Two books to avoid

I used to read a lot; now I don’t. Writing gets in the way. (Also working for a living.) And when I read nowadays, I often get cranky. Here are two very different books that made me cranky recently.

The Outsider is the first Stephen King book I’ve read in decades. He just wrote too damn much, and I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped trying. King has his strengths and his weaknesses, but I always thought the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. But I didn’t enjoy The Outsider. The setup annoyed me: It’s structured as a police procedural, but the police procedures don’t work because the actual perp happens to be some kind of shape-shifting life-force-sucking evil monster, not the poor suspect whose body and DNA he replicated. So all the police work falls apart. Then everyone goes into monster-hunting mode, and King expends a lot of effort setting up the ground-rules about what powers the monster has. These ground-rules seemed utterly arbitrary to me–put in place so he could give us a thrilling climax. I wasn’t thrilled. Meh.

On the other end of the spectrum is Wuthering Heights, which is one of those novels that any self-respecting English major should have read before graduating from college. But I didn’t get around to it till last month. Here’s a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time where it shows up at #46; this seems pretty typical. If I’d been younger when I read it, I probably would have contemplated Bronte’s depth of characterization and reinvention of the novel’s form and maybe ignored the fact that everyone in this novel is freaking insane. The me who read the book on his well-earned vacation got increasingly annoyed at this fact.

Maybe it’s just me.

Stephen King on being prolific

Stephen King has always struck me as being a humane and generous writer.  In today’s New York Times he has a piece entitled “Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?”  He points out:

No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality, but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue.

And he points out that some writers (himself included) are just meant to be prolific–they can’t help themselves:

As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days — I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating — when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …”

But he never quite answers the question in his title (the title, of course, may not be his).  This comes to mind as I read Elin Hilderbrand’s novel The Rumor.  She is no dummy:  She went to Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  She has created her own wildly popular genre–the Nantucket beach novel.  But clearly her publisher wants her to write a book, maybe two books, a year.  Could her novels be better if she took more time writing them, if she aimed higher? Is she being too productive?  Beats me, but I think maybe so.  The Rumor seems OK, but it is very slight.

On a related topic, I have so little time to read that I tend to avoid prolific novelists, because I fear that they are sacrificing quality for quantity.  But, of course, I could be wrong.  Here is Shakespeare’s output for 1599, as chronicled in the wonderful book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599:: Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.  I don’t think any of us would  have wanted Shakespeare to slow down in 1599.