Sunday, March 25, 2007

Great Writers? or, Further Thoughts on the Mountain That Crush'd Duke

Poor Duke Altum. He got veritably crushed under the weight of a massive, purportedly classic novel. In his case it was death by bludgeoning, for it sure sounds like Mann's The Magic Mountain has pummelled him repeatedly over the head over a period of weeks - months!? - without him having a whole lot to show for it. Mann is a Nobel Prize winner, and that's usually a safe bet, we find - but evidently, not in this case. Duke's shared literary experience - indeed, the essence of The Secret Thread - got me thinking about the times that I had had the experience of taking on a writer of high reputation, only to be flattened by the weight of dashed expectations and disappointment.

I can't say it's a long list, but every once in a while I do find that one of the 'great' writers in the history of literature leaves me wanting more (or less) from the experience. Thus, inspired by Duke's post, here's my short list of famous writers whose work I have not enjoyed, and a few words about why. There may be others, but these are the ones who come to mind for me:

Philip Roth. I've only read one of Roth's books, so I'm really not one to judge, but the problem is the one book I read left me totally uninterested in reading anything else. The novel I read was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that year, somehow. It was called American Pastoral. Somehow, Roth's combination of melancholy, cynicism, and obsession with sex doesn't trip my trigger, sorry to say. Also his books are very much about the Jewish American experience, more about secular Jews than religious ones, and that tradition is very foreign to me. I'd be interested in it if a writer made it interesting: Isaac Bishevis Singer is a writer who has made the Jewish experience fascinating: but Roth is not the guy to do it, in my view.

Gertrude Stein. I was assigned Stein's novel The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in grad school around 1999. At least I think it was a novel. Although maybe Alice B. Toklas was Stein's name for herself. Or she was the fictional writer but the book was really about Gertrude Stein. So maybe it was biography-cum-auto-biography. All I know is any way you slice it, this is one of the most boring books I've ever read. Side note: Stein was kind of a mentor to that whole Paris crowd in the 1920s, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the like. The teacher who assigned it also recommended another book of hers called Tender Buttons. No thanks.

James Joyce. It is probably not even accurate to put Joyce on here because I like the stories in Dubliners - 'The Dead' is a masterpiece - and I think Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is pretty good too. But Ulysses ain't much fun to read and it's nearly impossible to understand, and the follow-up, Finnegan's Wake, IS impossible to understand. I'll probably read Ulysses again, but I don't know if it will be that enjoyable. That's a long haul, that book.......

Any Greek Classic. This list is getting more and more damning, but I can't say I really like reading the ancient Greek writers very much and never have. I know it's canonical reading, but I have never much cared for it. I have The Iliad and The Odyssey ready for me to read but I haven't mustered up the courage for such a long slog through narrative poetry yet, no matter how influential it is. I also have some plays by Sophocles that I should read too. I haven't read very much of it and probably would appreciate it more if I would just dive in, but I must admit to being not all that pumped to do so.

Ernest Hemingway. Not a big fan. Particularly of his novels. His short stories are very impressive especially from a craft point of view and their wide-reaching influence has been felt by writers of literally all nations. Many of the stories I find very powerful and memorable. But, I don't respond all that much to his hyper-minimalistic, journalistic style and his depressing outlook on the world, especially on romantic matters, is burdensome to me. This especially rings true for me when I read his novels. I read The Sun Also Rises not too long ago and didn't particularly enjoy it.

I think there might be others, but this is enough to get my point across I guess. Sometimes writers that the world or the critical establishment think are great just don't work for you personally as a reader. It's unfortunate that Duke had to spend so much effort to read Thomas Mann and get so little out of it. Then again it's the pioneering literary spirit, which leads one to try out these major (and minor) writers of the world, that we aspire to maintain here on this blog, and although there are risks involved, it helps us continue to grow into deeper appreciation of our own tastes and of the extraordinary gift of literature.


Duke Altum said...

Interesting response post there Mutt... I predict you are going to sorely regret some of the entries on that list, but overall, it is an interesting topic you raise. I am trying to think of which writers I might cite in my own list... here are some likely choices (and BTW, I am not sure I would put Mann on such a list... this book was a horrific slog, but it had some merits too, and his erudition and obvious intelligence make me hesitate to not try him ever again):

1. Virginia Woolf -- though I have a real admiration for her amazing ability to plumb the depths of the human mind/heart, it sure as hell makes for boring reading (don't even ask me about listening!).

2. SOME Dostoevsky -- Ol' Fyodor is a master, but some of his stuff is so opaque, it's very difficult to read. "Notes from Underground" was like that for me. However, "Crime and Punishment" was sheer genius...

3. Thomas Wolfe -- some incredible writing and amazing passages for sure, but no author in the history of mankind -- save Mann, of course -- was so badly in need of a good editor. Wow.

4. I would probably cite Roth too for much the same reasons you did... although I need to read him first to really say, don't I??

I am sure there are many others, but I would have to think more...

Mutt Ploughman said...

Duke, I don't know if I will 'sorely regret' some of these choices. I might end up changing my mind on some of them, but that will hardly be a regrettable situation. If it turns out that I end up enjoying the Greeks, for example, then that's just more great stuff for me to read. Nonetheless, I don't mean to say that since I don't really like what I've been exposed to from some of these writers I would not read them or read them again. For example, I plan to re-read the book Ulysses at some point (maybe this is the year, since I read it the first time in '97). I also think I need to read those works of the Greeks I mentioned in the post even though I'm not really dying to do it. I guess there are writers that you're never going to like no matter how much you read. Not sure if that's the case with me and the Greek writers but that's almost certainly the case with me and, say, Philip Roth.....