Liking and Disliking: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

mccannLately I can’t seem to stop quoting Henry James’s remark that “nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it: the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” However much we try as readers and critics to bring something resembling rigor to our analysis of a book, there’s always a fundamental (though not immutable) personal response at the heart of it, isn’t there? No two people ever really read the same book, after all. I often think of criticism as an attempt — more or less fully realized — to show someone the book as you see it, very much in the spirit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s remark that being a novelist is an appeal for companionship in experiencing life: “Perhaps you’ve never looked at it this way but now that I’ve put things this way, don’t you recognize this, too?” Agreement may not follow, but better understanding will, perhaps of the book, perhaps of the reader.*

What makes one reader like a book — love it, even — and another not like it, or even despise it? This question was much on my mind as I read Let the Great World Spin because from the moment I plucked it off the shelf at the Brattle two years ago it was the subject of just such a debate: one trusted reader warmly recommended it, while another (OK, it was Steve) told me emphatically not to bother with it. I ignored Steve’s advice, but clearly his disdainful judgment introduced just enough ambivalence for me to defer actually reading the book for a pretty long time!

And now that I’ve finally read the novel for myself, what did I think? Well, it more than passed “that primitive, that ultimate, test” for me: I really liked Let The Great World Spin. Because I had heard it was a “9/11 novel,” and because it is festooned with blurbs praising its “lyricism” and “heart,” I was worried that I might find it overdone, manipulative, portentous — but I didn’t. Each section is from the perspective of a different character: I was drawn rapidly into each story, and as the relationships between their individual parts emerged I appreciated more and more how delicately it was done. There were moments of recognition as each story took its place, but nothing felt forced: every moment, and every voice, had its own history and its own integrity. All of the stories are about love and loss and longing, and they are held together by small acts of grace or moments of connection: there’s no melodrama, no hyperbole. This kind of polyphonic narrative always risks becoming more about artistic showmanship than about the story or characters (for me, this was the effect of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), but I found McCann’s virtuosity at once impressive and understated. Even the high wire act around which the whole novel is arranged remains, for us, just out of view: our attention is (in McCann’s words) on “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”

There’s no arguing with my response to Let the Great World Spin. It turned out to be one of those books that make me seek solitude as the end draws near: I wanted to stay quietly within it until it had completed its work. It didn’t affect me as deeply as, say, The Orphan Master’s Son; it’s not as dazzling as The Last Samurai or as darkly brilliant as Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies; it’s not as important as The Lost. But I am really glad I read it: I liked everything about it.

At the same time, there’s no arguing with Steve’s visceral rejection! So that has me thinking — not so much about what accounts for this particular difference of opinion, or experience, or judgment (though maybe he and I will talk it over when I visit Boston again next month!) as about why we hate books, when we do. I’ve been trying to think of books I really hate. I’ve certainly written here about quite a few books that I didn’t like at all. Usually, though, they aren’t books that I think are outright bad but books that are good in ways I don’t enjoy (Flaubert), or good at things I don’t think are very nice (FordSt. Aubyn). I disliked a lot of Terry Castle’s The Professor: that’s the closest I’ve come lately, that I can think of, to actively hating a book. Except for maybe The Paris Wife: that was pretty lame. Oh – and there was The Sixteen Pleasures! But I was more disappointed in it than anything. I thought Lord of Scoundrels was laughable, “a parody of my worst imaginings about romance novels” — but that was only the first time I read it, when I really didn’t get what it was doing, and even then I wouldn’t say I hated it. Hate is such a strong word! (It might not even be the right word for what Steve feels for Let the Great World Spin, though it seems a reasonable inference from his calling it “paper-thin idiotic drivel.”) It suggest an absolute negation, an active hostility, that may be incompatible, for me, with actually reading a book all the way to the end. Steve wants back the time he spent reading Let the Great World Spin: I can’t think of a book I’ve read (at least since I started blogging –sometimes it feels as if my prior reading is all one undifferentiated blur) that I truly regret having read because the experience was so unpleasant. I’ve been bored, unconvinced, puzzled, underwhelmed, repelled, occasionally scornful; I’ve more than once thought a book didn’t live up to its hype. That’s all bad enough, but that’s as bad as I can really say it gets.

