My fellow bookish types and I frequently talk about books that we wish got more attention from readers, but my sense of how much attention a book is getting can be skewed by the media I read and the people I discuss books with…At least, until a few months ago, when I learned about a feature on Goodreads that could tell you how many other people have a particular book on their shelves in the last year. Now I can actually talk about books that are empirically underrated…at least in the last twelve months.
Here are some books from my Goodreads list that I know need more attention:
A bunch of people added this book back in July, but not many people have rated or added it to their read list. I really loved the way this book twisted around on itself to tell the story of two authors writing each other into being. I want to give it to my writing friends as well as my reading buddies so that they can have a cerebral experience based on the creative power of writing.
This book is one that I kind of keep secret because, the few times I recommended it, the other readers gave up before finishing. Still, I absolutely adore the way this book blends fantasy with actual history. I didn’t know what was going on for most of it the first time I read it, so I can understand. I didn’t mind though. I enjoyed the mystery of it and the way the book refused to spoon feed information to me.
This book has such low numbers on Goodreads that I think I can officially call it an undiscovered gem. This book is hard to find, unfortunately, because I would love to recommend it to readers who enjoy quirky, slightly academic, book-based adventures.
When I walked into my office this morning, I was greeted by the sight of a cartful of gorgeously bound classics. My library already has copies of all of the donated titles, but I want to add them to the collection because they’d be great replacements for our most beat up copies. This donation included a bunch of titles in translation that I will have to consider carefully before they’re added. I hesitate to add just any old translation because I’ve read critical (in the ordinary sense) reviews of translations that took liberties with the text or were unreadably dull. Not all translations are created equally.
Thinking about this particular batch of donations along with the news that there is a new critically acclaimed translation of The Odyssey got me to thinking about why publishers keep producing new translations of old titles. The cynical answer to my question is that public domain works are almost pure profit for publishers because there’s no author to pay royalties to. I have some theories as to less cynical answers.
My first theory is that the translator wanted to create a definitive translation that’s better than anything that’s come before. Past translations of a work may have been deeply flawed in terms of accuracy or deathly dry. In those circumstances, it’s absolutely necessary to make a new translation. Some Victorian era translations of books are so awful they’re crying out for a decent translation into English. The problem is that, no matter how good one’s translation is, it will only be definitive until the next definitive edition.
My second theory is that some translators have the gumption to play around with original to tell the old story in a new way. Some languages are extremely hard to translate due to nuances, cultural context, and linguistic drift. I love it with translators throw strict fidelity out the window to capture the essence of a story and bring it back to life.
I’m sure all of these explanations—the cynical one, the definitive one, and the playful one—are all true. But none really explains why translators keep returning to the same titles over and over; translations of old works that haven’t been published in English before are still rare. In the end, I suppose, some texts are truly immortal. The Iliad, The Odyssey, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and all the rest of the giants are so packed with meaning and so full of lively drama that we’ll never be done with them.
Reading older mysteries by RaymondPostgate has set me to thinking about how the genre has changed over past 170-odd years, since Edgar Allan Poe started spinning stories about C. Auguste Dupin. The mysteries that get written today would have terrified and horrified the readers of Poe’s detective stories. (Hell, some of them terrify and horrify me.) It seems to me that the authors of mysteries have been a wordy arms race ever since those short tales, but how they outdo each other has varied according to public tastes and tolerances for violence. I’ll admit right now that I’m not an expert, just a reader with a dilettante-ish love of the genre.
I see two halves to the history of the mystery genre. The first half, from Dupin to say, the 1950s, was all about the puzzle. (Although, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is rather gory.) From Poe to Christie, authors were challenged to come up with fiendishly complicated plots to outdo each other. They created devices like locked room mysteries, butlers who might or might not have done it, and very clever detectives who could not only see, but observe. But eventually, they would have hit the limits of reader credulity (wait, it was the long lost third cousin because of a mysterious inheritance of a porcelain swan?) or they would start “cheating” by hiding clues or introducing new suspects in the last act.
