The Opposite of Love

By Mark Alpert

In my last post I wrote about a novel I really admired, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And now, to be fair, I want to talk about literary disappointment.

I love buying books — it’s my only discretionary expense these days — but I’m picky about it. Before I purchase anything, I read the reviews in the Timesand the New Yorker. I ask friends and fellow writers what they’re reading. And even when a new novel gets raves from everyone, I don’t go running to the bookstore. Sometimes I’ll wait a whole year, till the paperback comes out. This kind of buyer behavior drives me crazy when I’m trying to promote my own novels. Why are you so reluctant, people? Come on, give my books a try! But that’s the crimped, cautious world we live in. We work hard for our money and we don’t want to waste it.

After conducting my usual due diligence, I was fairly certain I’d enjoy Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a work of historical fiction, focused on the 16th-century machinations of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and I love reading about that period. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it got a great review in the Times. And the book’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, was also widely praised. I was looking forward to reading both novels. As I turned to the first page of Wolf Hall I felt like a hungry diner at a five-star restaurant, about to tuck into a delicious gourmet meal.

Now I’m at page 200, about a third of the way through the book, and I’m feeling a lot less hungry. I don’t hate the book. I just don’t like it as much as I thought I would. The novel’s hero is Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who becomes an adviser to Henry VIII, and the fellow seems likable enough, full of interesting observations and unafraid to speak his mind. But I’m not really bonding with the guy. I feel like the author is hiding him somewhat, keeping him at a distance from me. Worse, I’m not seeing 16th-century England from his point of view. The place and time haven’t come alive. I’m getting the facts, but not the feeling of being there.

When something like this happens, when a much-praised book leaves me cold, I usually worry that it’s my fault somehow. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’d really enjoy Wolf Hall if I knew more about Tudor England. Or if I had more of an English sensibility. But the novel’s flaws seem self-evident. It’s too damn slow. Characters are coming and going, but nothing is happening. And much of the narration is sketchy. Cromwell’s wife died long before I could get a good sense of who she was.

I’m going to keep reading the book. Maybe it’ll get better. I live in hope, that’s my motto. But I can’t get rid of the bitter taste of disappointment. Has anyone else out there felt this way? Not necessarily about Wolf Hall, but about any much-anticipated novel that fell far short of expectations?

17 thoughts on “The Opposite of Love

  1. I’d rather shout obscenities in church, than admit this under my real name, so sacrilegious is the admission:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    I read it for a book club, about ten years after it won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It elicited extreme reactions from our group. About half the members hated it. Others considered it brilliant.

    Those of us who found it excruciatingly tedious, dubbed it “One Thousand Years of Solitude.”

  2. I rarely read reviews for books or movies. It has been my experience that I seldom agree with anything the experts have to say. Therefore, my expectations aren’t high when I delve into a new author. Pessimism. Not as bad as it’s made out to be.

    So I love it when a new author surprises me. Brad Parks is my latest find and I enjoyed all four of his books. Now that’s a good feeling.

  3. I don’t know if it was much anticipated, but the author is well loved – Fevre Dream by George RR Martin. Plot was so sluggish.

  4. Oo-ooh – had to jump in. Love, LOVE, LOVE! A Confederacy of Dunces! Hilarious. MC you love to hate. Episodes so inspired, who needs a plot?!

    To each his own…:)

    I probably should go anonymous on this point, but I’ll just whisper…not a Lee Child fan.

  5. I compared Stephen King’s JOYLAND and Dan Brown’s INFERNO in my blog, a couple days ago and mentioned a book I absolutely detested by Mr. King. A crap shoot with him, sometimes.

    Was I disappointed in INFERNO? hmmm…no. But bored at times.

  6. I’m hesitant to rip in print or in a public forum. Taste is so individual.

    The paragraph you listed last week is a good example. An onamotopea deluge and contapulating (? sp, ? meaning)in the same paragraph – didn’t work at all for me but you loved it. No worries. Different tastes.

    I think negative commentary in print/public forums should be dished out very, very cautiously. I believe that many of the reviews on Amazon, etc are ill-considered and rendered by folks who somehow get a kick out of criticizing.

    Not trying to be Pollyanna but I have a respect and fear of the damage a few printed words can do. Personally I’m uncomfortable with a call for listing books that people strongly disliked/disappointed.

    • Expressing one’s opinion is called freedom of speech, one of the benefits of living in America.

      None of these posts has slandered an author.

  7. I agree with Tom. Writing a novel is so hard, I don’t want to criticize another author’s book in public, even if I don’t like it.
    Besides, how I feel about a book seems to have to do with my mood. I’ve gone back into my library and re-read books I abandoned a couple of years ago as too dull — and loved them on the second reading. Which makes me wonder about judging books for major awards. But that’s another subject.

  8. If you read avidly, you’ve most certainly had this kind of disappointment. This is why I don’t buy books unless I read them first. We live near one of the best libraries in the country, so it’s usually possible to get almost any book I want. (Still, reading first is possibly even more frustrating to writers selling books.) But once I find an author I love, I collect his/her books with fervent loyalty and tell everyone about his/her writing.

    The average reader will feel good or bad about a book, and if the feeling is bad, he’ll just close it and walk away to the next book. Writers are different, however. If you’re a writer who has studied the craft of writing in depth, you can usually put your finger right on what you don’t like and explain why. A book has to be exceptionally well written to get you beyond the level of cognizance to a place where you can lose yourself in the story and enjoy it. It’s the price you pay for knowing what you’re doing when it comes to writing. (You become the man who knew too much. Lol.)

  9. Who hasn’t been disappointed by something? The book I have been reading most recently has turned out to be a disappointment. It’s fast paced, and has some merits as a story, but so many things are just soooo coincidental and convenient I find myself rolling my eyes. However, it’s not like I was expecting a great piece of literature going into it.

    To me, the real disappointment comes when expectations have been set high, whether from awards, as in your case with Hilary Mantel, reviews, or word of mouth, and the book just doesn’t live up to that preconceived expectation. And everybody has had this happen, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. I don’t get the praise for Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Seriously. Boring, and really derivative of Stephen King’s The Stand. As for The Stand… Well, there’s a thousand pages of not a whole lot of action. I just kept waiting for it and waiting for it, and then…meh. Yet people love that book. War and Peace (yes, I’ve read the whole thing)? Tolstoy seriously needed an editor. Felt the same way about Anna Karenina (btw I’m a big Russian Literature fan so that’s not it). Ditto Cormac McCarthy. Beloved by many, but not by me. And don’t even get me started on The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo.

    This is not to say that any of the above, and plenty I didn’t mention, are/were Bad writers, Bad people, or whatever negative one is assuming by my stating that these works disappointed me. It’s just that: these works disappointed me. They didn’t speak to me, or work for me, or however you want to phrase it, and a lot of that disappointment comes from having had high expectations going into them. YMMV: I like Faulkner, Lee Child, and I liked One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m sure some of the readers of this blog like some of the stuff I didn’t.

    Can’t have scrambled eggs without breaking the eggs.

  10. I too was looking forward to reading Wolf Hall and was disappointed. I found it hard going and difficult to follow. I haven’t read the follow up as I couldn’t actually muster up the will to do so. I am glad I am not the only one

  11. I think there’s always a book in a series I like that doesn’t meet the standards of the others. It doesn’t stop me from buying the next book if it’s a favorite author.

  12. I buy books. They’re like meeting new friends, some are interesting and fun, others not so much, and others still that I run away from. I guess I waste money this way, but I’ve come back to books I didn’t like at first and enjoyed them. Not often, but often enough.

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