Obooki’s Sexennial Survey of the Literary Scene

As readers may be aware, Obooki doesn’t have much time for contemporary English literature; he doesn’t have a good word to say about it. But perhaps, too, it’s crossed your mind (as it has Obooki’s) that this is just prejudice; for what recent books, after all, has he read? Perhaps many of these highly-praised works he’s heard about – works which simply everyone is reading – really are the masterpieces they are claimed to be; – perhaps they do indeed demand to be read and re-read.

So, to challenge preconceptions, we have Obooki’s Sexennial Survey of the Literary Scene. This is how it works: I find the cheapest charity shop I can; there I buy ten or so examples of the very best in contemporary literature (for these books are so good, people are always spreading the word by passing them on to other people through charity shops); these I take home and for each book I read the first 50 pages; if I find no merit in the book at that point, I lay it aside and start on the next one; if I am enjoying it, I am quite entitled to continue on to the end; then at the end I give all the books back to another charity shop.

That I’m going to like any of these books is of course highly unlikely. I’m certainly not coming into this project with an open mind. But even in my purblind state, I’m still capable, I like to think, of some discernment. In the last version of this, six years ago, I did finish one book. Here are the writers from that project:

  • Tibor Fischer
  • Jeannette Winterson
  • Magnus Mills
  • Kate Atkinson
  • Don DeLillo
  • Sebastian Faulks
  • John Banville
  • Ali Smith
  • Julie Myerson

(Yes, another useful side-effect of this project, is that it will supply me with another six years’ worth of Aunt Sallies, with which to beat contemporary literature).

(It’s true, in between then and now, I’ve read the odd book in the same manner – out of competition as it were: Tom McCarthy, Lee Rourke and Philip Roth come to mind – all with a similar result).

So, any recommendations? – Remember, we are looking for much-heralded masterpieces which there’s little chance I’ll like. – Oh, I don’t know, something like Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections. – I believe I still have something by Safran Foer left over from the last edition. And probably I can already throw in Steven Hall.

I think the reason it’s taken me six years to get back round to this is that, amusing as all this sounds, none of it fills me with any pleasure. It’s a chore I feel I need to go through so I can maintain the opinions I maintain; – so I can’t be accused of being, for instance, one of these complacent bloggers who disparages everything apart from Beckett, Blanchot and Kafka, when it transpires those are the only three authors I’ve read.

Oh yes, August – that’s when I’m doing this.

(This list from The Millions provides some good ideas – though with an American-bias, while I’d rather wanted an English one; the writers I’ve read on it certainly have to a man failed to impress – and it reminds me I’ve also got The Road somewhere).


20 thoughts on “Obooki’s Sexennial Survey of the Literary Scene

  1. What about We Need To Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver? I picked up a copy which happened to be lying around and (unexpectedly) actually got to the final page. I can’t see you enjoying it much.

  2. Perfect, Melton. I shall look out for a copy. Lionel Shriver really annoys me as a person too, so that will help.

  3. Now you mention it, I am conscious suddenly of how irritating Shriver is; up to now it must have been a sub-conscious irritation I felt.

    How about AL Kennedy? Not that I’ve read her, but she seems to fit this project. I myself have just bought Anne Enright’s most recent, so it’d be interesting to compare notes on that if she makes the cut (there must be thousands of copies of The Gathering lurking in charity shops).

    Continuing the irritant theme, may I suggest Hari Kunzru? Following your model I have not read him but have strong negative views of him and his work.

  4. I’ve read a bit of Kennedy – short stories, but never got through a novel. I think she’s had her chance. – Enright is probably a good idea; I can’t see me liking it. – Kunzru I might even have bought for the last project, and then given away again unread. He would very much fit in, I feel.

    Perhaps I’ve overstated the importance of merely reading books I definitely won’t like. While I want the project to fail in this way, I am prepared for it to succeed too. I remember last time around, every time I picked up a book, I was fearful it might actually be quite good – usually, it wasn’t until I’d read about 20 pages that the panic would begin to subside.

  5. So, something much-heralded. I have two suggestions, both of which I’ve read already, but I’d be interested in your response to them and in seeing others’ responses to them:

    My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (the British edition is out under the title A Death in the Family), and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

    The first really may not make the cut, as, for one thing, it’s more a memoir than a novel, for another, it’s much heralded mostly in Norway, where its something of a national obsession, and for another, your chances of liking Knausgaard are probably substantially higher than your liking, for instance, Jonathan Franzen. And for yet another, I much preferred his not so popularly heralded A Time for Everything, which really doesn’t fit your parameters. But I’d still like to see more reaction to him here on the blogs.

    I’m sure I’ll think of others, and so may well comment again should I think of any…

    Oh, and out of curiosity, what was the one book you finished last time?

  6. Karl Ove Knausgaard is for various reasons on my radar, but his Norweigenness will have to exclude him from this project. I have no doubt that good novels continue to be written in foreign language. – Adam Johnson demonstrates a concept of recency which is outwith my understanding – but, all the same, I may come across a publishers proof copy or something.

    I finished John Banville. But that’s not to say I greatly admired it – probably I’d give it somewhere between 2 and 4. I haven’t, in the six years since, read any other Banville – and even bought any.

  7. You’re actually gathering evidence to support your opinion? How very quaint! In the world of Internet blogging, “This is just my opinion and I’m entitled to it!” is usually reckoned to be the final word in everything!

  8. I know, but I’m designing the experiment in terms of my preconceptions, so it probably amounts to the same thing.

    I have so far bought Gary Shteyngart (pronounced Shite-n-gart?)’s Super Sad True Love Story. It looks rubbish. I think I could review it now after just the first page (“toothless, aimless light comedy” etc. – I shall be repeating this phrase a lot).