The second half—well, I’m not sure when exactly it began—ushered in an era of gore and psychological terror. Now fictional detectives seem to face a series of increasingly depraved and violent serial killers. Where readers used to ratiocinate with the protagonists, we profile based on modi operandi. The clichés of newer mysteries tend to revolve around the detectives’ almost mystical abilities to infer an entire psychological profile, plus backstory, of the criminal from a few obscure clues. (This broken twig here by the body clearly indicates that the killer is a left-handed Rosicrucian who was attacked by a ferret at the age of three.)
Speaking from personal experience, the only limit with this type of mystery is a reader’s tolerance for gore. I used to be a huge reader of mystery thrillers, but I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t take any more mutilated, almost invariably female corpses. Now, I go back and forth from old to new as I get tired of the clichés. I never seem to tire of a good mystery, no matter when it was written.
There are so many books and so little time. Usually this cliché is cited when readers lament that they are unable to read everything that comes out. Less often, it’s used to explain why a lot of readers don’t get a chance to re-read and thus reconsider a book. Book reviewers are under even more pressure to get through as many books as possible. When we review we give our first impressions of a book (at least, most of us do this). Reviewers for Kirkus, I feel, are especially rushed because they review a staggering amount of books in a year.
I bring all of this up because Kirkus recently responded to a media furore about their initially glowing review of American Heart, by Laura Moriarty, by pulling it. Nathan Heller writes about this incident and “problematic” reviews over at The New Yorker. In this case, the staff at Kirkus were forced to reconsider a book review because readers pointed out all the things the reviewer overlooked. Of course, some reviews should be recanted because the reviewer completely missed the mark. Recently, Robert Gottlieb wrote a particularly tone deaf roundup of romance novels for The New York Times. (Amanda Diehl wrote a hilarious and pointed take down for Book Riot.)
The difference between these two incidents is that, while Gottlieb was flat out wrong and a terrible choice of romance book reviewer, the reviewer for Kirkus just didn’t seem woke enough to spot the problems of American Heart. Another reading might have helped them realize that the book was another “white savior” story with problems with its representation of Muslim characters. But, because that reviewer probably has to read dozens of books in a month, they wouldn’t have had the chance to think about the book in much depth.
What worries me most about all this is: which books have I been wrong about? I don’t often have a chance to re-read books and I tend not to reread books that I didn’t really enjoy the first time. A really great book, like To Kill a Mockingbirdand The Poisonwood Bible, reveals more layers with each re-reading. But books that confuse me? Bother me? Annoy me? I will not re-read them, because there is so little time to read all those books.
After many years, I think I’ve finally tuned into the right trade publications and book blogs to keep myself supplied with reviews and recommendations for books I will genuinely enjoy. And yet, I still shy away from personally reading books that get a lot of buzz. I’ve had this curious aversion for a while. It wasn’t until Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out that I started reading the series. The only conclusion that I can come up with is that I read a buzzy book that turned out to be so awful I’ve blocked it from my memory.
I suspect that the problem (apart from my book trauma theory) is that expectations play a huge part in how I approach books. I expect books to follow or creatively break genre barriers. I expect literary books to devote a lot of time and beautiful language to exploring emotions we don’t have words for in English. And if I learn that there’s a twist, there better damn well be a great twist. When a book fails to live up to expectations, I end up disliking the book even more than I might have without all the hype in the first place. Being a book reviewer, I strive to judge books on their own merits and not my inflated expectations.
I clearly don’t worry about fear of missing out, but I am competitive about discovering books. This is as big a problem for hype-avoidance as managing my expectations. If I wait long enough, I feel like I’m discovering a book on my own instead of following the buzz.
The only thing that gets me over my avoidance of hyped books is time, lots of time. It took me thirteen years to read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I might be making progress; I got around to Homegoing after only a year. I have no problem being behind the curve. Once enough time has elapsed and I’m no longer surrounded by people talking about how great the book is, only then do I feel like I can give the book a fair shake.