I wonder if what keeps me from taking that final stop into hatred is my ever-lurking sense of my own fallibility as a reader. I already mentioned Lord of Scoundrels as an example of a book I came to read differently (better), and there are many other examples of books that I came to like more as I got to know them better, as I found contexts for them and ideas about them that reduced the role of my personal taste in my response to them. Many of these are books I have worked with for teaching, though: I am unlikely ever to reread and research most of the books I write about here in the same way — and even those I review more formally for Open Letters, though they certainly get scrupulously reread and reconsidered, are never the focus of my sustained attention over time, meaning I do not have the opportunity to grow into them, or they do not get further opportunities to educate me about themselves! I am morally certain that many of the books I’ve blogged about don’t really deserve, or would not reward, that investment, but nonetheless I know perfectly well that mine is not the final word on them — nobody’s is! So even my most arrogant pronouncement rigorous disquisition on the merits or demerits of a particular book is underwritten (if only implicitly) with a little humility. And yet I am as sure of my own liking or disliking as anyone else.

Have you ever hated a book? When you do — or when you just dislike a book intensely — do you think there’s a particular quality or feature that you’re responding to? Can you think of a time you really regretted having read something? What do you think when you discover that someone really liked or disliked a book that you had the opposite response to? Also, if you have read Let the Great World Spin, did you like it? 🙂


*One of the things I did over the last two weeks was write about 1000 words laboriously explaining this view of criticism — complete with some discussion of “coduction.” But I then decided it did not fit in the larger piece I was writing so I cut it all out. I’ve saved it in another file, just in case, but in the meantime, I’m glad I got to sneak this nice Ishiguro quotation in somewhere else!

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17 Responses to Liking and Disliking: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

  1. steve donoghue says:

    Steve’s rejection of “Let the Great World Spin” wasn’t visceral! I didn’t read (or re-read) the thing with my large intestine, after all! How you could possibly have read McCann’s sloppy, sappy gerrymandering and NOT felt manipulated is utterly beyond me. But then, so much of this excellent, excellent post is utterly beyond me – especially this wild, heretical idea that nobody’s verdict on any given book is the final word on the subject, when it’s a well-known and universally-accepted fact that MY verdict is, in fact, the final word on any book. What can explain this? Were you perhaps ill when you wrote it?

  2. steve donoghue says:

    (oh, and you can COUNT on talking about it when you visit Boston! It’s now bumped all other subjects right off the table!)

  3. Teresa says:

    Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a tendency in myself to seek out the good in what I’m reading and set aside the bad. I don’t know how much of that is a lack of confidence in my own critical faculties, but I know that I’m reluctant to insult something other people love, and so much of what I read comes from others’ recommendations that I go in searching for what they liked about it. I usually find something, even if my overall opinion of the book is not a good one.

    One thing that interests me is how different readers will see the same things in a book and come away with totally different opinions of the book. Recently I posted about why I couldn’t read more than 50 pages in Night Film, which many people whose opinions I trust liked a lot, and a couple of people told me that everything that annoyed me was absolutely true but that those flaws didn’t bother them. In a lot of cases, I think liking and disliking comes down to what a reader is looking for in a book, and that’s going to vary from reader to reader and from book to book. That’s one reason that I don’t see my opinion as any sort of final word.

    I like your idea of a review as a way of showing readers what you see in a book. That’s more interesting to me than a star rating or judgment. There’s more scope for discussion in sharing observations.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I agree: there’s not much to talk about once a really vehement pronouncement has been made. If you agree, you’re done; if you disagree, you have to choose if you will fight about it or not. Someone’s strong opinion can be a spur to taking another look, I suppose: what if your first look was blurred or myopic, or rose-tinted, after all? That’s so interesting about people noticing the exact same things and yet having such different responses, though. Again, it seems to return us to the readers, rather than the books.

