As bad as this year’s Worst Fiction entries were, the Worst Nonfiction entries bothered me more, probably because fiction is so inherently variable that it’s hard to hold even its worst excesses against it for long (I have no doubt that some of the authors on that Worst Fiction list will be on future Best Fiction lists, and I rejoice in that fact), whereas nonfiction is supposed to be at least distantly related to truth, at least in the same ballpark as accountability or perspective or any of the other traits the modern world likes to associate with the writing of history. It’s probably a silly categorization in my head, but nevertheless, it’s there – and it makes crappy nonfiction that much harder to suffer with my usual stoical silence. These ten books made me howl the loudest in 2012:
10. Winter Journal by Paul Auster – Auster has amassed a following of knee-jerk acolytes mainly through the strength of his unending navel-gazing, and in Winter Journal (in which our perceptive novelist discovers that human cellular degeneration over time results in a process called aging) he takes things to their logical, horrifying conclusion by actually gazing at his navel for 200 pages. And his ear-hair. And his teeth. And his sagging lumbago. Until even the least charitable reader is pining for the boring Young Turk Auster of decades past, who at least hadn’t yet become Grandpa Simpson.
9. Drift by Rachel Maddow – Blowhard TV comedienne Maddow (whose show neatly embodies every worst aspect of the Clinton-spawned stupid-smart smug Democrat world-view) for some inconceivable reason took it into her head that her ability to polish 5-minute current affairs sketches written by browbeaten functionaries somehow gave her the ability to craft a 140-page socio-political dissertation about the state of the U.S. military. She was in error, as would be anybody who reads the resulting junk.
8. Read This! – The fascist lock-step of the “indie” bookstore mentality is on gruesome display in every one of the must-read lists independent bookstore managers, founders, and workers contributed to this little handbook: the same small group of cool-kid titles crops up over and over again (the editors, in true hipster fashion, boastfully tote up these duplications at the end, as though conformity were a badge of pride). The result is twofold: first, these lists provide an exceedingly ironic – and infuriating – portrait of the cliques of name-dropping schoolyard bullies who’ve supplanted real readers in many of America’s best book shops, and second, this book gives an implied but chillingly clear indication of what would happen to a customer who walked into any of these shops and asked for a copy of James Michener’s Chesapeake.
7. The Guardians by Sarah Manguso – That we live in a self-absorbed age will come as no surprise to the millions who follow all the belch-updates on Twitter, but even so, the stark, self-pitying egomania of Manguso’s book – allegedly about the subway-jumping suicide of a friend of hers but really, relentlessly about how hard everything is for her (even, obviously, generating competent prose), how deep are all her responses, how much people really don’t deserve her, etc. The effect of all this narcissism is immediately obvious: it’s the ultimate expression of disrespect for her dead friend, whose suicide is never given a chance to compete with the Manguso Show.
6. Hitler by A. N. Wilson
5. The Amateur by Ed Klein
4. Ninety Days by Bill Clegg – In previous Steveads year-end lists, we’ve already touched on the “memnoir” – a supposed memoir that reads too good to be true, that reads like a Hollywood screenplay mainly because it is too good to be true. Clegg shot to the front ranks of the perpetrators of such memnoirs with his previous book, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, which purported to chronicle his descent from celebrity book-agent to sex-junky crackhead. Ninety Days tells that hyper-libertied story’s natural sequel: the author’s long and equally factually elastic road to recovery. That hardly one sentence of Ninety Days is literally true is bad enough; what’s much worse from a literary standpoint is that hardly one sentence reads true either.
3. Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly – The runaway publishing success of blowhard TV comedian O’Reilly has had two main, dire results: he gets to call himself a ‘historian’ on his resume, and he’s allowed to keep slapping his name (and the thin mud-veneer of his stylistic tweaks) on these quickie-trots churned out by browbeaten functionaries. This one is ostensibly about the JFK assassination, but really both this book and its predecessor Killing Lincoln (and presumably its sequels, Killing Garfield and Killing McKinley) are ‘about’ what all blowhard TV-conservative rants are about: how much better things were before all kinds of ‘pinheads’ began demanding their civil rights. To say John Kennedy would have hated this book is merely to state the obvious. The real crusher? Lee Harvey Oswald would have hated it.
2. That Woman by Anne Sebba
1. When I Was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson – Robinson established an enormous line of credit with her brilliant first novel Housekeeping, and she’s been steadily, industriously chipping away at that credit ever since, with each of her subsequent productions being more shrill and narrow than the last. Her latest book, a collection of essays, only further displays this lamentable public descent into a weird kind of minatory Wahabi Christianity from which no sane work can issue. Whether she’ll ever return to the godly task of writing good novels is open to doubt, but the pinched tail-chasing of When I Was a Child I Read Books – the worst nonfiction book of the 2012 – certainly gives little hope of it.