Friday, July 13, 2012

Guest Post: The Grumpy Bulldog: What is a Great Book?

The Grumpy Bulldog Returns!
My alter-ego Grumpy Bulldog is back today to make a guest post on what makes a great book.  As you should expect, it gets a little grumpier than normal.
A couple of people linked to this article in The New Yorker by Michael Cunningham (The Hours, A Home at the End of the World--both of which are good books and pretty good movies) who was a juror for the Pulitzer committee that ended up selecting no books worthy of the award in 2012.

Apparently there are four jurors who have to sift through over 300 books and come to a consensus of three or so to pass along to the main committee, who then vote on which novel gets nominated.  Usually they can find one worthy book, or at least one THEY think is worthy.  I've read a number of Pulitzers and there are a few where I think, "REALLY?"  Incidentally I hadn't heard of any of the three books Cunningham and the other jurors picked.

Now we get to the title of the post.  What does greatness mean?  That was what the jurors had to figure out.  Cunningham I guess is really focused on great language.  Someone else wanted to "fall in love" with the story--I hate people who say that--and someone else was more focused on the story.

That's where you get into the problem.  A "great" novel is something different to everyone.  Cunningham posts the first sentence of the David Foster Wallace novel they nominated.  The "sentence" is more like a paragraph.  Look at this thing, it's 89 words long!

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

You need a freaking road map to get through that sentence.  And what is it even saying?  I've read it about 10 times now and all I can figure is there are fields somewhere.  I would have read that one sentence and deleted the book from my Kindle.

Another book was a debut novel by some young woman writing about a family in the south.  My thought would be:  BORING.  There have been like a million books about the south from Huck Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin to Faulkner and beyond.  He posted a clip of that book too, another sentence loaded down with stuff to convey a relatively simple meaning.  The third one being considered had already been published in a magazine years ago and again the writing was full of stuff trying to add weight to sentences that may not have needed them.

As a reader, sometimes I just want to scream, "Look it's a freaking sunset, all right!?"  Or night or whatever.  Or in the case of that Foster excerpt, there are some goddamned fields out there.  Whoopee.  Like I haven't seen fields before.  (I grew up surrounded pretty much on all sides by fields.)  What's your freaking POINT?!!!

Anyway, what this reminds me of is the voting for baseball's Hall of Fame.  Or any Hall of Fame really.  Inevitably you get columns every year about why so-and-so isn't good enough or so-and-so is being snubbed.  My favorite player growing up, Alan Trammell of the Tigers, falls into the snubbed category.  Why isn't he great enough?  Because he didn't take steroids like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez to hit enough home runs?  Because he didn't do back-flips at shortstop like Ozzie Smith?  Gawd!

The point anyway is the old "different strokes for different folks."  The selection process in choosing awards is invariably flawed because it all depends on the prejudices of the people doing the choosing.  Another example recently is that I finally watched "The Artist" on DVD.  Was that really the best movie of 2011?  According to people who mattered it did.  According to people like me it was meh, a lightweight, heavy-handed story that like books about southern families has been done to death.  But it got the buzz at the right time and let's face it most Academy voters are old folks who probably still fondly remember the silent movie era.

I guess the point of my ranting is that when people say your book isn't good enough or you're not good enough, a lot of the time it's their fault, not yours.  I mean have you seen some of the crap they publish?  Gawd!  I read the upcoming Amanda Hocking novel and it was like, "Really?  This is the person who sold all those self-pubbed books?"  It's not that it was completely terrible but it was oh so mediocre.  I remember too when Ebert posted a link to some Canadian woman who got a movie writing contract because of her Tweets.  I read the linked Tweets and it was like, "Really?"  I mean I know people who make pretty much the exact same witticisms and they don't get movie contracts.  Who decided this one person was "great" and the others not so much?

That's what can be really frustrating, when you get down to trying to figure out why one person or their work is elevated over another.  Looking at the article from the New Yorker, it makes sense why they decided not to give out a Pulitzer to any of those three books.  None of the books they nominated seemed all that great, at least to me.  What do I know?


If you want to write a rebuttal or anything else, guest posts are still available for Mondays and Fridays (except July 23).  The two guest posts I've had so far are the highest traffic posts on this blog.  I'm just saying.  If you're interested, there are plenty of ways to contact me:  Email, Twitter, and Facebook.

Tuesday is still a Two-Fer...


  1. beauty is in the eyes..........--very interesting post!

  2. You said it bulldog! Personally, I think writing as a whole has taken a dive in the past few years. Once it became all about money (as if it ever wasn't), then all the art and craft went out the window.

