Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Art of Fielding

{And the Fellowship of Hype}

So. I just finished The Art of Fielding. The passages about baseball were unexpectedly glorious; the doomed gay affair at the heart of the novel surprisingly dull. But I do recommend reading it. And then taking a deep breath and plunging into the review B. R. Meyers wrote for the Atlantic, which is without a doubt the best double-edged review I've read in a long, long time. Meyers begins his snarky but candid essay thusly:

Most people's interest in contemporary “literary” fiction, if they have any interest at all, is a matter of wanting to read the latest Big Novel while it’s still being talked about.

Which is precisely -I'll readily admit- why I read The Art of Fielding (albeit about a year late, and after it came out in paperback). It's a great book, don't get me wrong, but perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book was the social aspect of comparing notes with friends (and strangers-turned-literary-confidantes at the flash of that distinctive cover). Case in point: at a Park Slope house party a few weeks ago I gasped with delight between hors d'oeuvres as my cousin's to-die-for literary agent friend dished about the book's initial publishing woes; the next week I listened intently as the fellow stacking just-out paperbacks shared his opinions at the (worth-the-detour) RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. And last week a woman plopped down next to me the subway, noticed my book, and pulled a battered copy of The Art of Fielding from her bag with a laugh. We commenced one of those distinctly New York fellowship-through-reading-material conversations until she realized she'd missed her stop.

One generally doesn't have those interactions with, say, a copy of Dubliners in hand. There's something urgent and energized about the discussion of books when those books are freshly imprinted on the public imagination. Let's call it the fellowship of hype. And perhaps -on occasion!- there might be something valuable in that. Proceeding with skepticism, sometimes it's worth it to take a leap of faith and see what all the fuss is about, if only to share a conversation with one's neighbor on the F train.

And so. Have you read it? Do you read contemporary literary (Meyer's ironic quotation marks be damned) fiction within a year or two of publication? Would love your thoughts (and what you're reading right now). DISH IT. 

38 comments:

  1. but isn't that one of the reasons to read-get lost on your own and then, when you've found your way out, to share your thoughts with others. Society becomes one big book club. Meyers just sounds like a book snob. Hoestly though, this is the first I have heard of the Art of Fielding-but need some books for summer-so noting it down.

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    1. Right-on; society does become one big book club when these much-hyped books fill the shelves, but I think what I mean is that SOMETIMES THAT'S OK, because the *fellowship* of reading is special in its own right. That's why book clubs are fun. It gets people bonding through books, talking about books.

      Now do my random interactions with strangers about The Art of Fielding fulfill the soul in the same way as, say, a long conversation I had with a classmate about the writing of Annie Dillard, one of my favorite writers who is by no means popular or mainstream? Of course not. That's something truly sacred, that thrill of bonding with someone over a cherished book or author. Or, as you put it so beautifully, finding your way out and then sharing your discovery with a friend. THAT is truly the social pleasure of reading.

      And yes yes yes, Meyers is a bit of a snarky killjoy, but I fundamentally agree with his review (worth the read). It's startling, actually, to hear someone go against the grain on such a popular book (he basically trashed the book). Anywho, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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  2. I love the way you expressed that shared, communal experience of strangers, reading together. Your post caught my eye, because I just started The Art of Fielding myself. Harbach is an acquaintance, and I see him around town often, so I feel like I really need to get around to it! I am liking it so far!

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    1. Abby! Give him a huge high-five when next you see him. Harbach certainly gets an A for tenacity with writing the book over 9 years, getting turned down by countless editors, and finally hitting the jackpot with a commercial success.

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  3. i just finished reading this as well! and i am most definitely not one who jumps on the "contemporary literary fiction" train, but i'd heard the buzz and am a sucker for sports/coming-of-age/dashed dreams-type stories. i really enjoyed some parts and some especially well-crafted sentences. i rolled my eyes at many, including every use of "freshperson" instead of "freshman." i craved more dimension to the characters - schwartz was the only one who came off the page for me. definitely worth the read; not sure it was worth the $25 hardback. and obviously i am commenting to be a part of the social aspect, as i do occasionally feel i miss out on that by not keeping up with what's popular.

    now reading "in the land of dreamy dreams" by ellen gilchrist - short stories set in and around new orleans. touched with darkness, like all good southern writing.

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    1. Caroline, you summed up my experience pretty aptly. The freshpersons, o the freshpersons! What I loved about Meyers' review was that he shared that perspective- is it a great work of fiction? Probably not. Is it an enjoyable read worth my time? Sure!- and then looked at the book from a broader pop culture perspective. And from a social aspect, the book (like many but not all "it" books) is worth the read.

      And I should have made it clear in my post- I waited a year *for the paperback to come out.* It was only $10 at the local bookstore;)

      Thanks for the Gilchrist rec.

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  4. I'm digging the new design! I'm reading Studs Terkel's Working right now..well as much as I can read before giving it to my little brother as a graduation present next week...

