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Actually, Harbach’s novel isn’t absolutely wonderful, and B.R. Myers does a decent job of pointing out ways it could be better. He says it’s nice but shallow, and doesn’t “deepen the experience of living,” which Myers contends is what readers used to expect of “literary novels.” Nor is it even a “sustained display of writerly cleverness”—the new standard. The best writing is at the beginning, says Myers, and I suppose it is. The book has flaws.
It also has virtues Myers doesn't pay attention to. That's a mistake, because Myers needs to make a case for The Art of Fielding as actually being a literary novel that must be held to either standard. He pretty much says it’s not. He doesn't care. “Sometimes,” he declares, “the only way to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart.” This must be done even though it puts the critic into what Myers calls a “catch-22”-type quandary: “You may not dismiss a highly praised novel as unworthy of notice until you have finished it. Never mind the classic fiction you’d rather take care of first.”
Poor Myers. He's just like the rest of us. There's a vintage masterpiece he can never quite get around to because where's the time? He’s too busy keeping a roof over his head by writing, as he must, about the latest Big Novel, no matter how unworthy of notice he's already sure it is. He’s even expected to read it first! I'm sure he doesn't want our sympathy, but that's a high price to pay simply to put a best-selling trifle in its place.
But was our trifle even that highly praised? Actually, yes. Harbach received some glowing reviews. (Here's one from the Atlantic.) Ignoring them, Myers quotes The Art of Fielding's dust jacket! He quotes a jacket blurb from Jonathan Franzen! These don't even make the grade as straw men. He goes on about a “long puff piece” in Vanity Fair that was written by a buddy of Harbach’s and didn’t pretend to be a critique. He slams the Vanity Fair piece for praising The Art of Fielding “at great length . . . while quoting next to nothing from it,” and to draw a clear contrast with that sorry performance he quotes from Harbach’s book at great length. But where are the quotes from the “literary establishment” arguing the case for greatness that Myers is knocking down? No one ever really thought that, writes Myers, as if dismissiveness drives the ultimate nail in the coffin. Even “the cover blurbs stopped well short of attributing profundity to the book. The most extravagant praise came from Jonathan Franzen himself.”
What’s going on here? Myers is lacing into The Art of Fielding for not measuring up to claims he wants us to believe critics didn't actually make about it. “After the Franzen-Tolstoy comparisons of 2010, the praise [for Harbach] seemed subdued, almost credible,” Myers writes at the top of his critique. Read twice, his screed looks less like a critical essay than a contraption jury-rigged to deal with a tricky technical problem: how can Myers earn his paycheck by whacking away at the Big Novel of 2011 but ultimately stick it to the book he actually despises.
And that is the Big Novel of 2010, Franzen's Freedom.
The end of Myers’s screed brings us his solution:
“As I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.”
Harbach has “real talent,” Myers allows; the problem is that he “doesn’t have anything urgent to do with it.” Lack of anything important to say about the matter at hand has undermined many a literary exercise.