I would like to talk about The Art of Fielding.
I bought this book after reading the expanded version of Keith Gessen’s article in Vanity Fair about how long it took Harbach to write it. Gessen does not hide the fact that he is very good friends with Harbach, and it really didn’t make a difference; clearly Gessen was going to like to book and laud it even if he wasn’t given paid to do so. What was interesting about his piece was more about how the mechanics of the publishing industry work. Additionally, Gessen himself admits to not loving early drafts of the novel, but finding the finished product astounding.
In fact, many people have found it astounding. I did not, and here is why! No snark!
My major issue with this novel is the fundamental problem of the treatment of the homosexual characters. I’m not eloquent when it comes to expressing my opinions most of the time (hence my approach, which is to make fun of everything), so if you’d like to read a very good response to this novel, you should check out Matthew Gallaway’s essay on The Millions. I read it after finishing the book (although I chatted with Matt about it when I was about 200 pages into it, having already found myself frustrated with the book).
The problem is not that one of the major characters seems to wake up one morning to find himself a 60-year-old gay man completely in love with a 21-year-old male college student, although that in itself seems like a crazy idea! But fiction, OK! The issue I took, and the issue that Matt addresses in his essay) is the way Harbach presented the relationship and, in particular, Owen, the object of Guert Affenlight’s affections.
Owen self-identifies in his first scene as a “gay mulatto.” We are introduced to him as another protagonist meets him on his first day of college: they are roommates, and Owen is scrubbing the bathroom floor while listening to techno music. Later, Owen tries out for, and makes, the college baseball team, which, in a seemingly dichotomous move on Harbach’s part, seems to directly counterbalance the image of the fussy, feminine gay man furiously cleaning while listening to music that is typically associated with faggotry. Of course, we don’t see Owen play throughout much of the novel; instead, he sits on the bench reading philosophy and literature while his much more macho and muscular teammates play the field.
And the sex! The awkward descriptions of the gay sex, which in actuality there was none. There’s a brief scene in which Owen kisses Affenlight on the tip of the penis in a womanly way.” Later, in a post-coital scene, Affenlight embraces Owen in bed with his leg thrown over Owen’s, and the man ruminates on how feminine the position is.
Can we discuss how, generally speaking, there is little femininity to sex between two men? I mean, there’s the idea of the passive partner being feminine, I suppose, which is a ridiculous idea when you think about it, and that kind of thinking is representative of A WHOLE MESS of gender issues. And I was at first very disappointed (but not surprised) that Harbach did not actually depict any sex between Affenlight and Guert; I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, assuming maybe it was edited down because, after all, gay sex is not something straight audiences like to read about. But there was only one actual sex scene in the book, a very brief paragraph that detailed an unsatisfactory (straight) encounter, and I realized that it’s more likely that Harbach, like most contemporary writers of a certain age, is probably afraid of writing about sex in a realistic way. Alas.
So now let’s talk about realism. Emily called my issues with the novel pedantic today, which I think is kind of unfair! I mean, sure, I suppose it’s fiction, and that in the world that Harbach created it’s certainly feasible for a junior in college to act as a rogue admissions counselor and get a student enrolled just so he can play baseball for a small college that does not even offer athletic scholarships, and I suppose it speaks to the character of Henry that he shows up to school with only a duffel bag full of clothes and a book written by a fictional shortstop, leaving his parents and sister behind in his rural South Dakota hometown. That’s powerful imagery! I don’t believe it, but I can see how, in the world of dramatic sensibility, that works for some people. The same thing goes for the concept of a jock so brilliantly balancing his football and baseball careers at a very small midwestern college while also writing a brilliant thesis. The fact that most small colleges in the midwest that are known for their academics typically do not have athletic programs (especially those who cannot offer scholarships), and the fact that most college athletes do not play two physically demanding sports - well, let’s say those facts crossed my mind. But I suppose I am being pedantic by pointing out, as someone who has worked in college administration and attended from college within the last ten years, I don’t find any of those elements that make up important plot points within the story plausible.
Also, whenever the Latino character peppered his dialogue with Spanish? That made me really uncomfortable.
I am not a fiction writer. I made attempts at it years ago, and I took several fiction writing classes both in undergrad and in my brief stint in grad school. I remember one thing that came up often in my peers’ stories were small details like someone getting results of an HIV test over the phone, to which a classmate pointed out that it’s not legal for clinics to give test results over the phone. It was dramatic in terms of the story, but not realistic! I wrote a story that was essentially a subpar rip-off Flannery O’Connor in which an infant was baptized in a seemingly fundamentalist Southern Baptist church (I left it deliberately ambiguous, but not that ambiguous!); a classmate pointed out that children are not baptized in Southern Baptists churches. Were these people being pedantic, or were they pointing out, which the knowledge that they had from their real life experiences, that the dramatic moments we sometimes write into our fiction fail simply because they cannot happen the way we pretend they can?
There’s a detail that really bugged me at the end of The Art of Fielding, and I promise this isn’t a spoiler. It is mentioned that Henry spends a summer working at a Piggly Wiggly in his South Dakota town, which is impossible. Piggly Wiggly is a Southern chain; there are none in South Dakota. Harbach used that store deliberately - he wrote it, after all. Piggly Wiggly, to me, is a Southern symbol; to many other readers unfamiliar with the chain, it might seem just generally rural. I Googled to see if Piggly Wiggly existed in South Dakota; did Harbach? Did he know that it was a flub, and did he use it anyway? I guess it’s more recognizable of a name than whatever regional chain Henry would have actually worked. But because this is a novel to which I am supposed to relate, in some way, because I find great literature to be evocative and realistic, I see that as one small flaw in a book filled with unrealistic and unrecognizable ideas on top of what I read as one author’s poorly executed attempt at literay progressivism that only indicated not only his lack of understanding but also his unwillingness to write the facts.
The sentences all read nice and pretty, sure„ but polished brush strokes aren’t going to result in a great portrait if the artist is unwilling to glance at his subject.