Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A "Riotous" Debate on The Art of Fielding

(This post originally appeared on 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 coincidence?

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 gigantic sacrifice.

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 it.

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?


  1. I was taken with this book. It was about baseball, but it wasn't about baseball..where have I heard that before? Oh from everyone who describes this book, lol. But yes, I really enjoyed it. It was nice to read about something I hadn't read about in a long while and I connected with the characters which is important to me.

    I should mention that I dig reading authors from the same state as I am. It gives me that hometown boy done good proud little glow ;)

  2. I thought the novel was entertaining and I enjoyed the baseball. I had to look up my review from April at The novel was perhaps more dark than I thought it would be when I picked it up, and has some good peaks and valleys of its characters. Perhaps Henry isnt the deepest or most dynamic of characters -- but everything that plays out keeps one going and swept me along. It's not hugely great but I found it quite entertaining

  3. I'm reading the book right now and do find it enjoyable,but I am not far enough along to give it a more decided judgement(and yeah,I find it hard to believe that the author didn't read A Prayer for Owen Meany,given what happened to that character!).

    It's good to see folks having a lively discussion about a book or any other pop culture item that doesn't dissolve into pointless bickering and instead chooses to respectfully agree to disagree. Keep up the good work,Greg!

  4. For me, I just feel like he tried to do too much (a common malady of all ball players). The Henry/Pella tryst seemed forced, irrelevant, and unresolved. As a former player and current coach, Owen's behavior and eccentricity was way over the top. No coach would allow one of his players to scoff at pretty much every baseball convention (reading in th dugout really rubbed me the wrong way). I really enjoyed the internal struggle mirrored in each character and thought the baseball narrative was solid. Still, seemed like a writer trying to go yard when a sac fly would have gotten the job done.

  5. I have been so reluctant to pick this one up based on the fact that it deals heavily with baseball, but hearing you say that it's not necessary to like the sport in order to mentally appreciate the book really has me considering picking this one up now. It sounds like an interesting read, and I do really enjoy character driven novels. Fantastic review today!

  6. Chad Harbach has a winner in The Art of Fielding. Let's hope there is more creative juice waiting to be squeezed.

    I highly recommend The Art of Fielding. Terrific, Terrific, Terrific.

    Peace to all.