"I'd Prefer Not To"

By Tom Bissell

By Letters to the Editor
May 31, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
main article image

[Read the story.]

What a weight off my shoulders.

Herman Melville
R. W. Emerson
(some of) Don DeLillo

They are crap, they really are.

-- Stephen Rifkin

Tom Bissell "[has] never read more than a dozen sequential pages" of Faulkner or James, yet proclaims the former "perhaps the streakiest writer to have ever lived" and that even the latter's "shorter work left [him] feeling as though a very large screw indeed were turning into [his] brain." These must have been very short streaks indeed, and I wonder how Mr. Bissell can distinguish between James' short stories and novels when he reads only a bare fraction of either. Reading more than mere snippets of these writers' works would allow him to learn if his critiques are valid. But to be fair, he may go on to make many cogent -- even brilliant -- points in his essay; it's not for me to say, as I have never read more than a dozen sentences of Tom Bissell.


-- Mike Murphy

I was rather relieved to see Tom Bissell's article about the authors he hates to hate. I once admitted to my American lit I professor that I utterly despised Henry James. She calmly told me that she had done her dissertation on James. Gulp. I shall always be grateful to her that she seemed to understand, if not share, my intolerance for reading James.

Like Bissell, I have to lump Faulkner inexplicably into the same miserable basket as James. Some day, I hope not to be ashamed about it.


-- Rebecca McCamish

It takes Tom Bissell five electronic pages to discover that readers are likely to actually read the books they enjoy instead of the books others say are supposed to be good for them.

Why in the name of sweet flippin' Faulkner would readers read books they didn't like outside the sometimes dusty confines of a college lit class?


I'm a college English instructor and I would never read any book I found boring or poorly written just because the book was called "great" by anyone else.

Life is too short to spend reading books I don't enjoy. Besides, I have to read too many student essays I don't enjoy anyway. But at least I get paid for that.


-- Roy Hill

This guy is an editor for a major New York book publisher! Excuse me while I giggle. (No wonder so much crap is published under the guise of "literary" fiction.) I'll restrain myself, for the most part, and take issue with only a few obvious comments: Beckett was a playwright fundamentally, and condemning him on the basis of a few written pages, without having seen his work onstage, is like rejecting Cezanne's work after reading his written description of a painting; Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote their best work in their 20s ("Sun Also Rises" and "Gatsby"), and so did Joyce -- "The Dead" and "Dubliners"; what's worse, no mention of Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," nor of Martin Amis, Burroughs, Carver, Cheever, Ford, Denis Johnson, Gordimer, Kerouac, Kosinski, Kundera, Greene, McEwan, García Márquez, Murakami, Munro, Murdoch, Musil, Naipaul, Pynchon, Roth, among many other great writers.

Finally, to prefer Joan Didion's politics (formerly Republican, now Reform Party) to her wonderful fiction is to admit, in the court of no appeal, his unrepentant guilt as a blubbering twit.


-- George Gilbert

I read Tom's essay with relief of recognizing a fellow sufferer. I, too, can't get through much Faulkner, despite my Southern roots, and a force-feeding professor, and actually faked my way through "Portrait of a Lady" for a college class.

Also, the passage about the "surrogate neediness" of avid readers stuck me as particularly apt. A few weeks ago, after a particularly interesting lesson in criticism via mob psychology, my book club turned to a discussion of cigarettes and addiction. One woman talked about how much she thought about cigarettes and how they were the first thing on her mind when she woke, and how her desire for one always lurked in her mind and often distracted her at work.


"Hmm," I thought. "I'm that way about books."

-- Susan Potter

Tom Bissell should not worry about disliking so many "great" writers. As he points out, reading is an emotional commitment and some folks just don't get along all that well.

