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Oct 12, 2005



I agree with you, Matt, in the main (though worry that in your encapsulation it sounds like I'm bringing up "flawed novels" pointedly in regards to Napoleon, which I thought was an amazing novel in large part because of its technical style).

But you know, while I share your liking for the breadth of what novels can do and of the variety in their intentions and aesthetics, when I say "flawed writing" I'm talking about something beyond that. Something that sounds to the ear like a wrong note. Or a flat passage. Or a stretch that feels too overwritten. It happens in most novels - b/c it's almost impossible to pull of a long form piece of writing where every word has that kind of divine click of being in the right place.

I read a great quote by Zadie Smith recently that I need to look up again, but it was something about loving certain books especially for these warts.


p.s. Matt, have you read Look Homeward, Angel? I was thinking about it this morning too; in it, Wolfe plays with all these different dictions and tones (including an oddly good, overtly Joyce-ean section). Wolfe's project was to try to recreate the entire cosmos of a town (Asheville, another Southern town), which is what reminded me of it in relation to the Gann.


I love many flawed books. The classic example of the great but flawed book is Huckleberry Finn and its ending. (A more recent book which came in for harsh criticism of the ending would be The Lovely Bones.) Most of Jonathan Carroll's best novels are flawed to me, and I love them both in spite of and because of those flaws.

I can only think of a very few novels that I consider perfect: Karen Joy Fowler's Sister Noon, Sean Stewart's Mockingbird, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. There are others; and for each of these, for other readers, the flaws are dreadfully apparent, I'm sure.

All of which by way of saying I'm too tired to be much coherent. But I love talking about the flaws of books (in an affectionate way).

(And CAAF, I know exactly what you mean. The false note in the prose.)

Matt Cheney

I haven't read any Wolfe, I'm sorry to say. I've got a copy of Look Homeward Angel somewhere, though. I adore Faulkner, and he had great things to say about Wolfe that are relevant to this -- he maintained that Wolfe was greater than Hemingway because he aspired for more, and so his failure was greater. To Faulkner, it was the aspiration that was most interesting and made Wolfe a better writer than Hemingway, whose work was more flawless.

Of course, the flaw is in the eye of the beholder. I've recently been on a quixotic campaign defending Ishiguro's ending for Never Let Me Go, which many people who are smarter than I am think is nearly ruined by what they perceive as a preachy ending. And I've read attempts by people to redeem such, I think, obviously flawed items as Faulkner's late novels, and Dostoyevsky's endings. (I revere no novelists as highly as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but I dislike few endings as much as those of The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace.)

I certainly do think, though, that "flawless" works are often less interesting than others, because if a writer is capable of writing something so apparently perfect, why didn't they strive for more? But there are a couple books I adore simply because they seem like such perfect constructions -- The Hours works that way for me, in fact.


Yes, all so true! I'd almost always read a brave, botched experiment, than safe and smooth. (That's a great quote from Faulkner about Wolfe, by the way, who I do love for always have gone for the whole hog.) There's also this line from Mr. Ben Folds: "i thought about ... all the great ideas i had/ and how we made fun/ of thoses who had the guts to try and fail."

The nice thing about flaws is that sometimes they can give you insight into how the writer constructed the book. A perfect book can seem impenetrable, or like it climbed fully grown from the writer's head. A flaw or a bad book by an otherwise great writer can let you in, show you how the writer worked it. There's a book by Edith Wharton (who I adore), Roman Honeymoon or something, and it's a total lump, and it's so interesting to read it in tandem with her best work. You can see how when she exaggerated certain tendencies in her writing, it all just toppled over. Or got vapid.

And yes, it seems like for every book one loves with all its warts, there is another smoother production that one can only bring oneself to admire.

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