If you have not experienced Kristi Coulter’s heart, wit, and impeccable fashion sense, you need to find her on Facebook or Twitter and follow her. Now. I, along with a massive viral audience, found her via her 2016 essay, “Enjoli,” which is carefully, windingly, unforgettably about alcoholism in modern women. Following the essay’s extraordinary success – Coulter still gets hate mail about it, and she became suddenly Canada-famous only a few months ago – Coulter signed with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for her memoir, Nothing Good Can Come from This, coming in the summer of 2018.
I caught sight of Coulter commenting on a mutual friend’s posts, and jumped in to derail the conversation say how much I enjoyed her essay. She mentioned in turn how much she liked an essay I’d written. Later, once I had started following her for real, I fangirled all over one of her good friends, a music reviewer whose writing I deeply loved in the late 1990s. We’ve been friends ever since. I think.
I knew Kristi would have more than plenty to say about books that had gotten on her bad side. I also knew she wouldn’t balk at telling me about it.
How does your book-hate manifest?
I am the kind of reader who can at least respect just about any book on its own terms–there’s a big difference between a bad book and a book that just isn’t for me (especially as I am kind of weird and hard to please). But I do have what I call literary deal-breakers: tropes, themes, or stylistic choices that make me sigh heavily and either put a book down, or read on resentfully.
My deal-breakers include:
–heavy use of dialect and/or made-up languages
–a map in the front matter that I actually need to refer to. Purely decorative maps are acceptable, though still not thrilling.
–sports, circuses, or carnivals as primary subjects
–child narrators, especially first-person ones
–words in blurbs or jacket copy like “scabrous,” “scatological,” or “hallucinatory”
–detailed descriptions of plants, fish, or birds
–any type of seafaring
These deal-breakers don’t mean a book is a bad book, mind you. Just that I hate it.
Any specific examples of hated books, beyond these criteria?
The Corrections. It’s not because I’m one of those people who loves to hate Jonathan Franzen. In fact, I’m a fan. I am not, however, a fan of poop that talks. The Corrections flew off the rails for me in the talking-poop section and though I finished it, I finished as a crabby reader.
A Little Life. “Hate” is way too strong a word, probably–I greatly admire many things about this book. But I didn’t have the same deeply emotional reading experience that practically everyone I know did. Around the halfway point, I just couldn’t suspend disbelief anymore. I found myself reading clinically, wondering just how much more Grand Guignol things were going to get. By the end I felt like I was observing a masterful (because Hanya Yanagihara truly is a master) God toying with bugs.
And, finally, Cloud Atlas.
Aww. I loved Cloud Atlas.
I love the idea of Cloud Atlas. I loved reading parts of Cloud Atlas. But ultimately my dread of long stretches of dialect or made-up languages did me in.
I understand. I have a friend with a poison eye for dialect, and I just don’t send her the work I write with dialect, because she invariably hates it. Plus there’s the seafaring.
Oh, my God, I’d forgotten about the seafaring! And they seafared in dialect, didn’t they? Yeah, I really was doomed to hate Cloud Atlas. I guess the silver lining is that I’m probably the only person in the world who enjoyed the movie, because it was sort of Just the Good Parts without written dialect or information about how boats work. And because I’d read the book, I could more or less follow the plot, which I think would be nearly impossible otherwise.
I would honestly love to transform into someone who’s totally cool with reading fake languages and stuff, because in general I really enjoy David Mitchell. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
C’mon, there’s gotta be more to it than that.
No, really! At least in the past couple of years, I have found myself vaguely resentful of or avoiding books that require me to enter a dramatically different worldview than my own. I think it’s because I spent most of that time writing a memoir-in-essays and trying to maintain this delicate state of living in my own story and my own subjectivity. Both were hard things for me to even claim for much of my life, so I may have overcorrected slightly. The book just went into production and I’m looking forward to having some new obsessions as both a reader and a person.
Also, the last few years have also been a period of deep personal transformation for me, and I think I’ve gravitated toward books, films, etc. that provide some measure of grounding and humor and benevolence. (Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, my favorite novel of the last decade, is an example of this, as is the work of writers like Laurie Colwin and Michelle Huneven.) I came out of a long period of alcohol addiction four years ago, which has essentially meant slowly rejoining the world. I think what my brain and my soul have needed is a warmer, gentler vision of that world than the books above present, or owe me.
What do you like to read when you’re feeling more adventurous?
