Book Riot last week. But it was such fun to work on, and the feedback has been so fun to follow, I thought I'd re-post here to give New Dork Review readers the chance to weigh in, as well.)
If you’re like me, your first reaction when someone doesn’t love a
novel you loved is to get defensive. But that’s not healthy or smart or
really very grown-up. So when Rebecca tweeted that she’d just finished
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and thought it was more of a
swing-and-a-miss than the grand slam I thought it was (hey, might as
well own those cheesy baseball analogies, right?), after a few deep
breaths, I thought it’d be fun to talk out our differences.
And so watch this: Rebecca and I are going to prove you can have a
conversation on the internet about something you don’t agree on that
doesn’t devolve into “your mom” comments and/or suggestions about where
to ram things. At least I hope.
So, let’s do this thing.
GZ: Rebecca, one of your comments was that the novel
felt “insubstantial.” I thought that was interesting, because that’s
the exact word Keith Gessen used to describe an early draft of The Art of Fielding in his How A Book Is Born essay in Vanity Fair. What about the book made you choose that word?
RJS: Besides the stupid 140-character limit on
Twitter? What I meant when I said that was that it seemed like Harbach
set out to land a heavy hit — and he certainly chose some weighty themes
in sexuality, the complexities of male friendship, and the value of
sport — but it didn’t quite connect. (In the absence of baseball
metaphors, I shall resort to boxing references!) TAOF isn’t light, at
least not in the sense of being fluffy, but it felt empty to me.
GZ: Fair enough. As I read, other than a vague notion of John Irving-ness (as well as all the references to Moby Dick
— and whatever implications you can draw from those), I didn’t think
too much about how weighty or empty or fluffy or full the novel seemed. I
was often so dazzled with the baseball — that it was actually written
authentically — and so entranced by the story, I just assumed it was
weighty enough thematically to pass muster. Plus, Henry (the shortstop)
and Mike (the man’s man of a catcher) are great characters — and I
thought their mentor/student relationship was rendered really well.
RJS: I did love the baseball writing (I’ve absorbed
enough baseball in ten years of living with a St. Louis Cardinals fan to
appreciate what Harbach did there), and I agree with you about Henry
and Mike’s relationship. The tension between their mentor/mentee
dynamic, that is by nature unequal, and their friendship — especially as
Henry grew into his own and excelled beyond Mike’s skill level — was
authentic and deeply felt. But I had a hard time buying the rest of the
relationships. The Pella/Henry thing came totally out of left field
(ugh, sorry), and the Owen/Affenlight bit could’ve gone somewhere, but
it wasn’t fleshed out. Actually, I didn’t really feel like any of the
characters were fully formed — Harbach has the outlines of a bunch of
interesting people, but just the outlines.
GZ: You know, that criticism about the lack of depth
to the characters seems to be a common one among folks like you who
weren’t fans. But I wonder how much of that is because the characters —
especially in the case of Affenlight and Owen — did surprising things
that went against readers’ initial ideas of them. Or maybe it’s that
there wasn’t enough there about them to make anything they did
surprising. And therefore they were uninteresting? Either way, to me,
there was enough background, and we had enough of each character’s
internal monologue (especially Affenlight’s) to give them the extra
dimension. At any rate, we agree on Pella/Henry thing. Really silly.
By the way, now seems like a good time to mention that Harbach
himself is quite a character. I caught him at a reading in Milwaukee
last October — and he joked that when the signing was scheduled, his
first thought was that he hoped no one would show up…because that would
mean his beloved Brewers were playing in a World Series game that night
and everyone would be watching the game. Alas…
RJS: Heh, readers know how to keep their priorities
straight! I think you’re onto something with your second hypothesis
about where the lack-of-depth criticism comes from. I actually didn’t
feel like we got much of Affenlight’s internal monologue — we got
Harbach telling us what Affenlight felt, instead. It was ye olde problem
of too much telling, not enough showing. Best I can sum it up is this:
they are Franzen-esque characters who make Irving-esque decisions, and
those pieces just don’t work together.
Now, speaking of Irving, can you believe Harbach says he’s never read A Prayer for Owen Meany?
I mean, how do you write a book in which the first big catalyzing event
is a baseball accident involving a character named Owen purely by
GZ: I didn’t know that, but I’m willing to give a
guy the benefit of the doubt who took less money on his advance to work
with David Foster Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch. You know, like Ken
Griffey, Jr. taking less money to play for his hometown Reds, ‘cause
he’d always been a fan. (Sadly, that didn’t work out too well.)
RJS: I dunno, Greg. That lower advance he took was
still huge (like, ginormous) by publishing standards, AND he got pretty
much all of Little, Brown’s marketing money last year. Some sacrifice…
GZ: Yeah, well – your mom! (Dammit!) Actually,
Harbach did acknowledge at the reading that he went with Little, Brown,
in part, because of the marketing muscle. So, you’re right — not a
RJS: I love you, so I’mma let you slide with that
mom comment. I will say this for Harbach — when he is good, he is very
good. Parts of the book are polished to a near-perfect shine. But as a
whole, it’s inconsistent. And in this video
(which is equal parts awesome and totally awkward), he says that some
sections were edited repeatedly, while others not so much. I’d have been
more forgiving if it were tighter as a whole. But really, I didn’t hate
GZ: Nice back-handed compliment! I have no idea if TAOF will take its place among other beloved baseball novels, like The Natural and The Brothers K,
but I do know this — many of my friends who rarely read, did read this,
and, to a person, really enjoyed it. I realize that’s not exactly proof
positive of the quality of a novel, but it is something.
You’re up, readers! Loved it? Hated it? Lukewarm? And more importantly, why?