There are some words used especially in internet discussions of films, books, TV series, games, albums and other media that are 99% certain to make me stop reading. One of them is “pretentious”, which is criticism’s analogue of Godwin’s Law – only the sturdiest of discussions survive its use intact.
While it’s not quite as bad as “pretentious”, I don’t like the term “overrated”, because usually it just expresses that the person using it doesn’t agree with the majority at the same time as believing that they’re right and the majority is wrong. It takes a certain amount of arrogance to believe that something is overrated… and yet, I’m about to desplay exactly that amount of arrogance, and possibly more.
When I read Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, I couldn’t help feeling that it was pretty much the encapsulation of an overrated work. Like so many paperback novels, it starts with several pages of praise. Not just any bog standard praise, mind you, but superlatives along the following lines:
A dazzling debut… The Art of Fielding might be the best book you’ll read this year…
A triumphant first novel.
… the most delightful and serious first book of fiction that I have read in a while…
… a magical, melancholy story about friendship and the coming-of-age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer… earnest, deeply felt emotion…
How to deal with such hyperbole? Do you just ignore it as the obvious sales ploy it is? I sometimes find it difficult not to take on a somewhat antagonistic attitude towards both the reviewers and the thing they’re reviewing: This is the best thing since gold-plated sliced bread that performs tasteful yet exquisitely exciting sexual favours? Prove it! Without the hyperbolic praise, I might not have read The Art of Fielding expecting it to either be amazing or fail to live up to those expectations – but then, I might not have read the novel, period. To be fair, The Art of Fielding is not bad – but this is where I will go into arrogant territory and beyond. The novel is pleasant, it’s an easy read. It’s great, for a while at least, if you’re tired and don’t want anything taxing. For a story that’s about a sport I find boring and the men who love it, it’s entertaining enough. Is it anything more than that, though? To be honest, I don’t see it. The writing is competent but not as clever as it seems to think. The characters are sketched quickly and deftly, but they never really become more than those sketches, and there are characters that come across as glib, smug cartoons that make me turn against the novel and its writer rather than against the characters themselves.
What bothered me most, though, may be exactly what makes the novel a pleasant read: it’s harmless. It has no edges whatsoever. It’s toothless. I don’t necessarily hold with Kafka’s dictum that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us” – but Harbach’s novel never really gains characteristics beyond its pleasantness. There is something downright amorphous to it, an amoeba-like quality of having had all its edges sanded off. I like books that have personality, but this one never gains much personality beyond its generally sunny disposition, and as a result it felt vague and unconvincing when trying to convey stronger emotions. The drama it aims for in its plot lacks energy, conviction and the bite of real emotion.
Yet, going by the reviews the book wasn’t just generally liked, it was loved, a reaction I’m puzzled by. I can imagine people enjoying The Art of Fielding‘s pleasantness, but I cannot fathom anyone mustering the kind of strong reaction that the reviews hint at. Is this the flipside of the more usual, glib cynicism which makes it easier to tear into something than to praise it? I expect reviewers to have more of a range than either panning something or praising it as if it were the Second Coming. Or perhaps the fault, dear Brutus, is in myself – it is possible that as I am tone-deaf to the pleasures of baseball I am equally oblivious to what makes The Art of Fielding not just pleasant but great? Is the novel overrated… or am I overrating my own critical abilities?