I enjoy sci-fi or speculative fiction that’s at least somewhat grounded in a world I recognize. That makes it feel even more mind-bending or boundary-pushing to me. Dexter Palmer’s very practical, almost-real-world time-travel novel Version Control utterly fascinated me. I also love Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy, especially the first book, Farthing, which is a traditional English country-house murder mystery set in a world where the U.K. made peace with Hitler and the U.S. never entered World War II. And Ben Winters’s Last Policeman trilogy, about a small-town policeman plowing doggedly on as the world prepares for a giant asteroid to hit in six months. It’s crazy good and the ending is perfect. Even further afield, I love reading Maggie Nelson and some of the French feminists who (I think) inspire her, like Luce Irigaray.
Do you think your deal-breakers have colored your reading of other books?
Oh, my God, yes. There are exceptions to almost all my deal-breakers, and when they occur they lead to all manner of second-guessing. For instance, I hate sports books, but I loved Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which is sort of the Bull Durham of college-baseball novels. I got worried for a while that I was missing out on lots of other great sports books, but eventually realized that (as with Bull Durham) it wasn’t the baseball that made me fall in love with Harbach’s book; it was everything around it.
Similarly, I adored Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but haven’t been able to get into other wizardy books. I do love Harry Potter, but I think of those as charming boarding school novels where magic also happens to take place. I was deeply invested in whether Harry would invite Cho Chang to the Yule Ball, but mildly interested at best in anything involving Voldemort.
There are whole authors I’ve avoided because of my issues. Like Patrick O’Brian, for instance. People love him so much, and there are twenty books in the series! I could be happily immersed in his world for years. But they’re nautical and historical. So I just physically cannot seem to give them a try. I’ve also never read Tolkien for some deal-breaker reasons, and also because I spent a lot of time in elementary school gifted classes with boys who could not talk about anything but Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. I kind of got my fill of both by age 10, just by osmosis. Even the word “Tolkien” makes me feel vaguely irritated.
I also tend to shy away from historical fiction, because it’s hard for me to find one that hits the sweet spot for me between history and story, and also because of the reference-maps thing. But then on vacation once I picked up Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, which is not only about WWII in Hungary, but is 600 pages long. And I devoured it.
I’m not into historical fiction either, but I tried Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein a few years ago. It was at the cross-section of genres that don’t often work for me: YA, historical fiction, WWII. And it utterly slayed me.
I loved Code Name Verity! I bought it on a trip to Paris because of something I read online, and then I didn’t want to do anything but lie on my hotel bed and read it. Like you, I also tend to not love YA, and spy novels are hard for me because I can never keep the plot straight. And yet here is a YA historical spy thriller which is just spectacular in every way. It’s one of those surprising, thrilling reading experiences I’m always longing to recreate.
I’ve since recommended it to people who have loved it, brought it to book clubs, and recommended it on again. There’s a secret Code Name Verity fan club that includes half the readers I know.
I’ve since made other forays into the spy novel, with some success–Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth. But both of those are light on the switchbacks and other byzantine plot devices that I usually associate with spy books, and which leave me hopelessly in the dust by the halfway point. Le Carre, for instance–he writes beautifully, but I can’t read him. I can’t even follow movie adaptations of his stuff. I was excited to see the recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and then about an hour in I kind of sighed and said to myself, well, you can just enjoy the rest as an achievement in art direction and cinematography, because there is no way you’re going to catch up to the plot.
Do you think your deal-breakers have altered anything about your writing?
I don’t think so. The books I hate tend to be estimable achievements on their own terms–they’re certainly not lazy or boilerplate. They just react badly with my own chemistry. So, if anything, I should avoid writing a book that reacts badly with my own chemistry, because that’s a terrible way to spend months or years.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Claire Dederer’s new memoir, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning. It’s the sharpest, funniest, most subtly revolutionary book on female desire I’ve read in who knows how long. I read it while writing the last chapters of my own memoir, got freaked out because I didn’t see how mine could be anywhere near as good, and had to put it aside so as to finish my manuscript. Any book that makes me feel that inferior as a writer is one I will recommend in glowing terms.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I cull and give away pretty regularly, and yet my living room still looks like the picture above.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I haven’t! Should I? Maybe I should.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading two new novels: Allegra Goodman’s The Chalk Artist, and Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation. I’m absolutely loving both of them. I pretty much always love Goodman; her last novel, The Cookbook Collector, was an inspiration for the novel I’m writing now.
Heiny is a newer writer and she’s just so good and so funny. Laurie Colwin is one of my all-time idols, and when a blurb or review promises that someone is “a contemporary Colwin” or whatever, I nearly always end up disagreeing. But Katherine Heiny is a contemporary Colwin–in her subject matter, her humor, her unsparing but affectionate social observations. I want to be Katherine Heiny’s best friend. And I’m also very, very jealous of her. But I feel sure I will reconcile these conflicting emotions. I mean, at some point.