Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Valerie Best hates Robert Coover

I worked for about two years reading manuscripts for a literary agency here in New York. I read about 3-4 manuscripts a week, which is reading a lot of writing. A lot of bad writing.

In all that reading of bad writing, I developed some persistent quirks. The most significant of them is my inability to care about a story simply because the author wants me to. If the author hasn't written a story that is compelling, or human, or in any way makes me want to invest, I feel no obligation whatsoever to do so. Reading is not necessarily caring.

This means I have little patience with authors who contrive to lose me in the opacity of their story. Writers who treat me, their reader, as intruders on their narrative. Listen writers, you want to wax that internal? Buy a journal.

Don't misunderstand. I don't need my literature spoon fed. I don't mind working if I feel like my investment will pay off--I like Borges just as much as the next guy.

Oh, and if it's not already patently clear, one of my other charming qualities is the belief that if a story doesn't work for me, it's not because I didn't "get it". I mean, there are probably books out there that I wouldn't exactly "get", but their mastery doesn't escape me. I'm talking more A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and its ilk. I got it. I just thought it was stupid.

I don't like to waste time. I don't like to fill my head with noise like the buzzing of disgruntled bees. I don't like walking away from a book feeling dissatisfied and ill-used. Like my time has been misspent.

Dear Writers,

I am under no obligation to read your book, so don't act like I am. Like you can just opine and sigh and whatever and I have no choice but to stick it out with you. I'm not going to.

A reader (but not necessarily yours)

p.s. I'm currently reading The Bloody Chamber, which, if you can get past some creepy eroticism, is terrifically spooky.

p.p.s. If you're wondering, yeah, I know how insufferable this is. So much so, it's now its own tag.


  1. so, i got this free harlequin romance novel from the fair. i think you'll loooooove it.

  2. Not insufferable.

    I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But to each his own. Or her own.

    I totally agree with you on just about everything else, though. I hate hate hate when art attempts to manipulate me without rewarding me for it with some message about the human experience. Like I'm being manipulated for the sake of manipulation. Like I'm being asked to participate in--if you'll excuse the expression--emotional masturbation. (A graphic metaphor, but effective, I like to think.) I always react the same way: "Keep writing, ALWAYS keep writing, but do it in a journal, and don't make us read it just because you wrote it."

    On the other hand, I love it when an author makes me WORK for the message...when they demand that I meet them halfway, and then reward me for my efforts.

    Brother Allen in the English department once said "All good literature shows us some way we can be redeemed." I think it's a philosophy I agree with so far.

    I like your brain.

  3. I remember when I first realized the same thing about artwork. I could "get" what an artist was doing and still think it looked like crap (think Picasso's Cubism stuff.) I'm now beginning to realize the same with literature.

    Thanks for the great post, Val.

  4. Yeah, I hate the idea that everyone has a book in them. Sure they do. I just don't have to read it.