This will likely be the first of two posts today. Coincidentally they will be on a theme. This first regards a book I've read for a book group, so I won't be going into much detail here.
I consider myself a pretty big fan of Ray Bradbury; I've read a good number of his short stories and thoroughly enjoyed them. I've been to conventions where he has appeared and been swept up in the good feelings for him from the standing ovations that follow him like a shadow. One of my basic assumptions about the literary world is that he is one of the greats, and it will be a sad day when he passes.
The book group I participate in read Fahrenheit 451 a few years ago. It has the reputation of validating Bradbury's career; everyone knows about it (though very few people have ever read it) and it has had culture-changing impact. But while I find the plot to be mesmerizing and poignant, I found the writing itself to be pretty bad, bordering on immature as the experiments Bradbury attempts with the style just seem to keep missing the mark. But it was actually the first novel by Bradbury I had read, and his greatness must be based on the breadth and depth of his work more than any one novel.
The same book group has selected Somthing Wicked This Way Comes, and I find myself with the same problem. The story seems straightforward enough, or as straightforward as any sort of supernatural suspense story can be, but I found myself getting completely lost in the gyrations the language and style of the novel takes. Poetic language can be wielded beautifully, and I imagine it should be used delicately as well, but the effect from Something Wicked is more like a poetic sledgehammer wielded by someone learning the nuance of sledgehammering. When the style and language of a work detract me from the meaning and intent of the work, something is dreadfully wrong. It could be argued that some works may in fact be exercises in style, and that Something Wicked is famous exactly for its stylistics. However, I don't think I've read any reviews of Bradbury's work that praise its style.
So, I'm left with a meditation on reputation. And of course, this leads one to ponder questions of taste. As a caveat, let me repeat that I think Bradbury has earned his implicit title pf master writer for hos work in the short story form alone. But as a result of these two books, I don't intend to ever read another novel by Bradbury unless I am bribed with at least the cost of the book plus recompense for my time if I don't like it. But I wonder how many people actually really like Bradbury's novels or, if in fact, few people who praise Bradbury have actually read his novels. I wonder if his literary popularity is such that anything he writes is immediately branded a classic; hundreds of critics have said it in the past, so it must be true now, right?
I've also never read The Da Vinci Code, which makes me a sort of social outcast at dinner parties. I'm reminded of the Saturday Night Live sketch with the commercial for a Broadway production featuring a hypnotist; the commercial consists of a buoyant announcer backed up by real audience reaction, except that each audience member interviewed repeats the exact same praise in a dead monotone, "It's better than Cats. I'll see it again and again." Clearly The Da Vinci Code touched some integral part of some of its readers--Christian conspiracy or perhaps the need to believe in something being bigger than the world we know, even if it is hidden. But the critics hated it, and the people I know whose opinions I trust have told me not to bother reading the book, as it is very poorly written and not very compelling besides. And I have felt the ostracism that results if you dare to challenge the book's greatness. But when I ask a fan of the book why it's so great, there is nothing concrete in response. And you know, "Everyone's reading it" is not a real good reason for me to want to read it.
In fact, it was fashionably revolutionary for while to admit to not reading The Da Vinci Code. I was like the beatniks in the 50s, daring to question authority in by black clothes and beret. But I find it isn't so terribly cool to say that perhaps Bradbury has some warts, especially when I am attempting to don the costume of serious speculative fiction critic. I suppose it is no help that Bradbury is also an incredibly personable and friendly man. And of course, I could just be out on the fringe of the mainstream (which is where I usually am when talking about the value of speculative fiction). Maybe we should question things that have been co-opted by the mainstream. Was Bradbury ground-breaking? He may well have been, for 50s mainstream readers. But how does that fit into the experience of the reader of speculative fiction in the 50s? Perhaps he was treading ground that other, less popular writers had been to before. And maybe , as a reader of speculative fiction, I should appreciate his success as a sort of liaison between us and the mainstream reader; lord knows he is one of the few SF writers that non-fans can name when challenged.
I suppose that this means I should eventually read some Vonnegut as well. As if my reading list wasn't long enough already.