I’m glad to see that John Hodgman reminded everyone that before he became better known as a tactless neurosurgeon on Battlestar Galactica
he was indeed a literary agent, and a good one at that. I have a distinct memory of him talking you and I off a ledge over some contract issues we were having over My First Presidentiary
. (An uncompensated favor to two internet acquaintances no less.)
Hodgman illustrates another of our reoccurring themes in judging books that our transparency makes apparent, the weight of expectations.
With a couple of weeks of hindsight, as I look down the initial tournament list and reflect on my reading experiences, I see how significantly expectations have affected my responses. With Netherland
, I’m certain my comments are overly judgmental, mostly because I was all-too-aware of the critical hype (and the locus of said hype) for the book. I think I initially put it towards the bottom on my personal rankings, but if pressed, I would’ve chosen it over the books it was matched up against in each of its first two rounds.
For The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
, I entered with literally no expectations one way or another. Freed from prejudice, the book was allowed to soar on its own terms. I can’t say I was surprised because I wasn’t measuring it against anything, but I was, for sure, delighted.
I had mixed feelings over. On the one hand, I tend to like the somewhat messy and maximalist (Pynchon, Foster Wallace). On the other, it’s just really fucking long. After I read the first 30 pages I told a friend that I thought it was going to be really good and interesting. I was intrigued by the deadpan tone and the oddness of the story, and the mysterious setup regarding Archimboldi. But after another 60 pages I already found myself ground down and defeated by the book. It became impossible for me to see any virtues because all I could think was how bored I was and how far there was to go. Reading out of duty isn’t going to get anyone anywhere and surely caused me to pile up more than my share of resentment.
To bring this thinking around to the current match-up, my initial take on A Mercy
was much cooler than it is today. In my personal rankings I had it third from the bottom. In my comment on its first round contest
, I called it, Morrison reduced calorie. I’m sure some of that was disappointment over my buddy’s book going down to defeat, but primarily it was me comparing the book against the best of what Morrison had done in the past. A Mercy
never had a chance against the weight of those expectations. Now, I tend to think of it as Morrison concentrate instead. Add water and you get Beloved.
Here and there in the comments or blog postings about the tournament I’ve read people saying that thanks to what the judges and/or we have to say they’ve been induced to give a book a shot (City of Refuge
) or not (2666
). While on the one hand I love the thought that my opinions carry so much influence, the truth is that all our opinions have done is allowed someone to confirm their previous judgment and expectation and in some ways, I think that’s a shame.
I’m not saying people should stop commenting on books. It’s the opposite; the more the merrier. I am saying, however, that in the end, you shouldn’t necessarily listen to anyone but yourself.
You and I and John Hodgman have known each other about 10 years now, since we were all writing for McSweeney’s in the days of the comparatively benign internet bubble. John H. did me another solid after I finished Cast of Shadows
and as a result he is possibly the only person outside my family who was thanked in the acknowledgments of both my books, even though I don’t think we’ve actually ever been in the same room together (the fact that, when his BSG
episode aired, I was watching at home dressed very convincingly as a Six
As you and Hodgman both point out, A Mercy
is a much better book after you’ve read it. It’s not a lot of fun while you’re in the thick of it, although Morrison’s prose contains many moments of pleasure. Still there’s hardly a paragraph of it that’s forgettable. When John mentions the scenes of Florens lost in the woods or her humiliation in front of the town leaders, I not only remember them I remember the sensation of reading them. I don’t just remember the I am already kill by you quote, I remember the twinge in my gut when I read it.
John Hodgman says A Mercy
advances. So say we all.
isn’t able to crack the top four in the Zombie results, but since we’re at the end of Round Two let’s shake things up again. As we head into the pre-Zombie semifinals, we’re going to eliminate two more of the contenders and see what would happen if the Zombie Round were held today.
There could still be a reshuffling depending on which novels lose the next two matches, but as of right now the top two books in Zombie voting among those that have already been eliminated are (in alphabetical order):
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
- The Lazarus Project