It feels like a personal insult to read 400 pages only to find a cliffhanger. So much so, that I would like to propose a constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of cliffhangers at the end of a book. (Cliffhangers at the end of every chapter except the last would be allowed, because who needs sleep?) Jeff O’Neal of Book Riot has a rule about not reading series until all of the volumes are published. I may have to adopt this rule before I chuck my iPad across the room.
Anything I try to write past this point just turns into a rant, so I will close with my reaction to the end of Three Dark Crowns: Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
* Young Woman Reading at the Window, by Marius Borgeaud
Both of these books feature desperate people who are trying to leave Egypt (or a place like Egypt). The Queue gives us a Kafka-esque battle by locals against a determinedly ineffective government. Live from Cairo also features a frustrating bureaucracy, but from the perspective of outsiders who want to help but can’t. The inside/outside perspectives on refugees casts a critical light on a broken, inhumane system.
Both of these books feature two men who get the chance to remedy their mistakes. The idea is that they are supposed to learn from those mistakes and become better men, but they go in completely different directions. Reading them close together set me to thinking about questions of human nature, whether we really can learn from our mistakes, and what it means to be good.
These two books cover contemporaneous periods of time, during extreme deprivation, yet show two extremely different government responses to hardship. In the United States, unregulated speculation caused a economic collapse. So many people were out of work that existing charity was swamped and (albeit reluctantly) the government finally stepped in to help. Meanwhile, in Soviet Ukraine, impossible grain policies lead to a man-made famine that killed millions. Aid was deliberately refused. These two books are stark, fascinating contrasts.
Most articles about the “death of the novel” focus on declining book sales and reading rates*. A few address shortened attention spans. But Damien Walter, in this blog spot, points the finger at lack of innovation in writing. So many people prefer television, he writes, because the storytelling is better. Walter writes:
The novel has fallen behind as a storytelling medium. Not so long ago, novels were the most reliable fix of story you could find. Now they have heavy competition from box sets, video games, comics, movies and more. And here’s the really crucial issue…that contest has RAISED OUR EXPECTATIONS of what storytelling can and should.
It’s hard to argue with this. But I’m going to do it anyway.
There are innovative writers working now. In no particular order, writers like David Mitchell, the Oulipians, N.K. Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, and countless others have written stunningly creative books in recent years. I concede that these writers are only responsible for a small number of the total outpouring of new books in a year. Most books published these days are retreads of successful formula or, in some cases, continuations of popular series from dead authors. But the fact that there are diamonds in all that dross gives me hope that the novel is not dead. Authors are still finding ways to reinvent the form and tell brilliant stories. A reader simply has to dig to find them.
I blame risk-averse publishers for all that dross. (I have similar complaints about Hollywood and all the remakes.) From a cost perspective, it makes sense that publishers would spend their money on books that they know will make at least some money. It’s short-sighted, sure, but it makes sense. I resent their timidity—and not just because I frequently get déjà vu when I read book reviews in the industry magazines. I resent their timidity because the sure-bets make it harder for readers to find the good stuff.
I have hope for the future of novels, unlike Walter. I have hope because there are imprints and independent publishers who will take risks. Initiatives like We Need Diverse Books have paid dividends in getting more books by and about people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Now, more than ever, I think more people are seeing themselves in fiction.
Another thing that gives me hope is the vibrancy of the bookish internet. Readers can help keep literature alive by swapping recommendations and geeking out about authors, and make it easier to sift through the dross. I’m happily doing my bit to spread the word about good and great books with this blog and by sending readers home from my library with stacks of books. Readers, let’s spite naysayers like Walter by talking about books and sharing our bookish joy. The novel won’t die as long as readers keep reading.
* There is some good news about this. Pew Research recently reported that more younger people are using libraries.
