Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

Writers Need to Respect the Audience

I just heard from a friend who attended a conference workshop where a professor droned on endlessly, repeating what was on his elaborate, dull PowerPoint. I’ve seen this happen in the academic world myself, and it shows a profound lack of respect for the audience. What could be more boring and alienating?

But that kind of approach isn’t limited to academics. I’ve attended too many author readings and presentations where the writers seem to have no sense of their audience. No sense that the event isn’t just about them, it’s about making a connection, about reaching and moving the people in whatever the venue, whether it’s a bookstore, a library, a theater, or a hall.

I’ve seen authors reading from their books in a low, dreary monotone, barely glancing up at the audience. I was at one event like that where a writer friend next to me fell quietly asleep and woke up full of questions because she’d missed some crucial passages.  She asked me as softly as possible: “What accident? Who was driving? Who was the girl in the ditch?” The answers didn’t really matter because the author kept on in his sleep-inducing mode.  That was one writer who not only had no audience awareness, he had never bothered learning something basic: how to project his voice.

I’ve also seen writers allotted fifteen minutes in a panel presentation go way over their time limit and be totally oblivious to the rising tension and anxiety of the other panelists.  These time hogs clearly hadn’t rehearsed at home what they were going to read and timed it.  And then gone one important step further: cut the piece by a few minutes so that just in case they slowed down during the actual event, they would stay within their scheduled time slot.  By going over, they were treating their fellow authors with unconscious disdain.

And I’ve seen writers make cringe-worthy comments that set the audience on edge.  “I wasn’t sure what I was going to read tonight.”  Really?  You’re the professional, you should be sure.  “This next part always makes me cry.”  If that’s true, then don’t read it, because if you don’t cry people will be wondering why not, and if you do cry it’ll interrupt the flow and likely be embarrassing.  And aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be moved, not you?  “The reviewers hated this, but I love it.”  Sorry, but a reading isn’t the time for unloading snark.

Author readings and talks are performances.  They demand planning and thoughtful consideration.  Anything else is cheating the audience, it’s taking listeners for granted, and not treating them with the respect they deserve.  Too bad not enough authors realize that.  Instead, they come to their events minimally prepared, as if all they have to do is show up, be themselves, and wait for the applause.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres included a guide to the writing life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.