Flattering profiles of modern novelists by an astute, occasionally fawning reader.
Despite the idle boast of the title, this collection by Granta editor in chief Freeman (The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, 2009) doesn’t really cut it as literary criticism, but it is definitely literary appreciation. Over the past 15 years, the author has gotten the book-chat interview down to a science. He plays the perfect host to each of these 55 novelists, doing his homework, asking questions his subjects like hearing and, despite one chilly encounter with John Updike, neither alienating his subjects nor requiring them to think too deeply. Occasionally, he’ll strike silver, if not gold, such as when Haruki Murakami announces that the imagination feeds on a repetitious life. Generally, though, it’s Freeman who does the heavy lifting. Having gleaned a lot of precise assessments from reading his subjects in depth, he tends to be more interesting in describing his subject than they are about themselves. E.L. Doctorow has “the folksy charm of an afternoon radio host.” Aleksandar Hemon’s fiction “beats like a heart with two ventricles, one of them Chicago, one of them Sarajevo.” John Updike’s hands “are pink and somewhat gnarled, as if he has spent a lifetime vulcanizing words, rather than twisting them into shape on the page.” At times, Freeman slips into hyperbole (David Foster Wallace); at others, he is entirely too impressed by a writer’s commercial value (John Irving). Admittedly, he does an impressive amount in a tight space, but the articles don’t leave much behind. As typical Sunday magazine fodder, they are pleasant enough to read. Stacked together, they only underscore his formulaic approach to his subjects.
A box of literary bonbons: addictive in spurts, but after a while, they all taste the same.