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.

Don’t Diss Rihanna When You Blog

The Internet is a breeding ground for hatred: look at what’s been happening to Leslie Jones.

But bloggers don’t usually deal with anything that severe.  What they do face is the lackwits. These people can be, but mostly they’re just critical and convinced of their wisdom when what they write to you proves the opposite. They hit the keys whenever a blogger dares to criticize anything or anyone they admire–and they have standard, boring lines of attack.

Say, for instance, that you’re not crazy about Rihanna or you do like her music but don’t think she was ready for a Video Vanguard Award.  You  don’t think her vids are classics and you don’t think she’s in a class with Madonna, Kanye, Brittany, and Beyoncé.  Expect to get accused of being jealous of RiRi’s success.

rihannaNow, unless you’re a pop singer, a charge like that doesn’t really make any sense.  But even if you were a singer, why would any kind of critique necessarily mean you’re jealous?  Can’t you have valid reasons for not admiring her body of work or thinking that maybe it’s too soon for her–at 28–to get the award?  Does that automatically make you a hater?

Lackwits have emailed me when I’ve blogged something remotely negative about a book, movie, or TV show, targeting me because I’m an author.

Back at the beginning of the latest season of Game of Thrones, I blogged that I thought Jon Snow’s resurrection was dull compared to other, more dramatic moments in other episodes. The inevitable response showed up: I was jealous of George R.R. Martin.  Oh, and guess what?  They had never heard of me.

A truly devastating comment.

frank side eyeAnd I just blogged about Michael Connelly’s New York Times review of Caleb Carr’s Surrender, New York, saying that the novel sounded unappealing as Connelly described it.  Of course someone felt she had to charge me with “sour grapes.”  Seriously?  I don’t write like either one of them, never have, never will, never wanted to, and never expected their kind of career.  .

Here’s the thing: Most authors aren’t on best seller lists and aren’t widely known. That’s the case even for writers like me who make a good living from their royalties, get sent on book tours at home and abroad, are paid very well for speaking engagements, win awards, and have successful careers.

Why’s that?  Because the average reader in America only reads or listens to one book a month and there are 80,000 published every year.  When people say that they’ve never heard of an author or charge an author with sour grapes because that person doesn’t like a book, all they do is waste an email and make themselves sound like a doofus.  Of course, they supply bloggers with material, and novelists, too….

hugh laurie

Lev Raphael is the author of the novel The German Money–which a Washington Post rave review compared to Kafka, John le Carré and Philip Roth–as well as 24 other books in many genres.

The New York Times Outs a “Blurb Whore”

This week Malcolm Gladwell was outed by the New York Times as a “blurb whore.” The Times didn’t actually label him that, but it’s the term publishing insiders use for an author like Gladwell whose name appears promiscuously on book jackets.

The Times article revealed how often Gladwell blurbs books totally outside his own areas of expertise and that his name “adorns scores of book covers not his own.”

If blurbing were an Olympic sport, he’d clearly get the gold.

“It’s hard to compete with Malcolm Gladwell,” said A.J. Jacobs, the author of four books, including The Year of Living Biblically, who was once such a prolific blurbist, his publisher demanded that he stop writing them. “He is always going to get the front cover. I get the back cover or, maybe, inside.”

Gladwell’s blurb helped make Freakonomics a best seller and publishers hope for similar success for their books when they enlist the nation’s Blurber-in-Chief.

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The Times reported that Gladwell hands blurbs out “like Santa,” though he doesn’t seem to care if authors are naughty or nice. No matter what the book’s genre, it does seem to help, though, if there’s a personal connection: “Many of the people for whom Mr. Gladwell has written blurbs he knows socially or has even dated.”

But the personal apparently goes deeper than that.

When Jacobs wrote about his “blurbing problem” a few years ago in the Times, he said that Gladwell told him tweeting and blurbing were “conceptually identical: the short, targeted judgment in which the initiator draws attention to himself while seeming to draw attention to something else.”

Blurbing is clearly an ego-boost and good publicity for authors writing blurbs, no matter how famous they are. Jacobs confessed in that article: “I get a thrill from seeing my name scattered throughout the bookstore.”

His tone was less serious than Gladwell’s, but the story sounds very much the same: “Me! Me! Me!”

Lev Raphael’s books–from mystery to memoir–can be found on Amazon.

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.