A lot of books are perfectly fine. Take the Knausgård memoirs, for example, which inspire such strong feelings: literary people love or hate them—and have THOUGHTS about them—but I wonder if it’s just the idea of this endless exercise in gentle, erudite narcissism that people love or hate. Giving his memoir the unsettling name of Hitler’s autobiography is sort of like pairing a bland, comforting Norwegian dish with a controlled amount of something poisonous. (Is acid poisonous? Is “acid,” which balances out other flavors, as I’ve learned from watching the Samin Nosrat documentary, an appropriate metaphor for race-hate? What is a lingonberry?)
My mind wanders and I can’t be bothered to think of a decent analogy, because when we were reading the first few chapters of the first Knausgård memoir in the car—I read out loud while Lili drove—it just basically seemed like the book was fine. Gentle, well-told, the very mildest of philosophy but without real edge or consequence, like reading an intelligent and sensitive person’s very carefully written diary. Reading farther has only confirmed this sense that the book is basically fine, the sort of book that, were it not saddled with one of the most demonic names in Western History, and a vague Proustian aura—and all kinds of critical glare—would probably have flown as far under the radar as so many other Archipelago books do, with their funny square shapes and soft, muted covers.
In other words: if the My Struggle Books hadn’t become a thing, I might have read him, found him light and engaging and I might have even spent a summer on it, the way a lot of people who read Knausgård seem to do. If I had discovered those books myself, in the wake of my low-pressure lack of expectations, and the pleasure at finding something more interesting than I had expected, I might have gotten piqued with curiosity, and then gotten quietly lost in its inconsequence.
Had the book been allowed to be fine, I might have done all this. I didn’t, however, because it had become a thing. It became the subject of hyperbolic praise in New York Media circles, and lovely essays like this one or this; it got glowing reviews in the important reviewing organs, it got paired with Elena Ferrante to become an example of how translation is back, baby, and that comparison produced some interesting ruminations on how gender affects the becoming a thing of writers. At some point, pretty early on, it stopped being a book that could just be fine.
When books become a thing, they can no longer be fine.
Literary people get mad at Knausgård the same way they get mad at Jonathan Franzen, a writer who, if I’m being honest, might be fine. I’m rarely honest about Jonathan Franzen. He’s an extremely annoying man. I have only read bits and pieces of his novels, and while I’ve stopped reading many novels even though they were pretty good or great, I have always stopped reading Jonathan Franzen’s novels because I thought they were aggressively boring and dumb and smug. But why do I think this? I didn’t read him when he was a new interesting writer who wrote a couple of weird books and then hit it big with The Corrections, a moment in which I might have picked him up with curiosity and read with an open mind; I only noticed him once, after David Foster Wallace had died, he became the heir apparent for the Great American Novelist position, once he had had that thing with Oprah and started giving interviews in which he said all manner of dumb shit; I only noticed him well after I had been told he was An Important Writer.
So I can’t and shouldn’t pretend that I am unmoved by the lazily-satisfied gentle arrogance he projects or when he is given license to project it by the has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy development of him being constantly crowned and re-crowned as Is He The Great American Writer. What I really object to is this, and if there’s anything to his writing beyond it, I can’t see it and can’t be bothered. Others read him and tell me he’s actually a good writer—people whose critical instincts I have learned to respect—so I feel sure that he’s probably a perfectly fine, that his books are fine, and that probably even his stupid goddamned bird essays are probably also fine.
But it’s too late. He has become a thing; he can’t be fine.
James English has a book about how prizes endow books with value, how they make books into things; it’s a good book and it helps clarify how a mere experience of reading and the object that enables it—mere words on a page—becomes a thing which has value in the marketplace, becomes a thing whose quality can be evaluated and sold; prizes translate between different kinds of capital: prestige becomes dollars, or dollars become prestige. But prizes are just one of the instruments of literary thingification, by which a few books are picked out to become things and others are left to be forgotten. And as books become things, expectations rise, like a horse whose teeth you check carefully because you’ve paid so much money for it; if it’s not worth the price, you’ll be angry. Only the teeth of a gift horse—a free one—can be left un-looked at.
Fine is underrated.
I’m using fine to mean something other than mediocre nor excellent; I don’t mean the dry and understated praise of “this is truly fine work” nor the deadly “oh, fine” that you respond with when someone asks you how you’re doing and the answer is that you haven’t actually sold your own organs for food, yet, but, you know, if you know anyone who would give forty dollars for a kidney, well.
I mean a more Indigo-Girls-ish fine, where we’re stretching for acceptance, even grace; suffer the little books to come unto you, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. This is a fine which is harder to talk about, harder to think about, and harder to be fine with; “fine” contains a contradiction, an unresolved duality, and an acceptance of it. In this sense, nothing is fine, because to be fine is to be two things at once; fine is what you say when you’re saying that what a thing is isn’t really the point. Fine is the sort of thing a book not subjected to revision can be, for example; whatever else the Knausgård memoirs are, they’re an exercise in seeing what happens if you write it all and don’t go back and fix it, if you look at what you’ve written—what you’ve lived—and decide that it’s fine.
Critics don’t tend to see the fine-ness of books, and definitely can’t say it. It doesn’t work, rhetorically; calling a book “fine” in a review would inevitably come across as euphemistic, the kind of damningly faint praise that functions as code for mediocrity. And if you’re saying that there are lots of better books like this one—which is only fine—in a world of torturous scarcity where time and energy are rationed out sparingly, well, who has the time for reading books that are only fine?
Time is part of the problem; who has time to read a book that’s just fine in this economy? Time is money. Not to mention how much they cost in dollars. If I’m going to spend my hard-earneds, I better know what I’m getting, right?
In practice, of course, people read all kinds of stuff. Have you seen what people read? What people actually read? Most books are about average, and most of the people who read books read those kinds of books, and as these mosts converge into a tautology, you learn that the mass of books are just quietly fine. And just as upsetting as it is to learn how many damned people there are and how all are flawed and imperfect and fine in their own ways, so, too, with books: the books that become things—based on reviews and prizes and chatter and lists—are such a random selection of the total, such an arbitrary prestige-tinted slice of the sum of that which is published.
Not so random that it can’t be self-fulfillingly predicted ahead of time, of course. And yet woe betide books left off the list of the elect! Fine allows what he needs of the marketplace preclude, the free discovery of an experience, where the first sentence you read about a book is the first sentence of that book. But you can understand why presses fear the silence of an un-blurbed, un-reviewed, un-thinged book. The great majority of books go quietly unread, especially translations or literary fiction; if their publication doesn’t become an event, the book won’t become a thing; it will sit there, unbought, unread, unseen, and un-redeemed. It will not even have become fine.
Fine is underrated, however. Because the only thing you—the reader, the critic—can do in this marketplace is “rate” things, fine will be “underrated” because being un-rated is what would allow a book to be fine, something the marketplace cannot allow. But that means there’s a generosity to letting books just be fine that is structurally absent from book reviewing and books prizes and the entire range of cultural capitalizing instruments; reviews want to take good books and say they are great books or mediocre books because this is capitalism, and use-value doesn’t interest us as much as overvalued books we can sell and undervalued books we can buy. None of that applies to books that are just fine, which just are, and are read. And so the discourse feeds on the drive for market inefficiency; without the ability to say that a book you’ve never heard of is actually good—or a book that’s supposed to be good is actually bad—what is there to say? That it’s fine? Hardly worth saying.