Have you noticed how most of the novels you read are masterpieces that will stay with you the rest of your life? Have you been mesmerized and dazzled by books that are devastatingly atmospheric, compulsive and irresistible? Seduced by the style and elegance of quick-paced, taut prose? Bewitched by tense and enigmatic storytelling? Tantalized by mystery and suspense?
I have. Or, rather, I should have been, for these are the judgements of respected newspapers and magazines on – well, just about anything, including the last book I read. Somewhat underwhelmed by the book in question, I began to wonder why I felt a frisson of déjà vu as I gazed misty eyed across the critical chasm that isolated me – a humble reader – from these cloud-capped towers of hyperbole. Was there something wrong with me? Had I lost my appreciation for great literature? Had I become jaded, unresponsive, emotionally ossified?
Now, let me say right away that the book in question is fine in many ways and brilliantly translated (inasmuch as it’s impossible to tell it has been translated). However, for me, it was as if the author had merely thought deeply about life without ever having lived it. He was great on theory, and could describe the gradations of emotion in exquisite detail, yet gave not the slightest inkling he had ever experienced these things for himself (of course, I speak of the writer, not the man). It was as if Immanuel Kant, in a fit of misguided artistic ambition, had rewritten his Critique of Pure Reason as a romantic novella. As the story limped wearily along the tedious path to its foregone conclusion, dragging me behind as the unwilling auditor to its interminable disquisitions about nothing in particular, I recalled the book I had read previously, which was also described as an extraordinary fictional achievement and one of the finest novels of all time. That had also turned out to be a clunker.
The trailers for films made in the Golden Age of Hollywood describe their wares in apocalyptic terms: as searing melodramas and unforgettable experiences of Earth-shattering significance. They drip with hyphenated superlatives and bizarre metaphors involving scorching, burning and blazing (the old film stock was highly flammable). It’s amusing, but that is what one would expect from publicists working in a factory that churns out genre productions. How has this mentality infiltrated the disinterested appraisal of fiction?
As ordinary readers, we would hope for some reliable guidance from reviewers. When every book is a masterpiece, none are. We are not well served by this consensual rush to praise. It must be hard for dissenting voices to make themselves heard. When everyone is of a particular opinion, then the natural inclination is to believe that one is wrong to think otherwise, that perhaps one has missed something that everyone else has ‘got’, that one’s critical faculties are not as sharp and precise as they should be.
There’s probably nothing fundamentally new in all this, but it does seem to have reached the acme of absurdity. Readers, let’s tread warily and let no one lead us by the nose. If there is any searing and scorching to be done, it shouldn’t be allowed to burn a hole in our pocket.