What’s said about writing and writers

“This part of the book is funny, but not all of it is. The problem with “The Geography of Bliss” is one of tone. It comes across as an attempted amalgam of Paul Theroux’s bleak humor, P. J. O’Rourke’s caustic wit and David Sedaris’s appreciation of the absurd. There’s a kind of forced jocularity to Weiner’s writing, as if the author were trying to affect the appropriate persona for his subject. Rather than projecting a hoity NPR-ness (Weiner was one of its foreign correspondents for a decade), he cops an attitude of faux populism, taking potshots at the Ivy League, Nietzsche and other dead white males, all of which comes across as somewhat insincere.”

The above is a quote from Pamela Paul’s review of Eric Weiner’s book “The Geography of Bliss” in The New York Times. I wonder about the things that are said about a writer or his writing. I feel certain that when Eric Weiner was writing his book he didn’t say to himself that he was going to attempt bleak humor, caustic wit or an appreciation of the absurd a la Paul Theroux, P.J. O’Rourke or David Sedaris, respectively. He probably had moments of great lucidity and flow while writing his book where the sentences just emerged a certain way and like all good writers he probably re-read it several times until he felt satisfied with his words. His editor must have then had another go at his work.

Before Pamela Paul’s review did anyone tell him that his writing appeared forced and insincere in parts? I also feel certain that if I picked up the book I wouldn’t pause anywhere and say to myself, “My, my how like David Sedaris that sounds!” or “What a Paul Theroux like thought or expression…is this author trying to copy them?” I feel sure these thoughts would not cross my mind and I have read enough Paul Theroux and regularly laugh my head off at David Sedaris columns.

As usual I am left wondering about reviews and reviewers and my shortcomings as a reader of prose. I read for enjoyment. I start with back page or dust jacket synopses, I move on to the introduction, I let the first chapter sink its hooks deep and then I continue on, secure in my decision that the book I’ve picked up is a good one. If I find I can’t get through it I let it drop. But reading a review like the one above leaves me baffled. It makes me wonder if despite the hours I spend reading and, to my mind, absorbing what I read, am I really letting anything sink in? Sink in to the extent that comparisons to other authors spring to mind and leave the author I am reading appear like a pale a much inferior imitation of more illustrious and celebrated literary personages?

When a sincere author (not someone like the Harvard U plagiarist – Kavya) is pouring his heart and soul into his work, confident he has a winner, reading, re-reading, editing I feel certain they are at their most sincere, their words are their own, the characters, plots, dialogues their own creation even if they are, to a certain extent, all that they have read, been inspired by. I am sure it never crosses their mind that a future reviewer might call the work forced or insincere, or trying to be like someone else. If the thought crossed their mind they would probably scrap the offending chapter and start over, don’t you think? Or is this an ignorant and naive view?

I had once written about Joan Didion’s book – The Year of Magical Thinking. I wouldn’t call what I wrote a review. They were my impressions of the book and I must say the book made quite an impression on me. So I was once again surprised when a friend of mine read what I wrote and commented in a tone that sounded outraged at my praise of the author, suggesting that some other author was really the best when it came to writing about similar subjects. I forget the name of the author my friend mentioned and it isn’t relevant to the point I want to make, which is, why is it so hard for people to take things at face value every once in awhile and to agree to disagree about things? So what if another author was an authority on the subject (death in this case) why would my friend resent my praise of another author who I felt tackled the subject with so much depth of feeling? Why is there always an attempt to convert others to ones own viewpoint, why resent those who support a different viewpoint or possess a different perspective? Questions one can’t really answer I suppose.

1 Comment

  1. The writer is hardly in possession of his/her work after it is read by readers. Now that's what most people think, but I find it hard to accept. Is a reader justified in coming up with a crazy interpretation just because he is a reader and the reader is right? I feel a writer offers certain parametres that a wise reader must pick upon and interpret accordingly. But if a reader discovers other 'voices' in the narrative style or technique, then, the writer must try and be objective about it and ask – what was in my work that drove this analysis?

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