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  5. haven't read it. hopping to it. i'm *always* a year or three behind so i can't say i share the same zeal for reading contemporary literary fiction that you do. i try. but i miss the boat, over and over. in other news. i'm finishing up ann patchett's state of wonder now. i started with real gusto and gobbled up the first half. have found myself getting wandering eyes toward the end, though admittedly reading a passage about an anaconda last night was riveting enough that it made me want a good snuggle despite the heat. j. was happy 'bout that.

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  6. note: passage was about an actual anaconda. and it was scary. so snuggles were entirely chaste...gosh.

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  7. Ha! Totally had same reaction.

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  8. I completely agree with the idea that there is "something urgent and energized about the discussion of books", so much more so than say a new movie for example. To have read the Latest Big Novel is a testament to one's intellectual propensity, to their genuine commitment to culture, to their authority as a self-proclaimed aesthete. I think this is why we're just so excited to talk about books, to join, as you so cleverly put it, "the fellowship of hype" because no other cultural conversation serves our own image better. This isn't to say that we read the latest retro-fonted literary work of fiction just to say we did so, but I do think it might secretly be part of this whole fellowship phenomenon. Nevertheless, the fact that the "Art of Fielding" can bring two people together on a subway is something to be celebrated. I might just pick up a copy myself for fear of missing out.....!

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  9. just chiming in to say that the river run bookstore is one of my favorite bookstores and i can't wait to go next week when i am in new hampshire visiting the in-laws.

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  10. best book i've read in a long time.

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  11. I haven't read it, yet, but I completely remember the subway commiseration over reading the same book. Miss those moments of camaraderie in the city.

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  12. I do. I try to read all of the New York Times Top 10 fiction in, well, January. The tail end I'm still reading now. So. I read it. I liked it. And I also thought it was over-hyped. Good, but not As Good As Was Reported. The stuff about creativity and success and shutting yourself down was the stuff that really hit home with me.

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    1. Also, I'll admit. I buy them in December, in hardcover, and pay the price (though I also add EVERY SINGLE ONE to my Christmas list to see what I get). But it's one of my pleasures and rituals, and I declare it worth the money. Also, as an author, I'm always rather pleased to do it. Put my money in publishing. That's something I can get behind.

      Now. Did you read 11/22/63? I'd never read Steven King before, and it was hands down the most enjoyable read of the new year for me. Brilliant literature? Maybe not. But also? MAYBE. Writing something that compelling that I want to rip through the almost a thousand pages in two days, that makes me think? I'm not sure it should be marked down just because it was so fucking enjoyable to read. Which, I feel like is what I'm really doing. "So fun, it must not have been that good for me." OR WAS IT? Stuck with me though, I'll give you that.

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  13. Interesting blog, I really enjoyed browsing it :)

    XX JUNO ♥
    Ohit'sJuno▲

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  14. I actually read this book after getting the heads up from your blog, I borrowed it from our local library so no one got any of my pennies I'm afraid! I did enjoy it, it ticked all the boxes of the coming of age novel the problem for me was that it read like a check list of points to cover for this type of literature. The things i did find interesting though were the culture of college and baseball in the states, completely fascinating to a Londoner, we just don't have this tie in of sport and higher education.

    Jane xx

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  15. oh how I've missed you. not that I've stopped reading your posts, unfortunately, I no longer have the grown up job from which to escape and jump into your world. I have not read this book but feel like I have reading your passionate words. does it make me less viable knowing Rihanna's new music video is playing in the background and the depths of my 'reading' is to figure out what the heck she is saying?
    hearts.

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  16. I read it immediately after reading the wonderful article in Vanity Fair about bringing this little piggy to market. It was a fascinating article about the business of books, from the readers to the publishers to the book sellers. Written by the author's college pal, and partner in n+1, Keith Gessen.

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  17. I read it a couple of months ago, after a friend gave me a copy of it. Yes, my friends now give me baseball-related things whenever they see them. Be it baseball stick-on tattoos, a broken Mets watch, or New York Times bestsellers. I'm not complaining.

    I mainly enjoyed it, especially all the baseball stuff, but thought it was a bit too long. The writing felt average, with a few cringe-inducing sentences that caused me to actually say, out loud, to my cat: Really?? Really, CHAD??

    But my main problem with the book is the character of Pella. I found her a really annoying and boring imitation of a Joan Didion-esque unhappy young wife on medication that just didn't feel right at all. (To be fair, most characters felt a little stereotypical.)

    Still enjoyable as a whole, but if you want to read something that will REALLY knock your socks off, try Open City by Teju Cole. Now that's a home run!

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  18. Had arthroscopic knee surgery last week, so was ripping through a book a day, since I was incapable of doing much more than changing my icepack every 30 minutes. I usually alternate contemporary literature and entertaining trash, although sometimes that line can get blurred. At the present moment I am reading Naked by David Sedaris. Not sure how I missed that one in 1997, but snapped it up at the local library sale for 50 cents. Life is short, but so are funds, so I always wait for the paperback.

