"The Polysyllabic Spree" by Nick Hornby

From the author of "High Fidelity," a delightful celebration of the joys of reading that reminds us why most literary criticism is so bad.

Published December 9, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

Nick Hornby's new collection of his essays from the Believer, the literary magazine edited by Heidi Julavits, is named in homage to the rock collective the Polyphonic Spree, who dress in choir robes and perform feel-good, orchestral pop. It's Hornby's gentle way of tweaking the magazine's earnestness. When he writes that the Believer staff's promise of a night on the town in New York resulted in their dragging him to a two-and-a-half-hour reading of the nominees for the National Book Critics Circle, you mourn for Hornby and his evening. His description of the Believer staff's behavior at the event is a gag: "They stood, and they wept, and they hugged each other, and occasionally they even danced -- to the poetry recitals, and some of the more up-tempo biography nominees." It isn't hard to believe that the event was the literary equivalent of Up With People.

Sometimes Hornby and the Believer butt heads. He writes in one column that he and the magazine's editors reach an agreement "that if it looks like I might not enjoy a book, I will abandon it immediately, and not mention it by name." Listed at the top of that column are "Unnamed Literary Novel" and "Unnamed Work of Nonfiction." In the magazine's debut issue, Julavits wrote an essay arguing that most book criticism is too snarky and negative, and Hornby has more or less been instructed to avoid negative reviews.

Julavits wasn't completely wrong; it's a snarkiness you see in film and TV and music criticism as well. Usually, but not exclusively (see Lane, Anthony), this snarkiness is expounded by younger critics who have not yet discovered that you start to do good criticism only when you realize how little you know. But I'm not sure Julavits knows that difference between deserved sharpness and showoffy meanness.

A book critic I know, someone not at all given to meanness, once confessed to me that she felt guilty when panning a book because the writer had gone to "all that work." I told her that she had gone to a lot of work as well, "the work of turning the pages." Reading a book you don't like is miserable toil; the sensible thing to do is abandon it and find something you enjoy. But a critic has to read all the way to the end -- unless you believe reviews should only be positive.

It's true that critics often do their best work when they get to write on what they love. And there's no point in knocking a small book that isn't getting any attention from the press or any publicity from its publisher. But a critic should be free to say honestly that something is bad, how bad it is and why it's bad. Even when that is gently done, it doesn't make friends, and it doesn't honor hard work or good intentions that, if the result isn't up to snuff, count for bupkis.

The Believer has made space for good critics. Where it deserves credit for bucking a trend that is harming contemporary criticism isn't in its attitude toward negative reviews but in the freedom it has given Hornby for his column.

At a time when editors are obsessed with what's hot, and with what New York Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent called "the overwhelmingly meaningless desire to be first" (as if all other reviews of a work are redundant after the first one appears), the Believer has allowed Hornby to write about whatever he's reading, whether it's the hot new novel, a classic he wants to reread or some obscure title he has always meant to get around to.

This is important for two reasons. Unlike critics in any other art, it's possible for book reviewers to write piece after piece without talking about what people are actually reading. A book critic free to write about classics, old favorites, new books or whatever stands a better chance of connecting with more readers than someone who's just striving to keep up with what comes down the literary poop-chute.

Second, Hornby is writing about the day-to-day process of being readers as most of us practice it -- not following some neat scheme but reading without premeditation, going higgledy-piggledy from one subject to another, based on whim, recommendation, chance.

The result is less a column to read for insight into any one book (though there is that sometimes) than a column in which to recognize the habits that bind readers together, no matter the differences in what they read.

That recognition starts with the two lists that headline every Hornby column: "Books Bought" and "Books Read." Sometimes entries in the former end up on the latter that month, a few months later or not at all. Anyone who buys more books than he or she can read (i.e., any reader), and who then lets those acquisitions hang around for months or years, will look at those lists and sense a kindred spirit. (The surest way to spot a nonreader: someone who comes into your house, looks at your books and asks, "Have you read all these?")

Hornby is terrific on the haphazard way we're led to books. An example: He's a big fan of the Philadelphia band Marah. (They figured in his wonderful New York Times Op-Ed column last May about what it feels like for a pop fan to fall out of sync with contemporary music.) Marah's latest album, "Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky," takes its name from a trilogy of novels written in the 1930s by English writer Patrick Hamilton. Thus is Hornby led to Hamilton.

For me, it doesn't end there. I had come across Hamilton's name last year, in reading B.R. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto" (one of the only pieces of cultural criticism of the past few years that really matters), and ordered both "Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky" and Hamilton's later "Hangover Square" from Amazon U.K. When they came, I looked them over, kept them on my night table for a few days, then shelved them and forgot about them. When I came upon Hamilton's name in this book, I got out "Hangover Square" and found, just as my Penguin edition blurbed, "one of the great novels of the 20th century." (Suffice it to say that Hamilton writes about street life with an honesty and lyricism, an absence of sentimentality or fetish for squalor, that should make nearly every hard-boiled writer hang his or her head in shame.)

