I think this is an interesting question.
Why do we [occasionally:] like books even when we realize they’re deeply flawed? Now I’m not referring to books in fairly formulaic categories, such as romance fiction, where the author knows the book will be evaluated within that genre. I’m referring to fiction—such as Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison Country
--which I hate beyond words—that aspires to be whatever serious literature actually is. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
would fall in this category. Clearly, David Wroblewski intended to write a book of serious fiction. …Having Hamlet
as its subtext is a big clue.
Yet, I liked this book. I enjoyed reading it. For me, it may have been the book equivalent of comfort food (soup or mashed potatoes) or movies I watch, such as The Legend of Bagger Vance
, Finding Forrester
, or August Rush
that I know aren’t technically superior, but I like anyhow.
Yes, Lobstergirl, the book is often maudlin, mawkish, and overwritten. Yes, Eh!, the Hamlet
bit doesn’t work, and for all I know, Almondine is Ophelia. And yes, Ruth, anthropomorphism almost never works—even if you’re a dog lover. The book is filled with loose ends, scenes that are absurd, and possibly the dimmest mother ever created. I probably liked the dog scenes as well as any of the others, but I'd also be hard put to explain the significance of the intricate dog training.
Factors that may affect our judgment—no matter how enlightened we might feel we are---are the conditions under which we read a book. I was in a book wallow when I read Sawtelle
, and it got me through a tough time. Normally, I read books within the constant everyday scrim of interruption. In contrast, books I’ve read on airplanes (especially those experiencing delays), in hotel rooms when I’m hiding out from a dull conference, on vacations, or other rather distraction-free zones, often get a more favorable impression or at least of level of patience and attention I don’t always have time to give to books.
It’s a bit like those times when you start reading a book, and think, “This is boring the holy hell out of me.” Later—in a better mood? in a more receptive state? what? –you start the same book again, can’t put it down, and find it excellent.
It’s nice to think we use consistent criteria to judge books, but I wonder…