    I’m put up a list on the left sidebar somewhere of books I’ve collected to read, see here.

    Today I noticed, but didn’t buy, something by David Peace and something by Poppy Z Brite, and also Frantzen’s The Corrections (I’d have bought the latter, but I didn’t have any spare change, only notes – a strange excuse, but how I felt at the time). I might go back and get them all though.

    The Peace and Brite I couldn’t bring myself to buy because they just looked too dreadful to even bother including. Poppy Z Brite wrote, I remember well, the worse short story in Zadie Smith’s anthology The Book of Other People – and that’s saying something. One day I might use it for an essay on how not to write a short story.

  9. Is it wise to include a monumental doorstopper such as the Vollmann in such a challenge? Although I admit I’m interested in reading his stuff some day, so I’ll await your thoughts.

    The Shteyngart seems (from other reviews) to be middling, inoffensive, so will no doubt attract a suitable evisceration. The Hall book reminds me (possibly wrongly) of one I bought years ago called Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, which I’ve been unable to read to date.

  10. I thought I’d leave Vollmann till last. (My father read it, and even he moaned about the length – and about the jumps in the narrative too). In fact, I’m going to read all the books I don’t think I’ll like first, to avoid getting bogged down in having to finish any.

  11. Ha! A very funny post. May I suggest adding something by Geoff Dyer to your list? Surely there’s no risk that you’d actually like his novels (forgive me if I’m wrong). What’s a “charity shop”?

  12. Yes, yes, Geoff Dyer – how can I have forgotten him? Nothing would please me more than to not like a book by Geoff Dyer. (And he’s always in charity shops, too, I notice). Even one of his non-fiction books, since they seem to be just as much fiction as his fictional ones.

    A charity shop? – A charity shop is a shop people freely give their possessions to which they don’t want any more, which the shop then resells on to other people (and the proceeds go to charity). Hence, it’s great for finding contemporary literature – quite often, like I suspect this copy of Shteyngart, unread.

  13. I ought to say that what kept me reading We Need To Talk About Kevin was the grisly parent/child stuff, some of it horribly recognisable, albeit in a fairly extreme form. I’ve no idea what your domestic arrangements are, so it might creep up on you as well.

    Alan Hollingsworth, featuring heavily in the Guardian recently, must be worth a look, though I’ve never read anything by him. Quantities of sexual activity, apparently, which are an immediate return-to-shelf for me.

  14. No, I can’t relate to parenting and don’t like books about it. Recommendation is improving all the time.

    You mean Alan Hollinghurst, I take it. It said in that last Guardian article that he had the finest prose style in… (although I did get the feeling the interview could easily have been persuaded into some kind of passive sexual position). So he certainly qualifies. I like a fine prose style; and I don’t like it when people claim someone has a fine prose style when they don’t.

  15. At the risk of sounding like a McDonalds ad I am hugely enjoying Enemy Combatant/Human Wishes by Edmond Caldwell.

    It’s as post-modern as hell but has some extremely funny and heartfelt writing in it as well.

    Having written that it’s a book you probably won’t find in a charity shop ….or a bookshop for that matter.

    Which Magnus Mills didn’t you like? I really enjoyed The Constraint of Beasts but found the other two of his I read ( whose titles I can’t remember ) straining too hard after the same effect to diminishing returns.

  16. Enemy Combatant hasn’t been widely praised so it doesn’t qualify of course.

    Anything by Audrey Nifenegger ought to qualify for the author’s name alone. I’m irritated just by trying to spell it

  17. I have bought a lot more books for this project now, as detailed on the left sidebar. To be honest, my feeling as I go to purchase these books is much the same, I imagine, as if I were purchasing pornography: I hope the person serving me will not judge me; I want to explain that I’m only buying the books for a curious project and otherwise I have no interest in them. Buying The Corrections was the worst.

    Also, all these books are far too long (they must average about 500 pages each). Because of that, normally I wouldn’t go near them: it’s only because I’m allowed to stop at 50 pages that I feel happy buying them; and that I’m going to give them back to the shop at the end, so they won’t clutter up my flat.

    Still, my expedition wasn’t entirely a waste. I also came across a copy of Francisco Ayala‘s Usurpers.

  18. Try wearing a false beard when you go in to buy the books.

    A friend of mine who used to steal from bookshops and sell to second-hand bookshops used such a ruse in order to deliberately look embarrassing so people wouldn’t look at him, leaving him free to nick things.

    Evenings were spent distressing the pages, writing addresses on the inside cover and occasionally underlining “significant” phrases.

    This is one of my 50 standard anecdotes so apologies if you’ve read it before

  19. Oh God, Miéville. I don’t want to pre-judge your pre-judgemental experiment with him, so I’ll say no more.

    I’m sure you’ll take it the right way when I say I hope you really hate the Enright.

  20. ET: I don’t think a false beard would help: I’m not under any impression I’ll ever meet these people again in my life. No one’s going to point at me on the street and shout, “There’s the guy who bought Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections!” – Nice story. He could have saved himself effort and just written in the inside cover of each book “To John, Hope You Enjoy This, Love Trish”. No one would ever suspect then.

    LH: Yeah, I’m really excited at the prospect of Miéville. – I read the first pages of most of the books today and they all seemed really good; but maybe that’s because I spent most of the rest of the day, for my sins, reading books on strategic management.

    I might, in fact, move this project forward to June – and perhaps stretch it out a bit. I really feel enthusiastic about it – a feeling which, I know, will quickly wear off when the reality hits me.

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