Every couple of weeks, I run a report in my library’s integrated library system* that shows me how many times books in the browsing collection have been checked out. This collection, which I am in charge of buying books for, is the home of current fiction and popular non-fiction. Reading the report has become a curiously emotional experience. On the one hand, I get a thrill when I see books that I liked get checked out. On the other, I am saddened by good books that languish on the shelf for months, waiting for their readers to come along.
My library’s browsing collection has duelling goals. First, it’s supposed to encourage our students to read for fun. Second, it’s supposed to supplement my budget for literature** so that I don’t have to buy just to usual suspects***. This leaves me with a very small path to tread because people (including me) like to read crap. We need our brain candy every now and then. The brain candy doesn’t have a lot of staying power, literature-wise. In a public library, fiction moves in and out of the collection as its popularity waxes and wanes. This is kind of a problem in my library, an academic library, because we are supposed to be building a collection for the long haul. Personally, I err on the side of purchasing books that I’m fairly certain people will read.
Even though I push toward the popular end of things and buy the odd volume of brain candy, I also stock my collection with books that critics (and I) think are important. I buy books about immigrants. I buy books about racial and sexual issues. I buy books set in other countries and times to try and broaden the horizons of our somewhat homogenous student population. The problem with doing this is that I start to fall into the mindset of buying more books that people should read instead of books people will want to pick up and read. Consequently, there many books I end up putting on my own to-read shelf rather than on my to-buy-for-the-library list.
I am fully aware that my tastes in books are much darker than most people’s. Part of the reason I read so widely because I want to be able to recommend books no matter what a person’s taste in books is, even if a reader isn’t up for something like Preparation for the Next Life, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Kindred, or Americanah. My hope is that someone will come along and challenge themselves (or I can talk them into a challenge) every now and then. Until then, I can give them something a little lighter to keep them coming back.
I push so hard for challenging books is because I genuinely believe that well told stories can wake people up to the experiences of others, people they might never meet. A well told story can take a reader inside the head of someone who lives a completely different life. Seeing through someone else’s eyes is more effective, in terms of gaining empathy, than a mountain of statistics. I want my collection to be, at least, a little bit woke, as well as entertaining.
* An integrated library system stores all of the information about a library’s collection and patrons so that we can keep track of where things are.
** I am incredibly lucky to be in charge of buying all of my library’s fiction. This is very rare. Usually, you have to wait for an elderly librarian to die at their desk before literature becomes someone else’s responsibility.
*** Damn you, Joyce Carol Oates, for sucking up so much of my budget!
It’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and the bookish internet has exploded in a frenzy of Austeniana. (See Book Riot for an example.) It cheers me to see how many other readers love Jane and her books. Usually, I let bookish anniversaries pass because I don’t feel the need to mark them—except for taking potshots at JamesJoyce and Marcel Proust when their dates come up. But when Austen comes up, I special place in my bookish heart starts to glow.
Austen’s novels were the first classics (books published before 1900 that we still read—as I define it) that I genuinely loved and enjoyed reading. With other classics, I would have issues with the language or want to grab a red pencil to edit the book down (I’m looking at you, Charles Dickens). While Austen uses language that strikes us as a little antique, her writing is clear, lively, and funny even after two hundred years of slang and mass communication. The plots hum along at just the right pace. There are never any extraneous details that distract from the tangle of personalities and schemes.
It doesn’t matter that I’ve been reading her books over and over for twenty years; I still find joy in them. Aside from the snark, what I love most about Austen’s novels are the characters. They’re so full of personality and are so well drawn that they feel real from the first page. Their problems are so universal—especially for those of us who are shy and a bit awkward about our feelings—that I always get sucked into the plots and worry even though I know everything will turn out alright in the end.
I suspect that, in addition to the humor and great characters, Austen’s novels are so good is because she was writing for herself (especially with Persuasion). Other books that are held up as Great Literature so often come along with morals or tragedy or with some kind of message written all over the plots, characters, and settings. There are depths in Austen’s novels, but they’re the kind of depths that you explore after the initial reading. We get to have our dessert first, with Austen.