At least it’s not just me. Caught up in the hype surrounding the release last year of Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding (and loving the themes – college and baseball, which I played for years), I bought it in hardcover while in the USA, not waiting for the Australian paperback release a couple of months later.
I got up to page 146 (end of chapter 18); the last words I read were “She nestled into the line of his body, smelled the sweet sweaty odor of his neck, and fell asleep.” I put it down on my bedside table in February of this year, and have not opened it since (except, just now, to check the page and the last words I had read).
Why was that? The book is pleasant, but just not very compelling. No strong reason to keep reading. Once upon a time, when I was much younger and had more time and more patience … I would have persisted and finished the book. No longer. And my view is not alone. In the May 2012 edition of The Atlantic, B.B Myers (“A Swing and a Miss: Why the latest hyped-up word of staggering genius fizzles”) analyses the hype, the success and the failure, concluding that the book is “as light and insubstantial as a 512 page book can be … reading the novel through is like submitting to a long and almost imperceptibly light tickling.” Harbach squanders “flawless if not especially distinctive prose.”
But why such success, despite such lack of substance? Myers charts this up to a well-timed “puff piece” in Vanity Fair by Keith Gessen, a close friend of Harbach’s, and testimonials from a number of celebrities, including Jonathan Franzen.
Myers also indicts the “literary establishment’s corruption of standards”: Once upon a time, “people used to expect literary novels to deepen the experience of living; now they are happy with any sustained display of writerly cleverness.”
Interested in following this? Rarely do book reviews get reviewed, but Myers’ was. Here’s a piece by Michael Miner (“The Art of Blathering”), who points out that Reeves Weideman gave The Art of Fielding a very positive review in the September 26th 2011 edition of … (wait for it) … The Atlantic. By the way, Michiko Kakutani wrote a glowing review in The New York Times: “not only a wonderful baseball novel — it zooms immediately into the pantheon of classics, alongside ‘The Natural’ by Bernard Malamud and ‘The Southpaw’ by Mark Harris — but it’s also a magical, melancholy story about friendship and coming of age that marks the debut of an immensely talented writer.”
Confused? You might well be. And I’m still unlikely ever to get past page 146. There are some truly great American baseball novels. Sadly, this is not one of them.
Baseball postscript: I played Little League baseball for three years when I was young (and, unbelievably, I still have my original baseball glove, which has travelled with me since and still works). The first year I played right field (the position the weakest players are located), and my team – the Mackinney Oilers – went 9-9, coming in fifth out of nine. The second year I played second base (the weakest infield spot), batted .333 (although not a power hitter), and the team went 9-9 again. My final year, I played shortstop, fielded strongly, but only batted .250 with nevertheless a high on-base percentage due to drawing a large number of “walks” (base on balls) – an ignominious way to get on base, but it happened. But the team was bad, went 0-18. We almost won one game, however it was called off on account of rain, and when we replayed it, we lost. My worst moment: I came in as a relief pitcher (my only time) in a game we were losing badly, and I promptly walked three batters and then faced Ricky Earle, who was in my year at school (and was later recruited, as I remember, by the New York Yankees, although I do not recall him ever making it to the majors). Ricky watched me carefully. I threw the first pitch high and outside but it did not make any difference to him: he reached over the plate and slammed it over the left field fence for a grand slam home run. The coach took me off the mound then, and to this day my competitive pitching record is an infinite ERA (earned run average): three walks, one home run and four runs given up with no outs. Work that one out.