That is the circuitous process by which we come to books. And with the supermarket nature of the modern book megastores impeding the interaction of customers, and seeming to offer so much that nearly any choice you make is going to feel wrong, we need to value all the quirks of fate and coincidence that lead us to particular books.

Many of Hornby's best insights are tossed off, such as this from his discussion of Pete Dexter's "Train": "It seemed to me as though poor Norah lost her nipple through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability." Hornby admires Dexter's novel. But his offhand remark on the grisly fate of Dexter's character is an obituary (and not a loving one) for every novelist who has ever tried to impress us with his or her toughness (what I call the "Jump up and down so we can hear 'em clank together" school of writing).

Hornby isn't always on target. Some of his insights are the sort of silly things we say and later have the good sense to retract, as when Hornby realizes he was foolish to claim that a good literary experience trumps most other good cultural experiences. He does not, sadly, back down from this really dumb statement: "Usually, books have gone out of print for a reason, and that reason is they're no good, or, at least, of very marginal interest. (Yeah, yeah, your favorite book of all time is out of print and it's a scandal. But I'll bet you any money you like it's not as good as 'The Catcher in the Rye,' or 'The Power and the Glory,' or anything else still available that was written in the same year.)"

I'm not the person to whom you should make an argument using J.D. Salinger as a measure of greatness ("'sincere" in the manner of an advertising man's necktie," said Mary McCarthy of "Franny and Zooey" in 1962). But does Hornby really believe that nothing great goes out of print? The New York Review of Books has established an entire imprint dedicated to books that have gone out of print, and in just the last year they've given us, among others, Rose Macaulay's "The Towers of Trebizond" and John Horne Burns' "The Gallery," great books both. Perhaps, in 20 or 30 years, when Hornby's best novel so far, "How to Be Good," is out of print, it would be worth asking him if he still believes this? (He may be modest enough not to think that prospect is any big deal.)

What's most valuable about this collection, though, is that Hornby, by dint of his sensibility and the variety of his choices, shows that the distinction still made between reading for the sake of "enrichment" (as that gasbag Harold Bloom insists upon) and reading for pleasure is a phony divide. After encountering Dennis Lehane's novels, Hornby wonders why no one has ever recommended the writer to him, and answers, "Because I don't know the right kind of people, that's why. In the last three weeks, about five different people have told me that Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Line of Beauty' is a work of genius" -- he's right, he doesn't know the right kind of people -- "and I'm sure it is ... I'm equally sure, however, that I won't walk into a lamppost while reading it, like I did with 'Presumed Innocent' all those years ago ... I'm happy to have friends who recommend Alan Hollinghurst, really I am. They're all nice, bright people. I just wish I had friends who could recommend books like 'Mystic River,' too. Are you that person? Do you have any vacancies for a pal?" (It's your lucky day, Hornby. Get Denise Mina's "Garnethill" trilogy, Val McDermid's "Killing the Shadows" and "A Place of Execution," Ace Atkins' "Dark End of the Street," Kris Nelscott's Smokey Dalton series and Ruth Rendell's "A Judgement in Stone." Then let's talk.)

What I like about that passage is that it's not an either/or opposition. There's no assuming that someone who walks into a lamppost because of a thriller is not going to have time for a literary novel. And, in my experience, there are very few readers who are either/or sorts of readers. (To be fair to Hollinghurst, I didn't poop out on "The Line of Beauty" halfway through because it's too literary. I quit because there's no payoff to the structure he sets up in the first half of the book. There's just more of Hollinghurst's minor, calibrated observations, and a jump ahead in time that saves him from writing the novel's transition, one that makes no emotional sense anyway. The English novels to read on the Thatcher era remain Jonathan Coe's "The Winshaw Legacy" and Ian McEwan's "The Child in Time.")

In a stroke typical of Hornby's approach, his best insight into the insularity of the literary mindset comes in an aside prompted by a quote from Janet Malcolm's "Reading Chekhov," a book Hornby likes. Malcolm wrote: "Everyone has seen a 'Cherry Orchard' or an 'Uncle Vanya,' while very few have ever heard of 'The Wife,' or 'In the Ravine.'" To which Hornby responds, "Perhaps this isn't the right time to talk about what 'everyone' means here, although one is entitled to stop and wonder at the world in which our men and women of letters live -- not 'everyone' has seen a football match or an episode of 'Seinfeld,' let alone a nineteenth-century Russian play."

Malcolm was, of course, pointing out that Chekhov's plays are better known than his short fiction, and chose a clumsy way of saying that. But the assumption behind that clumsiness deserves comment. Why is it that those who have the most vested in encouraging people to read are often the ones least suited for the job? Saying that "everyone" knows Chekhov is, whether intentionally or not, one of those statements guaranteed to make people feel out of it, to make them feel that culture is a closed circuit to which they can find no point of entry. I'm not advocating the opposite, that idiotic state of affairs where you assume that no one knows anything and even common cultural references have to be identified, for fear of insulting the reader.

What Hornby does so beautifully here is to assume the intelligence of his readers, and to obliterate the literature/pleasure divide by acting, sensibly, as if it didn't exist. The implicit message of these columns is that nothing that is not pleasurable has a right to be considered art. It certainly doesn't have a right to your time.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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