December 9, 2013
Charles McGrath hated your stupid book
by Dustin Kurtz
Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, former deputy editor of The New Yorker and one of the fiction judges for this year’s National Book Awards, hated your fucking book. Dude couldn’t stand it — at least, the parts of it he read.
In an essay for the Times Sunday Review section this weekend, McGrath wrote about the almost impossible number of books he read as an NBA judge this past summer, including your fucking book, which, if he remembers it right, he’s pretty sure he hated.
I was a fiction judge, and there were 407 nominees in that category. (It could have been worse: There were some 500 nonfiction nominees.) All these books had to be read in the space of just a few months: from May, when the nominees started trickling in — the deadline for publishers to declare their candidates was June 3 — through the flood tide of July, and into the beginning of September, when we judges were expected to announce a long list of 10 prize-worthy books before winnowing that down to five finalists, and then a single winner, which was announced on Nov. 20.
Four hundred books in the span of a few months is a huge burden even if those books are remarkable, inspiring and slim and even if, as it’s being reported, each judge was only responsible for reading about eighty of those. Even that smaller number is a torture, however, if, as McGrath would like us to understand, among that eighty are books as fucking horrible as yours.
Some books are so beautiful, in prose and conception, that even in a crowd of four hundred they will shine. Your fucking book isn’t one of those, according to McGrath. No, your fucking book, the book you spent years of your life on, the book you cried about, dreamed about, the book you use, unabashedly, to define your value as a person in the world, that fucking book, sucked. At least he’s pretty sure it did.
You don’t skim exactly, but you race, driving your eyes across the page, in the process forgoing much of the ordinary pleasure of reading. I sometimes thought of it as chain-sawing through books, tearing into them, grinding them up, leaving a wake of fluttering pages and bits of binding. …
Do you need to read [your fucking] entire book to know whether it’s prize-worthy? No, to be honest. But you do need to read enough to be sure you haven’t missed something, and even then you feel guilty, worried that just a few pages farther on there’s a passage that might have changed your mind [abuout how much your fucking book sucks].
It’s not that McGrath doesn’t feel guilty. He doesn’t want your book to suck. The man genuinely loves books, and is willing to give some of them the benefit of the doubt as he scans over a few pages. But yours, man. Your fucking book. Your book stunk so bad it made him doubt the value of books in general.
Even [your fucking] mediocre plots have a way of sinking their hooks into you, until you find yourself concerned for the fates of [your fucking] characters who aren’t even fully convincing. … [T]here were moments when I began to doubt the whole enterprise of fiction writing itself. Does the world really need hundreds and hundreds of new novels or story collections every year, especially when so many of them are so similar?
As if that weren’t cruel enough, your book trashed McGrath’s garage, it broke his crappy shelves. Charles McGrath is pretty sure that your fucking book tore his fucking retina. Even his wife got sick of seeing your fucking book around the place. But McGrath is magnanimous. He knows that “exceptionally beautiful and original prose is in short supply these days,” and so maybe he shouldn’t have expected it of your fucking book. But then, your fucking book caused him to miss the two most holy rites of the WASP, tee time and painting his boat.
Can you believe that? This man’s golf swing suffered because he volunteered to sit and read your book — the writing of which remains the most arduous, important thing you’ve ever done in your life. Or, not read, exactly; more like skim. He skimmed it. But his boat didn’t get painted until halfway through the season! That has to be some sort of crime. No, no, it’s too late for tears now. You and your fucking book are beyond forgiveness.
I mean, sure, McGrath is a professional book critic, so it would seem like perhaps he should know how to shelve books so that they don’t break things. You might think, you know, that some judges were also working their regular jobs while they read for the award, and that managing to talk about owning a boat in an essay griping about free books is a bit off-putting. You would be missing the point. The point is that once, in August, McGrath picked up a book from a box that he really liked, a book that “lifted me out of myself, my grumbling and my self-pity, and in language just like the language we use every day, only better, dropped me down in another place and among people far more interesting, who had more on their plate than just a stack of books.”
But unless you were a finalist for the National Book Award this year, that book wasn’t your fucking book. That book taught McGrath an important lesson about bearing up under the boat-paint-delay-tortures inflicted by your fucking book. The book cured him of your book.
The point McGrath would like us to understand, the point so important it necessitated a column in the New York Times: that book was better than your fucking book. Your book sucked.
Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.