I find that most literature annoys me. In my work I sometimes see enough human drama in a day to fill several novels. For relaxation I read sociology or I'll once again spend an evening chuckling over Florence King's ruminations on the WASP condition. The important thing is to read. It is less important what one reads. It is the stimulation of the mind with the words. It is the thoughts that the words generate in oneself, thoughts that will never come while watching a movie or a play. (I must confess, though, that I finally understood Shakespeare after seeing Olivier's "Hamlet." So that's what it means, I thought!)


To Mr. Bissell's unreadable writers I would add James Joyce and most contemporary Americans. Joyce Carol Oates is annoying and Joan Didion is unobservant. (With Didion, it's probably all those years in L.A., where there is nothing to observe.) Of course, as the son of schoolteachers and a native of Pennsylvania, I reflexively defend John Updike.

I recall struggling through "Moby-Dick" in high school, to the point of physical illness. Some time later (I think during college) I found Richard Armour's wonderful parodies of the classics. In summarizing "Moby-Dick," Armour told the reader that the book was 133 chapters long, only 36 of which had anything to do with the story or the plot. I thought Armour was being generous with the 36. As long as one reads, it matters not what one reads. As long as Mr. Bissell continues to read what moves him, he will continue to write as well as he obviously does now.

-- Steven T. Flowers

If one seeks to illuminate one's limitations for prose via one's prose, engaging wholly in a discourse exceeding five tedious yet insightful and likely worth reading yet somehow unreadable pages, one is bound by the obvious considerations of media, time period, sensory climate and unwritten universal authoring laws governing what intense and convoluted verbose result can result from a godly or ungodly convergence of wit, caffeine and free time.


Translation? Just because some Southern genius has all day to drink whiskey and map his brain doesn't mean you should feel bad about skimming half of the result.

-- Mark Tatara

Can a clearer exponent of the post-literate age be found glittering in the mud? Tuesday's cover piece masquerades as criticism with quaint folksiness, warts and all. While I do appreciate the once-heretical notion that a given Nobel laureate may be overrated (Morrison) and the corresponding hint that a venerable titan may be underrated (Gaddis), it always helps to have the authority to say so -- usually acquired by plowing through said work over the years, no matter how repellent the task may be to the lowly agent. If Bissell is so put upon, Starbucks is always hiring.

-- Gary Higgins


Tom Bissell's confessions might as well have been my own (and not merely because we're both 28, male and in New York). Add James Joyce, subtract Faulkner, perhaps.

It's maddening. I ought to appreciate "The Turn of the Screw" for its atmosphere, but instead jump back to a well-thumbed copy of "Neuromancer" or "The Long Walk."

Reading is a luxury, and it's difficult to luxuriate in the sensation of getting one's mouth around a four-by-four fence post. It's a useful item, to be sure, and might come in handy to whack a marauding villain (or hanging curveball), but it's uncomfortable and not very tasty. Such it is with literature that doesn't quite fit the reader.

I've owned some wonderful, gorgeous boots that I've only been able to wear once because they had a habit of chewing through my Achilles tendon or cutting off circulation to some useful sections of my feet. So it is with books like "Noir" and "Bad Voltage," works that I'm sure feel wonderful to people who aren't me, but I felt assaulted by once I'd managed to hack through. Both had been recommended in the most glowing terms by friends whose judgment had heretofore been sound.

Sometimes, it's just more pleasant to go barefoot on the familiar grass.

-- Rafe Brox

Mr. Bissell's strange essay on books he doesn't like is really quite instructive. Unlike the recent "Manifesto" by B. R. Myers, and other coming-out stories by prominent and not-so-prominent reviewers, it is wholly without critical weight. Bissell feels qualified to dismiss some big names with thumbnail judgments while admitting he has never finished a book by any of them. This excuses him from having to offer an "aesthetic explanation" for what he means by "Faulkner's hysterics" or "James' irritating delicacy."

