Plenty of folks tell you what’s good and what you should like:
“This restaurant is so good, you’ll love it.”
“Have you seen that show? It is so good.”
“Oh, it’s a classic. It’s so good.”
You are smart enough to realize that a musician, say, can be very good at his or her craft and that this has nothing to do with the fact that you’d rather listen to two cats in heat for two hours than be subjected to that musician’s greatest hits. You are smart enough to realize that there is quality and there is preference, and these things don’t always meet up. Look at the case of my mother and Frank Sinatra: she hates him. She thinks Frank Sinatra was a creep and his ubiquitous music, now on repeat from beyond the grave, is like, ear-porridge for people in shopping mall food courts. I don’t like his music, either, but I argue (with Mom) that Frank Sinatra was a talented entertainer, and that this fact that cannot be disputed. He could sing, dance, act, and probably sleep with nine women in a single night: this was a person with gifts. You don’t care for the tone of his voice, fine, but he’s still remarkable. My mother will begrudgingly allow this position, but she will always, always announce that she hates Frank Sinatra and damn what everyone else says when the strains of “Strangers In the Night,” are within earshot.
I recently had an experience that confounded me vis a vis the quality/preference nexus, though. I tried reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and dammit, that book sucks.
I sincerely do not believe that my dislike for the book is an issue of taste or preference: this not a good book. The prose is weak. Darlings were spared right and left and the dialogue is not-believable. The characters are one-note. And Bradbury’s social commentary is woven through the tale about as elegantly as a rubber hose might get through a placement. “Books” are ideas, Ray, got it. Okay, they’re symbols for people, too, I see what you did there. I tried three times to pick that book up and make it through, but I couldn’t. It’s a short book!
Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian tale, set in a world where books are burned by the nasty Powers That Be because books inspire people to think for themselves, something that is bad for the PTB. In this sooty world, “firemen” don’t put fires out; they start them (an admittedly badass conceit.) The novel centers around protagonist Guy Montag’s uncivil disobedience and attempts to save a world that is almost entirely obliterated by the time he decides to do something about it.
But it’s just a cudgel of a story. Bradbury writes Montag as 100% savior material while everyone else is suspicious. There are bad guys and good guys and there’s hardly a whiff of “But whose side is that character on?” which is what I crave in a novel and crucial to a meaty story, in my view. Montag’s zombie of a wife is hardly necessary for the story, she’s so early written-off; her arc is non-existent. There’s an old professor who still loves books (oh, really? an old professor still loves books? you don’t say!), and Montag’s fireman co-workers have names like Stoneman and Black, which is way, way too on-the-nose for me. That’s not a wink-wink from an author: that’s being cute. I don’t want cute. I want a good story, bro. [SPOILER ALERT] The book ends tidily enough, with everyone learning at least a little bit about themselves and the dangers of a Leviathan-style society. Wow! I didn’t see that coming. Except that I did, from the first page.
Perhaps the most damning thing I can tell you about Fahrenheit 451 is that Bradbury kills off this young girl early on in the story, but when the film version was made, they changed her fate. Instead of dying, Clarisse goes and lives with the exiles, which is way, way, way better for the story. Bradbury was like, delighted and all-in on that massive change to his book, so much so that when he wrote the stage version of the story, he used that storyline, instead. That’s called a major re-write, dude. That’s supposed to come before your book is required reading in for freshman in high school from Santa Monica to Albany.
And that’s the thing. Fahrenheit 451 is “so good.” It’s “a classic.” It’s won all kinds of awards and everyone has heard of it if they haven’t read it themselves. I bought a copy at the bookstore because I was like, “Dang! Fahrenheit 451! I’ve never read it and that is a shame. Time to set things right.” But I don’t like it and I don’t think I’ll finish it.
It is a good thing for a person to take up arms against a sea of hype. If you don’t think the ocean is beautiful, then don’t go to the beach for spring break. My mom hates Frank Sinatra and I think the case can still be made that he was “good,” but I am open to any arguments that he actually did suck. Staying open to revision and re-consideration, and being a proud skeptic: these are “good” things and I’ll argue that till I’m dead.
“It was a pleasure to burn” is not a good opening line to a novel, Mr. Bradbury. It’s cloying and snotty.