A Reader’s Lament: Beware Book Award Winners

I finally powered through the sci-fi novel Rainbows End by by sci-fi legend Vernor Vinge. I had earlier read his novel A Fire Upon the Deep, which I found to have great ideas but sluggish execution. Still, I liked Vinge’s short stories, so I decided to give Rainbows End the old college try.

I didn’t give up, but Rainbows End was more of a challenge than a reading pleasure. Again: great ideas presented with blah characters and a plot that never grabbed me, despite a promising spy vs. spy techno-war beginning.

And this novel won a Hugo Award.

I should know better by now than to get seduced by high profile books. Winners of fiction prizes sing a siren song to me, enticing me to dive into their crisp pages of critically praised copy. I’m seekng both reading enjoyment and writing approaches tghat I can apply to my own writing. Yet, I have had consistently poor experiences with the novels that racked up the awards. My hopes crumpled time and again against the plotlessness, lack of empathetic characters and exuberant but indulgent writing. Even worse, these books stick in my mind because I stuck with them due to a mulishness that convinced me the book HAD to improve, the themes would coalesce into a riveting reading that would leave me thinking, “That was a wild ride, long but worth it.”

I never thought that about a book that didn’t grab me. The rides never improved. In some extreme cases I even bailed out, but otherwise I hung on and wound up using the tricks I used to get through Moby-Dick and Les Miserables – skimming great swathes of the books, especially their latter sections, in a search for turns of phrase and plot advancements that made the book worthwhile.

What books rode prizes to a claim on my precious time? Let me count the ways:

  • Rainbows End, Hugo Award. Vernor Vinge is very highly regarded. As a mathematician and computer scientist, he’s got the background to write with authority on science topics. I had seen several references to his work and decided to give it a try. A Fire Upon the Deep, about different zones of space defined by the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, sounded good. The ideas summarize well, but I never got into the mood. Rainbows End, set in San Diego without any interstellar travel or even non-human species, was much closer to current reality. Still, it reflected every problem I had with Deepness in the Sky. Having bailed on The Children of the Sky, the sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, I should have known better. The problem is, I hugely enjoy some sci-fi. Short story collections on time travel and apocalyptic themes haunt me. The novels of John Scalzi (Old Man’s War, Fuzzy Nation and Redshirts, all prize winners with Old Man’s War being one of the top sci-fi novels of all time) always delight me and, even better, make me think. Sci-fi, however, is wildly unpredictable as a genre so I can’t presume anything will work.
  • White Teeth, loads of UK awards for a first novel. Zadie Smith’s sprawling, imaginative novel about families in England from World War II to 2000 won a spot on Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. I can appreciate Smith’s ambition but I found the book an impossible slog, with some intriguing parts about culture clashes, but full of characters I could not care about an ending that seemed rushed. Maybe I just have overly linear and plot-driven tastes. I need three attempts to push my way through White Teeth. I’ve had no desire to read her later novels, awards or no awards.
  • The Finkler Question, Man Booker Prize. Howard Jacobson’s novel about three men in London differs from the others in that I liked his writing style, which had some screamingly funny and insightful passages. I don’t begrudge him the 2010 award. Still, the book seemed less than an integrated novel than a collection of chapters that could have been arranged any which way.
  • Tree of Smoke, National Book Award. Denis Johnson’s 2007 about the Vietnam War had a solid premise and writing style, but the plot just wandered and never came together, completely tanking at the end. I think he succumbed to the need to make any novel about Vietnam hallucinatory and fragmented, without the linear flow of anything suggesting a sensible story. Soldiers, do-gooders, double agents, refugees and spooks wandering the jungles had the makings of something great, but I missed the prize point and felt cheated that I put my time into this.
  • 2666, called one of the 10 best books of 2008 by the New York Times and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page epic excited me as a concept. The setting, a fictional reworking of Ciudad Juarez, drew me in because of the location on the Texas-Mexico border. Once I got in, and kept flipping ahead to see if the epic would untangle the avant-garde, style-blending prose, I knew I’d never engage.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. These are highly regarded flights of polished, knotty prose and imagination from Michael Chabon. I finished both, but they were exhausting and left me with a “who cares?” attitude. My high hopes were dashed, especially with the great concept of the second book about Jews with their own Yiddish-speaking nation in Alaska. Well, I knocked them off my fiction bucket list and I know what I don’t want to emulate as a writer, although the source material was terrific.

Sometimes I can tell a book is not going to work for me, no matter how hard I root for it. Most recently, I slammed shut the cover on The Children of the Sky, the long-distance sequel to A Deepness in the Sky. I read about 10 pages and knew I’d never get into the characters I didn’t much connect with in the original book. Further back, I surprised myself by not finishing Rashi’s Daughters, Book I: Joheved: A Novel of Love and the Talmud in Medieval France by Maggie Anton. Unlike the other books here, the writing style had a straight-ahead direction and I cared about the characters. But the book just didn’t come to life for me; it had a stolid tone that wore me down that reminded me of a romance novel. Of all the books listed here, this is the one I might try again, in case I wasn’t in the right mental mindset to appreciate it the first time around.

Lest you think I’m a literary crank who seeks out books for the sole purpose of complaining about them, I really do enjoy reading novels and, lately, short fiction. John Scalzi is a sci-fi favorite, and Alan Furst goes to the top of my list whenever he releases one of his romantic-spy novels set in the tumultuous Europe of the 1930s and 1940s; most of the titles sound like recent Woody Allen movies, by the way, like Mission to Paris and the upcoming Midnight in Europe. Carl Hiaasen’s comic mysteries set in corrupt and sunny South Florida are a new favorite; I’ve greatly enjoyed Bad Monkey and Skinny Dip and can see my own mentality in their language and material.

Novels with Russian themes always work for me. I can read long, profound Soviet historical novels (Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, the series Children of the Arbat, 1935 and Other Years, Fear, and Dust & Ashes by Anatoly Rybakov) and they make great sense because I’ve done a lot of non-fiction reading on that era. Fictional investigations of the Stalinist era are my version of horror and vampire novels– forbidding, frightening yet irresistable. William Ryan’s thrillers about a Soviet investigator in the late 1930s dazzled me, with Holy Thief and The Darkening Field. Tom Rob Smith’s brilliant, brooding trilogy about troubled Soviet investigator Leo Demydov gave me a real feel for an era I’ve studied in depth, spanning the 1930s to the 1980s, with Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6. He just released the psychological thriller The Farm, so I’ll hunt that down at the library.

I know I can always turn to Anita Shreve for a close look at relationships and, as a have called it, angst-ridden baby-boomers enjoying illicit affairs in tasteful vacation locales. Jodi Picoult also gives me reading enjoyment.

The lesson, sad as it may be: I’m resolutely classical and genre-driven in my reading tastes. I’ve learned to choose my targets wisely when looking for both enjoyment and writers to emulate. Soaring pyres of tangled prose simply don’t work for me, no matter how they stunned the po-mo crit crowd.

I’ll be at my local library on Sunday — let’s see what jumps out at me.

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