On Accidentally Reading Half-Assed Books by Famous Authors
As an up-and-coming writer, there are few things I long for as much as having readers love me so much that they'd see my name on a book and buy it, regardless of what it was about, because they've enjoyed my past work so much.
In my own reading life, this usually works out pretty well for me. It's rare that I love one book by an author and later hate another book by that same author. I understand that success in writing isn't a linear trajectory upward and that some early books may outperform later books, but, in theory, a writer's work should get better with time.
However, there have been a handful of times when writers did something completely out of left field, like decided to publish a notebook of jotted ideas rather than an actual book or they decided to learn a foreign language, write an essay in that language, then have it translated back to their native language and let a whole lot of things get lost in translation.
These examples might sound off the wall, but they actually happened.
Earlier this year, I heard about Joan Didion's latest book: South and West. As a creative nonfiction writer, Joan Didion is pretty much everything I aspire to be. She's worshipped by generations of writers, so of course I was thrilled to learn of a new book coming out.
What I didn't bargain for, though, was that South and West was only a book in the sense that it was pages bound together. There were several times over the 60s and 70s that Joan traveled to various places throughout the South and West (hence the title) and while on her travels, she kept a notebook of observations. South and West is the published version of this notebook.
There's no cohesive narrative and the text was only corrected for grammar, so it really does read like a collection of one-off observations––some of which are a sentence, while others are several paragraphs. In fairness, the introduction to the text warned of this, though it was touted as a mark of authenticity rather than proof of carelessness.
While there were some lines that were brilliant, poetic, and poignant in that way only Joan Didion can muster––and there were some parts I found interesting since a couple of the observations were about my hometown, Birmingham, Alabama––it was largely disappointing. I wanted to see those notes actually turned into essays, which is doable since Joan is still alive and still writing, I presume. Or, if not fully fleshed out essays, then an anthology where writers were invited to pick an observation to build an essay off of.
Bottom line: I can envision several different possibilities that would have been better than just an unedited notebook of observations.
A few months after reading South and West, I picked up The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri. A couple of weeks previous I'd read her novel The Lowland and loved it, so between that and my interest in the publishing industry, I thought a super short book on book jackets would be interesting.
I've seldom been so disappointed by a book. It's less than 90 pages and even 20 pages in I kept noticing how stilted the prose was. Then 50 pages in I was thinking how it was an incredibly surface level essay, which is the antithesis of Lahiri's other books, so I was taken aback by it.
Essentially, the moral of the story is that book jackets are important because they're supposed to represent the story the book contains, it sucks when your publisher puts an ugly book jacket on your book, and if you've ever wondered how book jackets come to be, so has Lahiri. There aren't any revelatory observations or really anything insightful that someone who's wondered about book jackets hasn't thought about themselves.
Despite how short the book was, I debated putting it down permanently. I rarely abandon books, so you can imagine how shocked I was. I decided to do some further research on the book and found that Lahiri had gone to Italy and fallen in love with the Italian language, so she learned Italian and originally wrote the text in Italian. Later it was adapted into a presentation for a conference. Then later it was turned into a book.
It's painfully obvious The Clothing of Books was not originally intended to be a book because it lacks the completeness that good books require. I also couldn't help wondering if the language was stilted and the substance was lacking because it was originally written in Italian. Perhaps if a good editor had made some recommendations or the essay had been completely rewritten with book publication as the intention, it would've been better. But, as it stands, it's nothing to write home about.
In each of these cases, the books were rather short, but my complaints have nothing to do with length and everything to do with incompleteness. They don't reach high enough or try hard enough. Rather than come to any meaningful conclusions, they ride on the author's past popularity to sell.
While this might line the pocketbooks of the author and publisher for awhile, it's not a smart long-term strategy. It annoys existing fans and discourages newcomers. I'm on a social networking app for readers called Litsy and there was so much hype around South and West that many people I follow who had never previously read Didion were flocking to the book. Unfortunately, they were then coming away disappointed. These aren't the kind of books that these authors or publishers should want as a gateway to these authors' works.
I'm still a big fan of both of Didion and Lahiri, though I'll definitely be researching new books by them more carefully before buying.