There is a special joy in finding someone who hates a book as much as you do. But not just any hate, and not just any book. There are plenty of books you may not like: books that fail to deliver on their explicit premise or implicit promise, books with middles that sag like the floor of a teardown, books with underwritten or overworked prose, books that strain credulity, books that could stand to strain credulity a bit more, books that are too long, books with bad covers, books that just aren’t very good. The world is full of books you may not like, and it is not hard to be generous about them, especially as a writer—because, as well you should know, books are incredibly hard to write, and even harder to write well. A genuinely good book is something of a rarity; a genuinely great book is something of a miracle. So if someone, in your estimation, misses the mark, that is an easy thing to forgive, either by way of reading charitably or simply putting down the book in question.
The type of book I describe here must be a book that you not only dislike, but that everyone else likes, a lot. By “everyone,” I mean friends and family, the general reading public, and publishing’s commercial/critical apparatus—everyone loves it, and your non-love is so unusual as to make you question your taste. In extreme cases, it may seem as though there’s a conspiracy afoot in the general culture to make you feel insane, a kind of cultural gaslighting. The hatred you develop for these books is different in character from mere non-enjoyment. It is rooted in a feeling of unfairness—not so much being left out, as being the clear-eyed pariah in a horror film, Steve McQueen in The Blob. It is a hatred that begins to feel personal, a resentment that extends from the text in question to the person responsible for the text.
Several examples of books like this come to mind from recent years, but I will focus on one in particular, title and author redacted. This novel came highly recommended in print and online reviews, and by many of my friends and colleagues. I’ll credit my mother, an unusually wary reader, with some ambivalence, but by and large the response was a tidal wave of praise. It was variously hailed as one of the 10 best of the year, an utterly brilliant book, a landmark performance by [REDACTED].
I found it almost unreadable. The highly touted prose is a lush jumble of metaphors and registers without any controlling logic or taste. Each sentence is like a cordoned-off museum of its own aesthetic particulars, seemingly unrelated to the sentence coming before or after. A single paragraph might blithely mix lavish description, various unconnected similes, a flat and unfunny sex joke or two, and futurist Internet-speak, with no seeming concern as to how any of these elements work together. How, I wondered as I read, did this qualify for anyone as “sparkling prose?” For me, the reading experience was like being trapped in a mudslide, an avalanche of language, each additional word adding to the incoherence.
The story is a series of lazy implausibilities cobbled together with all the deftness of a tailor wearing oven mitts. The characters are ludicrous, with ludicrous back stories and ludicrous arcs—they are ludicrous to an extent that feels intentional, satirical, except nothing is being discernibly satirized. Rather than a failed attempt at satire, the general silliness of the proceedings instead stems from what feels like authorial disengagement; the novel itself seems uninterested in why its characters do things and what their level of self-awareness is. They simply move where [REDACTED] needs them to and behave as the story dictates, however unconvincingly. The overall effect is a contempt for these people and their fictional reality.
If I’d happened randomly upon the book, I would have simply stopped reading, but in the spirit of someone not getting a joke and asking the teller to repeat it over and over, I kept on, thinking at some point it would click. When it hadn’t halfway through, I finally stopped, feeling deceived. What trick of promotion—what cocktail party legerdemain—had managed to foist this nonsense upon the reading public, had somehow turned this gobbling turkey into a golden goose? That the book had been published at all was vexing enough—though not, seemingly, to the scores of critics and fellow authors who padded the proceedings with an introductory chapter of praise. I moved on to other, less maddening novels, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t seek out negative Amazon reviews for that paltriest comfort: the spectral two-star outrage of other bewildered readers.
The reflexive cynical view—one that is easy to adopt in the thrall of book-hate—is that you have fallen victim to a corporate conspiracy. Publishing decides ahead of time a certain writer’s moment has come, the engines of commerce and publicity fire up, and the quality of the book in question is a distant secondary concern. While this may contain a kernel of truth, a simpler, more general explanation probably suffices. Namely, there is a great inexorable power in expectation—as social beings, we want to like things we’re supposed to like, and we’re uncomfortable standing at the platform, watching the bullet train of popular opinion shriek by. Human nature, of course, tends toward a herd instinct, but the inclination of readers—and this includes agents, editors, publicists, and critics—to enjoy a book derives mostly from good qualities: kindness and generosity and the urge to like, rather than dislike things.
About a year later, I sat with friends on the second-floor porch of a rented vacation house in the mountains. We were enjoying a drink and the view of a late summer sunset over a canopy of trees just beginning to bruise with the colors of autumn. It was cool, birds flew to and fro, and from inside the house drifted music and the smell of roasting meat. The scene felt unimprovable, but then, from out of nowhere, this book came up in conversation and I discovered, to my surprise, two other readers who hated it.
Oh, my friends! Oh, the joy! The sweet, delicious bliss of finding other readers who hate a book as much as you! Our individual aversions, long suppressed in unspoken self-doubt, were suddenly given full voice in an ecstasy of communal loathing. At last, we’d found each other. We leaned in with a conspiratorial air.
“Godawful,” said my friend B.
“I put it down after 50 pages, maybe 40,” said J.
I said, “It’s completely ridiculous. I quit halfway, imagine reading the whole thing.”
“I did,” said B. “I couldn’t believe I was reading the same book people gushed over all year. It was like I had to keep checking.”
This went on too long, as this kind of thing typically does. Twenty, 30 minutes, maybe. We were like children gorging on an unattended cake, so desperate to get in every last piece of frosting and crumb that we misjudged our appetites. The initial greedy sugar rush of shared hatred went away and we crashed into a state of rueful circumspection.
B said, “I mean, there’s no question [REDACTED] is talented.”
“Yeah,” said J, “And I loved [REDACTED’S] first novel. I think it was part of my disappointment.”
The conversation spiraled in once or twice more to how bad the novel was, but with ever-waning enthusiasm. As readers, I think, we share an understanding of what a niche audience we are, and what a niche enterprise writing a novel is. There’s a feeling—and perhaps this goes a way toward explaining why bad literary novels become fêted—that any nominally non-stupid book enjoying a moment of popularity is something to be celebrated. Disliking a popular literary novel—that blackest of black swans—is not like disliking a TV show everyone else thinks is great. Being the contrarian in the corner of the party who thinks Breaking Bad is overrated might not win you any friends, but being the reader who thinks a good book is overrated feels uncomfortably close to a betrayal. We settled down.
I said, “Yeah, agreed. [REDACTED] really is an interesting writer.
“I’ll read the next one,” said B.
“Also,” J said, “I guess we could be wrong about this.”
But that was a possibility too terrible to contemplate, and the conversation moved on to other things as we went inside for dinner.
Image Credit: Flickr/K-Screen Shots.