"But what are we to say of the likes of Haruki Murakami? Or Salman Rushdie? Or Jonathan Franzen? Or Jennifer Egan, or recent prize-winners like Andrés Neuman and Eleanor Catton, or, most monumentally, Karl Ove Knausgaard? They are all immensely successful writers. They are clearly very competent. Knausgaard is the great new thing, I am told. I pick up Knausgaard. I read a hundred pages or so and put it down. I cannot understand the attraction. No, that’s not true, I do get a certain attraction, but cannot understand why one would commit to its extension over so many pages. It doesn’t seem attractive enough for what it is asking of me.
Take Elena Ferrante. Again and again I pick up her novels and again and again I give up around page fifty. My impression is of something wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic, forever playing on Neapolitan stereotype. Here, in My Brilliant Friend, the narrator is remembering a quarrel between neighbours:
As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.
What can one say? Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: “Harsh, fierce sounds”; “One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood”; insults are “hurled.” The memory is “for me still unbearable” though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten. Is “entwined” really the right word for two people locked in struggle on the stairs? As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes, the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.”
I can’t recall dropping a melon myself, but if the aim of a metaphor is to bring intensity and clarity to an image, this one goes in quite a different direction. The dull slap of the soft white melon hitting the ground and rolling away from you would surely be a very different thing from the hard crack of a skull and the sight of a bloody face. I’m astonished that having tossed the metaphor in, out of mechanical habit one presumes, the author didn’t pull it right out again. And even more I’m astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.
It’s not only fiction that does this to me. I am told, for example, that Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life—a psychoanalyst giving us his most interesting case histories—is a work of genius and is selling like hotcakes. I buy a copy, and halfway through I toss it away, literally, at the wall, in intense irritation. How can people like these stories, with their over-easy packaging of what are no doubt extremely complex personal problems, their evident and decidedly unexamined complacency about the rightness of the analyst’s intervention?"