Thursday, May 25, 2006

What Am I Thinking? I Need To Know...

I just finished W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage and I loved it. It was my first experience with Maugham, I was very impressed, but this isn't what I want to talk about. Taint is the subject of the day, and how people wittingly or un- damage the experience of discovering new works.

A few years ago I wanted to read Trevanian so I picked up an omnibus edition of four of his novels. I was into The Eiger Sanction and was enjoying it tremendously, so much so that I had to read about the book, including some published reviews. One of them virtually killed the book for me. It said the book was written as a spoof of thrillers but as such was actually better than most of the books it was laughing at.

The problem was, I was enjoying it as a thriller. I didn't see it as a spoof before I read the review nor after, but I couldn't help but wonder whether or not I was being taken for a ride somehow. Was I just too stupid or thick to see it? Sure, the names of the characters were over the top, especially "Miles Mellaugh," but that was all I could figure. The book went from being a brilliant reading experience to a sad mash of one.

Funny thing, though, no other review that I found said the same thing. I think I was victimized by a jackass and I just couldn't overcome it.

I wanted to read Ashenden and in the course of procuring a copy ended up with seventeen used paperbacks of Maugham's and since the rest of my books were packed up for our forthcoming move, I picked the thickest one out of the box. It was Of Human Bondage and not being very clever I made the mistake of reading about the book on Amazon. Including the reviews.

The first thing I noticed was that a number of the "reviewers" used the same words to describe Maugham, many calling him a mostly "technical" writer. While rating the book four or five stars, many of the reviews sounded like apologies for the book's style yet at the same time proclaiming their admiration. What struck me was that multiple people reading the same book are not at all likely to come up with adjectives like "technical" to describe an immensely popular writer of fiction. Esepecially when the word isn't used in a flattering way nor in any way different from its sister reviews.

Despite the actual rating, the apologetic reviews throw a blanket over book and author before I've even read it. What does it mean to be a "technical" writer? Flawless punctuation? Perfect grammar, no slang? Then why use this as a pejorative? And more of a puzzle, what does it mean to be a "technical" writer who has produced a wonderful book? If the book is so great, wouldn't that eradicate the negative comments about its style?

I think so, which is why I think the reviewers, such as they are, write with a lemming-like mindset devoid of actual insight, be it fresh or otherwise. I started the book in the hole, as opposed to Eiger, when I was pushed into one in the middle.

Both of these things diminish the book and they can be somewhat controlled by choosing to never go there again. I already long ago gave up reading book covers and flaps; give me the book and maybe I'll read that stuff after I read the book. Any insights they offer can wait till then. But in my copy of Bondage is something I find much worse, an introduction by a well know author who not only gives away events in the book but does a damn fine job of negatively coloring the experience.

Aside from revealing details about a key relationship and even giving away the ending, Smiley manages to disparage Maugham's style by implying that it is outdated and hasn't held up well. She throws in a loosely connected line about Maugham's possible homosexuality. And this is an introduction? To what, a rival publisher's edition of a Dickens novel? How am I supposed to read this with a clear and open mind?

Fortunately I glanced at enough of the intro to gleen its nature and I didn't read it until after I had read the book. Thank god. I can only think the publisher contracted with Ms. Smiley because of her name and not her opinion and still had the poor sense to include the thing. Opinion is one thing, and should be respected especially by one so accomplished, but please please please don't tell me how the book is because that's how you find it. A book is never the same thing from person to person; the action takes place too much in an individual's own mind. Conjecture if you will but don't assert as fact, especially in an introduction where it is far too easily met as the point of first contact for someone who deserves far better.

It reminds me of stumping democrats in an election year exclaiming over the airwaves what it is that Americans really want. Personally I don't feel that blue blooded rich people with elected positions instead of real jobs really have any kind of idea what people in my socio-economic class want or are worried about. Just shut up. Likewise I don't need Jane Smiley telling me that this classic masterpiece or its author haven't held up to time. Then why am I holding the book, Jane? Why is it published, why does it exist to contain your wisdom, why is it simply not forgotten?

No, really, tell me why. You seem to know what I should think. I just want to enjoy reading fine books.


Blogger Doctor Atlantis said...

Oh, come now. Surely finding that a book is "supposed" to be a mockery of a genre doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. It isn't like eating dinner and being told the waiter pooped in the pudding. What you're describing is more like being told that the waiter is a Republican and that the meal is symbolic of the validity of supply-side economics. Does it matter? Doesn't the meal taste just as good or just as bad regardless of what is intended by the writer?

Besides, Trellaine clearly enjoyed writing. His non-suspense works such as "Rude Tales & Glorious" clearly show a delightful sense of humor and love of language. I'll bet his principal drive was that he enjoyed story-telling, and his books reflect that.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

You're right, I think, in that it shouldn't matter whether or not the author intended a book to be a "mockery" or a seminal mark in literature; the fault lies with my inability to dissociate these labels from my own reading experience.

I think it's the old "did you stop beating your wife?" question: once the question has been heard, it's somewhat beside the point as to if you actually beat your wife because you've now been associated with the issue. Would that it were not so, but there it is.

And although I've thought about reading another Trevanian, I still haven't been able to do it. I need to rinse and spit but I haven't found the right mouthwash.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Doctor Atlantis said...

You should check out Rude Tales and Glorious. (If you can find a copy.) It is without a doubt one of the funniest books I've ever read. They used to take turns reading it aloud in the S.C.A.

Looks like they've got copies for as low as $0.58 on Amazon.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Rick Ollerman said...

Ordered a copy but from Abebooks for six bucks (a VG hardcover first edition). I have had too many issues from Amazon Marketplace vendors to be comfortable with them (mostly because many of them no nothing whatsoever about books - for instance, I've bought a few books that turn out to be book club editions once they arrive, I've bought a hardcover collection by John O'Hara that appeared as a paperback, etc.). This way I can support an actual independent bookseller, always a good thing to do when one has the opportunity.

8:56 AM  

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