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  19. haven't read this one yet, as i have heard a lot of mixed reviews.

    i just read "song of achilles" by madeline miller, and found out yesterday that it was awarded the Orange Prize. it was very enjoyable, but sometimes strayed too far from what we know of achilles and patroclus from other sources for my taste at times.

    for now, i am lumbering through "the magic mountain," though i really want to read "wolf hall" and "bring up the bodies" next.

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  20. Man, I feel really out of the current literary loop although I've never tried reading the current sensations - maybe this summer is a perfect time to start!

    Love the new banner!

    xo
    cortnie

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  21. hmmm. it's hard to know what to read! we want to take in things that are relevant to ourselves and the world we are in. if reading what everyone else is currently reading is a way to narrow the field--and possibly connect with others and have some interesting entertainment and conversation, then so be it!

    i'm still working through anagrams by lorrie moore. and i'm lovin' the new ban-ban.

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  22. Your comment about the subway made me think of this: http://undergroundnewyorkpubliclibrary.com/ !

    Have you seen this before? It's one of the loveliest things. I often find myself secretly in love with people on the train reading things I love, just as I fall for people who have tote bags from organizations I care for.

    As I hit my late twenties, I find that I've been stepping it up in the classics department- trying to read at least one or two things by all the big names. Recently I've read Woolfe(Room of One's Own/ halfway through Mrs. Dalloway) and Wharton (House of Mirth) and Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. Also I've gone down a serious Dorothy Sayers rabbit hole, and I've really been longing for people to discuss these with.

    For modern books, I struggle against the high expectations that come with hype. I call this the "Sideways" effect- referring to that movie and how much everyone glommed onto it as "the best movie of the year"!" and overhyped it so that by the time I saw it didn't stand up to how glowing the reviews were. I felt I'd have liked it more if people had said, "this is a pretty decent movie in a dull year" instead.

    Popular books on my overhyped list include A Visit From the Goon Squad, Freedom, The Night Circus, and maybe, (and very regretfully as I did like it a lot, but still...too hyped), Swamplandia.

    Popular books I didn't find to be as overhyped/or lived up to the praise this year that really were lovely included State of Wonder, Wild and The Magicians/The Magician King

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  23. Haha, yeah, sometimes I feel like I have to read the books while they're still in their hype before they're outdated. But it is enjoyable to share a nod with someone in a cafe who happens to be reading the same book. I picked up a book in a tea house along the Everest Base Camp trek that had raving reviews on the back, but I hadn't heard of it previously. It was fantastic! The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht.
    p.s. Your still life shots are my favorite. Favorite!

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  24. I LOVED this book. Did it blow my mind? No. But it was so easy and enjoyable to read. And it made me totally nostalgic for my midwest college experience!

    I actually read it for my book club. All of us liked the book overall (which hadn't yet happened). But the overwhelming consensus was that it felt written - whether intentional or not - to turn into a movie.

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  25. So true. I had this internal struggle for this very reason about reading Eat Pray Love just because I wanted to know what everyone was talking about. I ended up not and now it's past the point of anyone wanting to talk about it, ha!

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  26. i am a terrible snob and tend to prefer old sluggers to teen queens, so i tend to skip This Year's Models in hardcover unless they're by and/or are about someone/thing i love. am currently reading sjón's from the mouth of the whale (new, celebrated, icelandic) and the new peter carey, the chemistry of tears (sign my boobs, peter carey).

    a gal sat down next to me as i read barthelme's sixty stories a few months ago. she blinked: "i just finished teaching 'the balloon.' not recently - as in, ten minutes ago." best.

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    1. most excellent, all around.

      and ooooh never heard of this sjón person, just added whale mouf to amazon wish list. SPANX, kidchamp!

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  27. Hype, I shake my fist at you, for making me waste valuable commuting/reading minutes on Freedom and The Marriage Plot, both of which I disdained with a thoroughness that bordered on actual anger. I am glad I can join the conversation - I think that is worthwhile, really, and I relish being part of a global dialogue that isn't about, say, whether that's a baby- or burrito-bump Beyonce is shaking - but man, I wish someone would hype something a little...better?

    Galore, by Michael Crummey - tiny hype bubble sometime last year. A man tumbles out of a whale in the first chapter. Give it a whirl?

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  28. I think you'll love WILD by Cheryl Strayed. I did (and after this weekend, we know Oprah did too -- it's the book that inspired her to restart her book club). It's gorgeous and heartfelt.

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  29. just spent two days holed up on the rainy vineyard reading the art of fielding. it was hard to put down but also not great....a lot of thematic weirdness and cliche and also totally implausible. but i liked skrimshander and i totally had a girl crush on professor eglantyne, too.

    i LOVE being able to talk books -- my book club has totally fallen apart and in its heyday was really all about wine anyway (NY book club, anyone?) -- and so while i don't clamor to read the latest and newest, it's always fun to hear people's opinion on the book (or article) of the day. my boyfriend, for example, loathed TAOF and was unable to find any companionship in that regard. i hated blood bones and butter and let the three other people on the subway reading it at the same time know so. and i just read seating arrangements and i can't wait to discuss that with fellow beachgoers.

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  30. It does happen with Dubliners, but it involves fewer words and more nodding. I prefer nodding.

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