  3. Thanks for linking that article; it was an interesting read.
    It seems to me the actual issue was what he said in part 2, they all wanted to find that ONE novel that was so good as to be unquestionable. The problem is that there is no novel that is unquestionable. He kept mentioning The Great Gatsby, but I hated that book. It was so trivial and so full of trivial people, I can't understand why anyone likes it. Yet they do. Moby Dick, which he also mentioned, was dismissed in its day, then, for decades, haled as the best novel ever written. These days, it's back to, basically, being completely dismissed.

    My issue with choosing to not award a prize which is, basically, a "best of the year" award is the idea that there was no "best." That's a ridiculous conceit. Unless there was nothing written, -something- should get the prize.

    I've heard of Swamplandia!, but I really just have no interest in it at all. The Wallace book, though, has now attracted my attention. I like the title and want to know what it's about.

  4. I could write a guest post for you about this, but it would preclude me from writing a rambling response here. Do you really want to deny your comments section on a rambling response of nonsense?!?

  5. I read that 89-word sentence and thought - that breaks so many of the *rules* that unpublished writers are told to observe... I mean besides the fact that it's 89-words long!

    But I don't agree with the not awarding *any* prize for 2012. That just seems lazy. Try harder, guys.

  6. I've missed Grumpy Bulldog and I'm glad to see him here, even if it is only a guest post. And you're right about greatness being relative and arbitrary. Would you believe there are one or two people out there who don't believe I'm great?

  7. Grumpy bulldog, I can see why you're grumpy. I used to subscribe to a sci-fi audiobook podcast Escape Pod and whenever the award season would come around they played the nominees. Those were the most boring of the year. Go figure.

  8. It's inexcusable that no Pulitzer was awarded for fiction this year. Ticked off a lot of people in the publishing world, and disappointed a lot of worthy writers. Greatness truly is a subjective and arbitrary thing, but those judges weren't tasked with finding greatness; they were supposed to select a "best". And there's ALWAYS a best, even if all the choices suck. (Those judges sure did.)

  9. Good writing astonishes readers. I was not astonished by that paragraph. Peace.

  10. I'm really upset by this, seriously. I just got unceremoniously rejected, again, in my latest WOTF submission. Of course, I got some writing tips sent back to me. One of them was an example of the type of sentence that would get a story summarily rejected right off the bat. The sample sentence, exaggerated as it was, was nowhere near as ridiculously overwritten as the one you posted was.

    Sigh, just sour grapes I suppose. I think I'm just about tired of trying to please people, I'm just going to use the Pagel method and not care what anyone thinks anymore.

    Well, maybe not.

  11. Grumpy, I have missed you :) I know what you mean about the quality of writing lately. If I could figure out what standards "they" are judging by I might just qualify myself, lol.

    I've read some excellent books out there that were passed over several times by agents and publishers. And some of the stuff they do accept and spend money to advertise is like, "Realy?" I'm sure that is why so many people are going the self-pub direction; they figure they can write like that, and do.

    What I think makes a great novel is different than what someone else would say. Its all so subjective.


  12. I agree, the book with the long sentence is probably not very accessible, but the sentence reads like poetry to me. I kind of love it.

    (Do not get all grumpy on me for saying that.)

    If you read it again as if it were split into lines like a poem, it's really awesome. I think most readers like accessible stories (with slightly smaller sentences) that are also well-written.

  13. Hey Grumpy.
    I'm into some grammar anarchy. You must also understand that really long sentences, which even overuse the conjunction word "and" are there to do you a favour, or "favor", if you are into American spelling and overly long sentences do indeed try to help you learn the finer aspects of learning how to hold your breath and turn blue in the face and with that and, I will suddenly, abruptly end this comment.

    1. Sometimes run-on sentences are there because that's the style of the writer and they actually make sense. Written communication is not the same as verbal. Besides, the sample sentence from Wallace is not dissimilar to stuff I've read in other books, and it happens to contain a fairly extensive list of things, so half of it isn't really a sentence at all, so much as a catalog.

  14. I'm a bit tardy to the party here. Nice to see the Grumpy Bulldog coming back out, and getting tons of comments to boot. Maybe you should make this a regular feature.

    The idea that there was no "best" book is absurd. Even if they were all terrible, they were all EQUALLY terrible?

    As for the stuff set in the South: A reclusive genius (me, of course) once said that the first rule of writing a best seller is:

    First of all, you're going to need it to be set in the American South. Or maybe Ireland, but the South is preferable. (Or, it has to at least sound like it's set in the South.)

    I meant those rules as a joke but it's startling how often they turn out to be true.

  15. It's nice to see Grumpy back. I agree with your thoughts..especially about the long sentence. ack!

  16. I'm a bit grumpy myself on today's post. I think there's something about getting an opinion on books that brings out the grumpiness in those of us who are passionate about them. Your post shows the truth of it, that it's all very subjective!!



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