I can't think of a better example of Bloom's thesis concerning the closing of the American mind. Without bothering to acquaint himself with these authors he simply dismisses them with a bit of offhand mockery. Bissell denies being a product of his attention-abbreviated age, but betrays himself at every turn. What he likes are books in the postmodern tradition of plot without structure and intelligence without meaning. In other words, he'd rather be watching a movie. Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," for example, is brilliant as far as its style goes, but it is basically a spaghetti western without a flicker of consciousness (what sets McCarthy apart from a writer like, say, Faulkner). Its cornball nihilism (like that of Brando's Kurtz, a model for the Judge) came from Hollywood. It is a sensibility like this that leads Bissell to confess liking Diane Johnson's "Le Divorce" partly because she also co-wrote the screenplay for Kubrick's "The Shining." This is hilarious stuff!

It came as no surprise to find the essay finally plunging into memoir and personal anecdote. Along with an attention span that can last more than two pages (even I gave "The Blind Assassin" five, and I gave reasons for throwing in the towel!), a love of fiction requires imagination and a sense of empathy. These conditions are lacking today.

The closing of the mind is fatal to criticism. It's all about me. Lemme tell you about being in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan, or that bus ride between the ancient cities Tashkent and Samarkand. Instead of reading texts, the critic manque reads himself, subjecting Salon readers to five pages of self-analysis before (finally!) whimpering that he's not sure he wants to know what his failure to understand great writers "says about me."

It says everything, which is nothing at all.

-- Alex Good

While it may well be true that a number of writers and their works are no longer easy to read, clearly it has something to do not with time but with the writing. We still read the Bible and many of us can still enjoy Homer.

But when the writer of this piece says that he can recognize the names of great authors does he mean he has read them or that he knows these authors are considered great?

When Joyce's masterpiece came out, few could read it; today it seems easy enough to read. So, too, Proust is an easy and delightful read but for modern tastes too much for our busy lives, or so we think.

But young kids today can still enjoy Shakespeare, as noted in this article.

Sam Johnson observed that one ought to read a lot when young because after a certain age (was it 40?), it becomes difficult. But poor Johnson didn't have cable so I am not sure what he did in his spare time other than answering questions for that pesky Boswell.

-- Fred Lapides

For the most part, I would agree with Bissell that you cannot force yourself to love an author -- just as you cannot force yourself to love a person. One wants to remind him that if you are patient, you can learn to love a great many things. On the other hand, one has to admit that no matter how much patience you cultivate, every one of us will remain unresponsive to some people and books.

In other words, I feel sad that Tom Bissell cannot enjoy Austen or Morrison as much as I do, but I do not blame him for this -- just as I hope he would never blame me for disliking one of his favorite authors (David Foster Wallace -- bleah!). However, I also believe that not only are these authors saying the same thing in different ways, but that they are saying completely different and important things -- things that cannot be expressed in another way. And that missing out on these authors includes missing out on some amazing insights.

That is why I think Bissell should reconsider his stance. After all, how much effort does it require to give these authors a full reading? (You're an editor! How long can it possibly take you to finish a couple of novels!)

-- Matthew Harris

Although I was only able to get through a page and a half of Tom Bissell's article, I can tell he's a ponderous writer in love with his thesaurus and a devoted plate-spinner of metaphors. Next time he tries to read Faulkner, I hope he falls in and spends eternity at the dinner table with Mrs. Compson and Jason IV.

-- Dan Rourke

Reading "I'd Prefer Not To," 28-year-old Tom Bissell's wearily confessional exploration of his literary psyche, is like passing through the facade of the Hotel Chelsea and finding yourself trapped inside a Motel 6. It takes him an interminable number of words to glurt out his main idea, and when he finally does, it is only this: "I don't like Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, or any of that crap, but I can't really say why ... What I do know is I am rediscovering Richard Yates; in fact, I love Richard Yates because I edited 'The Collected Stories of Richard Yates' in the year 2001, and, gentle reader of Salon, I pray that you will not become forgetful of that fact." Too bad Bissell couldn't put it that succinctly. We can only hope that with the publication of his next book he will stick to writing press releases and not burden us with an essay.

-- Brian Massey

Letters to the Editor

MORE FROM Letters to the Editor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------