”
“So then they’re not coming. Problem solved.”
“Yeah, but some of these people are the type who will show up without RSVP’ing apparently.”

Enter from stage left: Father-in-law, who is carrying your dinner. “Whom?” he says.

At this point, it is always my role to stare at him blankly. He doesn’t know why I stare at him blankly. With one word, he has thrown a giant wrench into the turning gears of my brain. Here’s an excerpt from my internal monologue:

Do I correct him on his use of that word or not? He’s using it as a … as a .. what? Whom is a direct object. He’s using it as a whole sentence. Whom isn’t a question … is it? Where’s my copy of Strunk and White when I need it? Anyway, I guess what he means to say is “whom are you discussing,” which is technically correct, but he could just as easily have said, “Who?” meaning “Who is that type of person?” or “Who is stressed out?”.

There are reasons this monologue remains internal. For one thing, he has just grilled steak for us to eat. For another thing, I’m drinking his wine. And just to round out the whole set of things, he’s also been responsible for the installation of most of the wood flooring in our new house as well as the cabinets in our kitchen, and he is providing the tile for the kitchen and the soon-to-be-remodeled two and a half baths. My gratitude and indebtedness outweigh my grammatical pet peeves in this case.

But the trouble, I find, is that not only do most people misuse whom, but they also get so hung up on correct grammar that they can’t exchange ideas. How many times have you had a conversation interrupted by some amateur grammarian telling you, “You can, but you may not,” or “Don’t you mean she and I?” In the case of can and may, a person is interrupting a perfectly good exchange to assert their grammatical superiority, which is both counterproductive and tacky as hell. In the case of she and I, I like to correct the corrector by asking, “Sure, but do you know when it’s appropriate to say ‘her and me’?” Invariably, they do not.

In discussing my qualms about whom with some friends, someone quoted (or rather paraphrased) Winston Churchill, who once said something to the ironic effect of, “That is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.” I love that sentence because it’s a perfect example of how following all the grammar rules can actually impede communication or at least make a speaker or writer look utterly ridiculous. This quote always calls to mind a scene in the American cinematic classic, Beavis and Butthead Do America, in which an FBI agent struggles to avoid ending sentences with prepositions.

Agent Bork: Chief, you know that guy whose camper they were whacking off in?
Agent Fleming: Bork, you’re a Federal Agent. You represent the United States government. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Agent Bork: Oh, uh… You know that guy in whose camper they… I mean, that guy off in whose camper they were whacking?

On a tangential note, why don’t people say “Whacking off” anymore? What a hilarious phrase.

Anyway, back to the point, which is that most times, correcting people is a waste of time. It’s annoying, it’s rude, it’s condescending, it’s disruptive, and there’s always the possibility that you’re actually wrong, which makes you look doubly douchey. And this is why I don’t correct my father-in-law on his use of whom, and instead, I’m considering giving him a copy of Strunk and White for Christmas. After all, if he’s got such an appreciation for grammar, he ought to really love a book that can actually explain the how’s an why’s hows and whys of all our favorite constructions.

This all comes back to a point that I feel obligated to make time and again. Even though I’m a writer, I’m more interested in communication than correctness. I find syntax much more compelling than grammar, and I believe putting a handful of crummy rules ahead of the actual exchange of ideas is unfathomably obtuse. That said, I have no shortage of words and phrases that offend me when misused. Don’t you?

Is the writing process anything like pasturization?

One of the stumbling blocks of any creative work is that when you start out, you are inspired. No one becomes a writer because they feel moved to do the work of research or to wrestle with a plot. Or at least I didn’t. In my case (and in many cases, I suspect), the first taste of the creative experience is like a drug — it’s euphoric, it’s beautiful, it’s magical, and you didn’t even know you were capable of that kind of expression until it happened for the first time, and then you were addicted.

But as anyone who has persued creativity beyond that initial spark knows, it’s not always that romantic. This morning, I had this experience:

I got an idea to write a short essay about homeownership. I started writing off the top of my head, and after about 300 words, I lost it. What was the point, again? What was I going to say?

Maybe this piece was a false start. I’m not sure yet. But I still like the idea of all the things you learn when you buy a house — things about yourself, your partner, the house, the neighbors, the former owners — there’s just such a wealth there that I feel like it should be written. But maybe not by me. Or just maybe not today.

This is where having a process comes in handy, not that I have a great process, of course. In fact, I always hated the little five-step process English teachers would hand out in junior high and high school. It was far too structured and didn’t leave much room for genuine inspiration. Yes, when it comes to writing, although I’ve learned the value of process, I still feel creative work needs to come from inspiration. If there isn’t sincere feeling behind what you’re writing, you might as well be an accountant. (Sorry, accountants.)

My process these days looks something like this:

  1. Get an idea.
  2. Write a few paragraphs.
  3. Flounder.
  4. Put it away for a little while.
  5. Come back to it and write a little more.
  6. Flounder.
  7. Put away, come back, write, flounder…
  8. Repeat until the piece miraculously declares itself finished or you just can’t stand to look at it anymore.

Not very scientific, I know, but it works. What’s your process like? Care to teach me anything?

Myself, only better dressed …

I’ve been thinking too much about books lately, about writing them and reading them, what makes a good one and what makes a classic. What’s the difference between, say, Charles Dickens and everyone else who wrote in his generation?

The books that will become classics are not necessarily the ones that make the most money or the ones that everyone talks about. They are not necessarily the ones that become movies. But they are also not necessarily the obscure ones that no one appreciates until long after their authors have died.

I suspect that the books that will become classics are the ones that strive the most beautifully to grasp the essence of their time. Joan Didion did that a lot in the 70s, and she’s still doing it, but I still think of her as an iconic observer with a wickedly sharp eye. Sadly, not enough people really know about Didion just yet, since her writing isn’t assigned in schools very much.

But think of the other classic books — ones that aren’t just good or interesting but that are assigned because they tell you something about the world. Consider Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which is generally considered an essential work of American individualism and a celebration of the unique American landscape. Or what about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which has come to represent the experience of middle class white women coming of age? It’s not just a story about a girl who has a nervous breakdown but an expression of the external pressures and internal aspirations of young American women. Actually, just as I’m writing this, my mental secretary is preparing notes for a piece on Plath and The Bell Jar and the search for identity among supposed post-feminist women. (Interestingly, my mental secretary is a young woman, much like myself, only better dressed.)

If we stand back and look at the time we live in as though it were a disorganized room, we can see the stacks of things and start to make sense of them. But we’re in the middle of the room, we feel we’re just surrounded by trash and boxes and cleaning supplies and dirty laundry. The books that become classics do a little of both. They show us the big picture, and then they zoom in and show us the grimy spots and the jewels tucked into nooks and crannies, and by the end of the book, sometimes without even realizing it, you’ve gained an understanding of something. You’ve eaten the story, and now all it’s implications are integrating themselves into your life.

What books are reaching that goal right now? I know I’m setting the bar impossibly high, but that is the book I want to write.