Letters From the Editor

Reasons To Be Cheerful

Reading Nick Hornby’s new collection, Songbook, a birthday present from a friend, and I’m very happy. Hornby’s books do that to me. I should be doing work, but I’ve been on the couch for three hours and I’m almost finished, sadly, two cups of coffee later and a trip to get the mail. Sadly, because I’d like to see it go longer. This feeling, wanting to call up a writer and have them send over the next thousand pages of the book once you’re finished, is my greatest incentive for reading, one I’ve been hunting since I started reading. It doesn’t come often, but oh when it does…

Among his books, High Fidelity is my favorite, About A Boy is also good. I even enjoyed both movies, and enjoyed even more walking out of the theater (or, in About A Boy’s case, turning off the television) and waxing the old axiom ‘…but the book was better’ to myself and knowing it was true. It didn’t hurt that one movie stars John Cusack, the most likeable of American actors, and the other, Hugh Grant, the most charming of the English (besides Jim Broadbent, whose tubbiness, both in body and spirit, seems to weigh down his bumbling, unlike Grant’s verbal hiccups which somehow come out smooth), but both films managed to enlarge the book on the big screen without replacing it, as Remains of the Day did for Ishiguro’s now-forgotten masterpiece .

Hornby’s books turn me on in the same way as Penelope Fitzgerald’s and Graham Greene’s entertainments – they lure me to the next page, and I understand their characters’ difficult and slow paths to knowing themselves, and they’re concerned with love. But Hornby’s gotten a bad deal. Critics picked up on his love for pop music, and with their understanding of the word pop including ‘N Sync but not Neal Young (unlike Hornby’s), they’ve routinely referred to him as a pop-author, meaning ‘readable’ (bad) but ‘light’ (even worse). Critics, like musicians, need a hook to sell their story; unfortunately, Hornby gave them one to bury under their noses. Witness the trashing of Hornby’s last book, How To Be Good, which wasn’t bad but was treated like Billy Joel composing classical music, an unfair analogy yes, but a close one.

But calling Hornby light is a shame, since I think many top-rate authors aren’t willing to work out moral questions in the way Hornby does, and as his readers actually experience them: day to day, under boring circumstances. Hence his popularity with the buyers, I guess, but not the papers. Too often big-name novelists rely on subterranean associations that critics confuse as decisions that are simply too difficult to fish, or not get at all, rather than accidents, and though those associations are surely floating in Hornby’s novels too, he’s also quite forthright on the page, and tells us what his characters think, feel, and suffer through. I appreciate that.

Nevermind. I’m on the verge of feeling I should trot out his books, mine them for quotes, and blow this into a full-fledged review or defense of Hornby’s career, when he certainly doesn’t need a defense, and this was only meant to be a short note about how his book made me happy, and I’m passing this onto you in case it will make you happy too. But there is another side, and that’s if Hornby is a pop novelist, then good for him, and good for the other pop (widely loved, now or once) writers I admire and love and keep near me in the living room, and in my mind are worth recommending in case you haven’t read them: Penelope Fitzgerald and Greene, as mentioned, also Raymond Chandler, and Howard Norman, and Jane Austen, Barry Lopez, Henry Brommel, Somerset Maugham, John Bellairs, Alain de Botton, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Bishop (not very pop, but not enough people read her), Douglas Coupland, Andre Dubus, Eudora Welty, Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, John Fowles, Haruki Murakami, Michael Malone, Emily Dickinson, David Sedaris, Joseph Mitchell, Philip Gourevitch, Dave Eggers, Tim O’Brien, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Milan Kundera, Richard Powers, Tom Robbins…and a thousand others that aren’t on the tip of my tongue right now.

(R. had dinner with Hornby once and it turns out he’s very nice, and they enjoyed a cab ride together. I always love hearing that people I admire and respect for art are also good.)

(Do you ever feel very young? All the time.)




Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at rosecransbaldwin.com. More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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