Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Reviews

Khaled Hosseini wrote The Kite Runner and it took off. Maybe it was timing, a book about the hardships in Afghanistan being published when interest in the country was still high. We're fighting a war there, where is Afghanistan exactly, and what are they like? A novel can give a better sense of a people than some dry treatise by the Margaret Meads of the world.

If you believe reviewer Michiko Kakutani, the book was a hit in spite of its flaws. Old-fashioned story-telling, and in this day and age. Too much emotion, too much melodrama, the characters right out of a cartoon...none of those elements go into best sellers that ride the crest of the New York Times weekly list. Well, it wasn't a book review that set The Kite Runner off into the stratosphere. Must have been word of mouth. Those book group things where ordinary people discuss books.

Mr. Hosseini's new book, again with a setting in his native country, garnered a positive review, but his book still has those....flaws. There's a "villainous villain" and a "saintly best friend" according to Ms. Kakutani. And there are "embarrassingly hokey scenes" of the B movie caliber as well. But there is still enough quality in there to salvage the novel.

What's wrong with old-fashioned story telling? Must everything published be self-centered and introspective and full of deep thought? In spite of what a reviewer sees as flaws, a novel became a best seller because people read it, liked it, recommended it to friends, and more readers came on board. Obviously, they didn't much care that the plot was contrived in parts. It was not critical to the readers that a character not have some cartoonish elements, or that the villains were painted with broad strokes of evil intent.

The point of a novel is to entertain, and if the reader gets a bit of an education as well, that's a bonus. It doesn't have to be the other way around, where a writer beats the reader over the head with his examination of the day's profound issues and maybe throws in a bit of entertainment on the side.

Iranians don't read much anymore, but their books are so heavily censored that they can't be bothered with what is available. Are Americans not reading much anymore because the big publishing houses are self-censoring, only putting out heavy-handed tomes that fail because they're dull? Have we moved so far away from the art of story-telling that a book that manages to tell a story has become a rarity?

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