  4. Irene says:

    My husband loathed The Goldfinch so much–scowling and grumbling as he plowed his way to the end–that I couldn’t bring myself to read it, despite all the praise it got. (It got some pans, too, as I recall.) Weak minded of me, I know, but he made it seem so dreary that I couldn’t face it.

  5. Susan Messer says:

    Great post, Rohan. So thoughtful and well written and about all the most important things in life and reading. I did like Let the Great World Spin, but now it’s been too many years ago, and I don’t remember it clearly enough to really weigh in.

    What I’ve noticed lately with my reading is not so much that I hate any particular books but that if I start to feel annoyed with one early on, I rarely recover. I felt this way about Swamplandia!, which we recently read in my book group. And there was a book by Richard Powers about Nebraska and sandhill cranes that set off my annoy-o-meter big-time.

    Our group is discussing Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner on Saturday night (this book was my choice), and I LOVED it, so I’m a little afraid of others’ responses. We often disagree, but those are usually the best discussions. The like/don’t like thing is unavoidable, on the gut level, I think, but in some ways the least interesting part of the discussion. Am fascinated with Irene’s comment about The Goldfinch. i haven’t read it yet, but boy, most people seem pretty enamored. I love hearing the dissenting view. And the smack down between you and Steve in Boston should be pretty interesting. Maybe you could film it and put it up on YouTube.

    • Rohan says:

      Annoyance is an interesting subcategory of dislike to consider! I got annoyed with both The Woman Upstairs and The Signature of All Things — and like you, I didn’t get over it. I wonder if that prickly sensation makes you start looking closer and finding fault, whereas if something about the book early on affects you positively, you glide forgivingly past the faults (as Teresa suggests, it’s not that you don’t see them, but for some reason they don’t bother you). It’s a reader’s version of confirmation bias, maybe.

      I’ve read pretty mixed things about The Goldfinch (there’s some great discussion of Francine Prose’s NYRB review at Wuthering Expectations). I feel as if I’ve been ‘burned’ a few times recently with much-hyped books that took a lot of time to read only to be disappointed so I’m holding off so far, at least until I can get it in paperback!

  6. Tom says:

    As Professor Maitzen will be in Boston it’s perfectly natural to ask if she will be in NYC . . . Boston’s nice enough but NY is much better; perhaps Mr Donoghue and Ms Maitzen & Co. will consider relocating their seminar here so the rest of us can listen in!
    (just a thought . . . ),
    Tom W.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      If only! No, not this time. But I have my heart set on a trip to NYC next spring or summer, if I can manage it.

  7. Erik M. says:

    I find it hard to imagine hating a book, and the closest I come is not finishing or deciding not to start one. But then I tend to like most things (not just books), and the books I read were usually written before I was born, so maybe the ones I would have hated have either been forgotten or have turned into amusing curiosities.

    Someone reading Ngaio Marsh in the mid-20c UK or New Zealand might have been put off by the anti-drug sermonizing or race theory that sometimes pushed everything else aside, but from early-21c North America, both have become a fascinating glimpse into another way of looking at the world. (I think that for you and Ishiguro, any two people’s experiences are unique and any book can offer this kind of glimpse, but for me the act of crossing lines of time or place or language is a lot of the fun and a lot of what matters.)

    • Rohan says:

      I agree that if I really hate (or expect to hate) something I’m unlikely to read it, though I concede Tom’s point that there are some things truly detestable that nonetheless may have value: know thine enemy etc. In general, though, life is short and books are many and why deliberately seek out a bad experience? The large majority of new-to-me books I read are really somewhere in the vast middle ground of liking (including McCann’s) — from “I liked it OK” to “I really liked it a lot.” That’s where there seems to me the most room for an interesting conversation.

      Your point about glimpsing another way of look at the world is really important. And that includes seeing things we don’t agree with or want to applaud (the anti-semitism in some of Georgette Heyer’s novels, for instance). Reading, even lovingly, doesn’t have to mean “embracing wholeheartedly.”

