Quick thoughts on Anne Tyler, which lead to a diatribe

I've talked about this before, but I'll say it again: I really don't like Anne Tyler's writing. Popular as she is, I find her prose thin and spare (not in a good way), her characters well-defined but always the same, and her plots predictable. Because she writes the same book over and over, just changing character names and a few setting details.


Despite this, I'm giving her another try, reading her latest, Noah's Compass. Why? Because the plot blurb interested me:

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Like Tyler's previous protagonists, Liam Pennywell is a man of unexceptional talents, plain demeanor, modest means and curtailed ambition. At age 60, he's been fired from his teaching job at a second-rate private boys' school in Baltimore, a job below his academic training and original expectations. An unsentimental, noncontemplative survivor of two failed marriages and the emotionally detached father of three grown daughters, Liam is jolted into alarm after he's attacked in his apartment and loses all memory of the experience. His search to recover those lost hours leads him into an uneasy exploration of his disappointing life and into an unlikely new relationship with Eunice, a socially inept walking fashion disaster who is half his age. She is also spontaneous and enthusiastic, and Liam longs to cast off his inertia and embrace the joyous recklessness that he feels in her company. Tyler's gift is to make the reader empathize with this flawed but decent man, and to marvel at how this determinedly low-key, plainspoken novelist achieves miracles of insight and understanding. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
I know, I know. Don't trust blurbs, reviews, or even the opinions of readers whose taste you don't know and trust. Still, they get me almost every time. I read jacket blurbs, too, though I know it's a huge mistake. But how else do I find out what the book's about? Hmm?
I run all the information I read about a book through my own personal B.S. filter, kicking out those with certain phrases I can't stand. (See Stuck in a Book - blog post title "Choosing Books…" for some great examples of those.) I suspect we all have our hot button phrases, or settings, time periods and plot situations we know we're not interested in. For many of us, that starts as early as the cover, title and jacket art. Or maybe the jacket description, before we get to the blurbs written by upstanding periodicals, authors, etc.
After a while you learn the game. You get an idea who you can trust and who you can't, who seems to be a close friend of the author – because he or she always writes nothing but praise about a specific author.
You can also call a reviewer's bluff at Amazon. If the review is slapped together, filled with exclamation points! and not well-written, you should click to look at that person's "other reviews." If their profile shows no others, it's a friend or relative trying to help an author promote him or herself. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but on another level, without an honest disclaimer there is.
Certainly, this isn't the most pressing problem on earth. But, on a personal level, I feel cheated and frustrated when I waste precious reading time on a book that isn't worth it. I toss books aside pretty quickly when they're crap, but having spent time reading the reviews, suspending disbelief perusing the blurbs and gone to the trouble of procuring a copy, I feel the publisher owes me the time back – that they have so little respect for readers they have no qualms outright lying in order to promote a book.
And, don't tell me they don't know they're lying. Or at least stretching the truth. Their bottom line, and I understand this since it's a business, is making money. Yes, I've gone into that ad nauseum and won't touch it again. The fact is, when a manuscript meets certain requirements they look for in a potential bestseller it has a far better chance of getting published than anything original or experimental. And who suffers for that? Genuinely innovative and brilliant writers, not to mention we readers. The ones paying the big machine to keep churning out sub-quality fare.
Which leads me back to Anne Tyler, a publisher's darling. She could write a manuscript about anything and publishers would fall all over themselves fighting to publish it. Ditto all those others with name recognition, writers with built-in audiences who buy based solely on the author. Never mind that sometimes good authors write crap books; they can't NOT be published, no matter what they write.
Hello, Stephen King!
Rail and scream though I do, I won't change big business and I know it. All I can do is help keep focus on what the big publishers do, why it's wrong, and why we shouldn't support them in their bad habits. Before you plunk down money for a book, check it out from your local library. Yes, it's already paid for, but that's better than giving a publisher your money as well. If you still must buy it, then go ahead. But don't buy blindly, please. The occasional impulse buy? We all do it. Even I do, and look what I'm writing. If you can keep that to a minimum, though, that's at least a little bit of profit chipped away from the conglomerate.
Instead, consider buying a book published by a small press – Graywolf, Coffee House, any university's press, those who publish quality work and sorely need the money. If you have favorite authors, and so many are published by large presses, again, consider the library first. If you can wait, buy it later from a used book store, another source worth giving your money to, because all book lovers want them to succeed.
All this because I'm trying Anne Tyler yet one more time. Anne Tyler, who can't not be published, regardless of what she writes – an author with a golden ticket. And meanwhile, there's one more deserving, struggling author who, no matter how much she jumps up and down and waves her arms, can't get published anywhere.
Just food for thought, from someone who's spent an awful lot of time in the cafeteria line. Think before you invest time or money in a book, consider your alternatives, but read, read, read.

3 thoughts on “Quick thoughts on Anne Tyler, which lead to a diatribe

  1. Ha,ha,I agree! Stephen King is my guilty pleasure. For instance I recently read The Shining and loved it to death. However, about a year ago I read Cell and wondered how that got published. It doesn’t even feel like the same author.


  2. Pingback: Anne Tyler | Bluestalking

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