An MFA Fantasy Come True: The Fielding of Dreams

“I’m going to write a bestseller about baseball. What’s more timeless and universal, or connects with readers’ psyches like America’s favorite pastime? It worked for Kinsella. The writing will be fabulous, and it will have allusions to Melville to appease the literati. It will also have sex, death, nothing heroic, a setting with no interest, and a none too happy ending. What more could the critics want?

“Then I’m going to have my agent send it to Michael Pietsch, who edited David Foster Wallace and will buy it for more than half a million dollars after a heated auction, and will make it the hot fall book. Michael will give an empassioned talk about it at the booksellers’ convention in May and have galleys to give away. The book will hit the stores in September so the sales momentum builds and keeps the book selling through the holidays. It will have killer quotes from the right people, a big advertising campaign, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review section, and a story in Vanity Fair by my Harvard roommate Keith Gessen.”

Chad Harbach wasn’t harboring this fantasy while he spent a decade writing The Art of Fielding, but he hit a grand slam in his first at bat. Seduced by all of the promotion for the book, which is on the New York Times list as I write, I took the galley on vacation, eager to read it, but grew increasingly impatient as the story developed. I had to force myself to finish it.

The book symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary novels: small scale, family strife, the authors’ limited experience, characters and events I don’t care about, and endings that, instead of being the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal, make me angry I read the book.

Like other literary fiction and most movies, The Art of Fielding is a triumph of technique over content. It’s the story of Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop phenom at Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan. Harbach is an excellent writer. He brings the setting to life along with a lively cast of characters who undoubtedly told him what should happen next. Unlike the descriptions of the settings and the games, the lack of description for most of the characters made them more names than people I could see.

But because of my terminally bourgeois sensibility, the plot and the characters kept adding to my growing resistance to turning the 509 (!) pages. The quality of the writing and the futile hope that the story would finally justify my time kept me going, but I wuz robbed.

The book’s impact?

Writing: first rate.

Laughter: none.

Tears: none.

Allusions understood: none.

Erotic excitement: none.

Building tension: none.

Insights: none.

What becomes of the characters?

Henry, error-free until an errant, wind-blown, hard-to-believe throw to first moves the plot by hospitalizing, of all people, Owen Dunne, his gay mulatto roommate who’s reading (foreshadowed, but still a stretch) in the dugout. Henry survives the resulting crisis of confidence, turns down a chance to play in the bigs, and stays on the team.

Pella Affenlight, a lost soul who finds herself, becomes a college fresh person (an appalling term that stopped my suspension of disbelief every time I read it).

Her father, Guert, the college president, escapes his comeuppance for seducing Owen by conveniently dying of a heart attack. Owen conveniently goes elsewhere to study.

Mike Schwartz, Pella’s boyfriend and Henry’s teammate and mentor, becomes the Westish coach.

Is it possible to ruin the impact of fates like that?

Elizabeth and I have known Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch since he joined Little, Brown twenty years ago. He’s also a Harvard grad (Go, Crimson!), and one of the best and most successful editors in publishing history, and a great guy.  Harbach has got the goods and a promising future. But maybe he should take a break from editing his literary magazine, n+1, and consider what Steve Jobs said of Bill Gates: “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Living a middle-class vie boheme while dodging collectors for his college loans, Harbach earned his success the hard way. He was rejected by many agents and publishers until he found the passionate agent every writer dreams of: Chris Parris-Lamb.  I’m sure the book will have a long life on MFA reading lists, but social media have made readers critics. Little, Brown took great pains to avoid making the book look like a baseball novel. But I wonder how women, reading groups, and future readers will respond to what is, after all, a novel about the trials of a college shortstop.

As for you, Chad. You got your MFA. You’ve paid your dues in the Triple A literary league. It’s time to move on from college sports. The world badly needs stories to help us understand and come to terms with a rapidly changing, unpredictable world as full of peril as it is of promise. The article in this month’s Vanity Fair, an outstanding, endearing piece about you, Michael, and publishing, notes that you’re angry about global warming. Step up to the plate with stories that have a scope and relevance worthy of your talent. With Michael’s help, you’ll hit them out of the park. And when I write about your next book, you won’t have to endure any baseball metaphors.

Reading The Art of Fielding wasn’t a total loss, however, because to paraphrase Philip Roth: Nothing bad can happen to a blogger, everything is material. I look forward to hearing from the book’s defenders about how wrong I am.

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

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