  8. I will happily hate Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Irredeemable on every level. I do not regret reading them, though. There is some value in knowing, in really knowing, what is in them.

    With any complex work of art, we can use help seeing what is in it. Even with some that are not so complex. Like, dislike, I don’t care – I want to try to see what other good critics see that I don’t see myself.

    Steve – honest question – what does “gerrymandering” mean in this context?

  9. I rarely hate books. Like Teresa, I try to focus on the good in what I’m reading and ignore the bad, though I think she is a rather more generous reader than I am overall. My instinct in writing reviews is to play up the good. Sometimes, though, I’ll be writing a review and realize in the writing that I genuinely disliked and was unimpressed by the book — that happened to me with The Bellwether Revivals last year, for example.

    (I didn’t like Let the Great World Spin. I appreciated its craft more after my book club had discussed it thoroughly (my book club is full of brilliant people), but I did not come to like it. I wouldn’t reread it probably.)

    • Rohan says:

      I don’t set out intentionally to focus on the good or the bad: I really try “just” to read and then say what I think — but as you say, sometimes when you are writing you discover what you think, and also, what I think may be decided in some way by how I set out to read. When you say “I appreciated its craft” that reminds me why I like the term “appreciation” so much (I’m always bringing it up in class, where the point of the reading list is not to somehow insist that students like the books but to help them see why they matter and how they work). I can think of a lot of books I have come to appreciate but only not as many that I have come to like — though the two processes are quite connected, in my experience.

  10. Biblibio says:

    Well, I didn’t hate Let the Great World Spin, but I definitely didn’t like it. There have been books I’ve hated though, books that were pure torture to get through and by the end I just wanted to hurl them at the wall. Some of them may be “classics”, sure, but anyone who tries to convince me of the literary merits of, oh, The Alchemist, will get a book in the face (my sister once tried, but I stand by my assessment that it is a terrible book), or Catcher in the Rye (yes, I’m one of those people) which will get an outright punch.

    Hating books for me is as natural a part of the process as any other. Lots of books are just plain ol’ bad, but I do think there’s a special class for the books that make me groan aloud while reading them, or books that I only finish because they’re less than 150 pages long and “why not?”. That’s more than just disliking, or finding critical fault. That’s the same sort of passion you feel towards really good books. I don’t know… am I the outlier here?

    • Rohan says:

      “Lots of books are just plain ol’ bad

      I’m sure you’re not an outlier in having strong negative (and positive) reactions. But isn’t the tricky thing here that your hating a book is not a definitive answer to the question whether it is “plain ol'” bad or good? You mention “classics” you’ve hated — but obviously other people have liked or greatly admired or even loved them. It seems to me less interesting to argue about who is “right” (though it’s always a fair question whether the person making the case has read carefully and has some relevant expertise as a reader, because I don’t think we have to defer at all to someone who tries one page of, say, Middlemarch and denounces it as boring and thus a BAD book) than to engage in what Booth calls “coduction.”

      I wonder if a more useful set of labels would be something like “worth discussing” or “not worth discussing.” Mind you, pretty much anything is worth discussing if you set up the right context: hanging out with more romance readers / experts than I used to has helped me grasp the concept of horizontal reading, for instance — a book that on its own may seem to have little to offer can be part of a broad horizon of material that has its own significant aspects. But when we talk about the merits or demerits of an individual book, I think we’re usually thinking more about deep reading: what does it have to offer on its own, aesthetically, thematically, etc.? In any given reading community, there may be a lot of consensus about which books are worth taking much trouble over in that way, either because they seem obviously good or obviously bad. There’s all that room in the middle, though.

    • Amazing to see someone hate The Alchemist, among the most brilliant treasures of English theater. Don’t give up on Jonson yet, though – try Bartholomew Fair. I do not believe there is another play in English with so much life and movement in it. A play about a carnival that is like going to a carnival. Jonson’s poems are excellent, too.

      Rohan, I don’t remember, have you read Carl Wilson’s much hyped yet actually good book on Celine Dion and taste? It’s smart, and short, and written in a generous spirit. It is almost like a coduction case study.

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