Leland Cheuk and I must have known each other much better in another life. In two years of this column, this month is the first time a writer has answered more than one of my questions the same way I would have. His frustration with the conformity of large presses and writers who write about being writers is very much my own, and we may be the only two serious readers on earth who don’t like 2666.
Cheuk is the author of Letters from Dinosaurs, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, and the forthcoming No Good Very Bad Asian. He’s also the publisher of 7.13 Books, which you should be paying attention to if you aren’t already. Added to all this, he’s just a nice dude. Which is how I know that none of the hates he outlines below are personal.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
Can I just tell you how long I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this?
I live to serve.
I’m finding that as I get older, I can be both more forgiving or much snobbier about books. They’re hard to write, so it’s tough to be too harsh. On the other hand, most books (especially those published by commercial, corporate presses in the U.S.) don’t even try to do anything new or interesting.
And of course, there’s the issue of my biases. I’m very partial to novels about average characters trying to figure out how to live in a rapidly changing contemporary society. So that means I roll my eyes at other tried-and-true tropes that continue to remain popular for reasons I don’t fully understand.
What types of books specifically?
- The preternaturally gifted and/or very privileged protagonist must overcome their own giftedness to get what they want (examples: A Beautiful Mind and any superhero movie)
I prefer protagonists who are average and flawed and trying and sometimes failing to be better humans. If you’re a master chess player trying to save the world, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for me, an average reader, to relate.
- A multitudinously disadvantaged protagonist must struggle to survive some sort of historical atrocity, usually World War II and the Holocaust (example: All The Light We Cannot See)
In a lot of novels of literary prestige, for some reason, the world’s deadliest-ever war and genocide are not enough of a disadvantage; the author has to tack on a few more disadvantages—one has to be a blind and deaf impoverished toddler with a cleft palate so that every possible reader’s heartstrings can be effectively tugged.
- Any novel with a protagonist who’s a novelist.
Your job as a fiction writer is to imagine and you can’t even imagine an occupation different from your own?
Even though it’s not necessarily in fashion these days, I still believe in a novel’s ability to bring people together, across race, gender, class, age, etc. That’s part of the reason I believe strongly in the average, flawed protagonist. I still believe in universality in a time of endless division, audience segmentation, Amazon product categories, microtargeting, and the like. Unfortunately, literature has gone the way of music, where each song is curated for the individual based on the individual’s demographics, psychographics, and surveilled online behavior. What if I don’t want to read a book like the one I’ve just bought and read, Amazon?
I don’t read as many American novels anymore that contain a sense of an author’s unique worldview or an author’s singular subtextual commentary on navigating modern society as it changes and changes quickly. Unfortunately, more and more contemporary novels are driven by headlines and news cycles and have an NPR story’s level of subtext and depth.
Has this made you cynical about what you consume?
Even though I seem to watch all of them, I’ve become immune to recent superhero movies. There’s only so much one can care about two invincible (see: preternaturally gifted, definitely not average) forces throwing each other back and forth across a screen while a city is destroyed. All of those movies end in a perfect wealth inequality metaphor.
Agreed, but is there a book equivalent to this? I will almost definitely put down a book that starts out in an MFA writing workshop, for instance. What about you?
Yes, I’ve had enough of writers writing about writing for other writers in fiction. It’s part of the reason why the average person doesn’t read books these days. Literary authors make up a tiny sliver of the population.
On some level, it comes down to privilege. If a writer is building a world where nothing bad can ever happen to its gifted/wealthy/highly successful characters and there’s no critique of the privilege, I’m out. Take a book like Fates and Furies, which has a large segment set in an artist colony, a place of tremendous privilege, and the character is writing an opera. It’s hard to get more elitist. I felt similarly about The Goldfinch, which seemed to have a rich person showing up to save the day every hundred pages and, though it had elements of terrorism, crime, and drugs, never felt dangerous for the protagonist.
Do you think your tastes have altered anything about your writing?
I tend to write about average people navigating extraordinary circumstances or semi-absurd subcultures. So, of course, those are the types of books I like to read because I feel like they influence my writing.
How do your writing and reading tastes intersect with your publishing tastes?
Well, I’m not going to be publishing a novel set in WWII with a privileged but disadvantaged protagonist who happens to be a novelist. I try to publish books that I’m excited to read and wish I would have written.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
I really enjoyed Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, which won the Booker in 2018 and seems modeled after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s about a slave in Barbados who’s chosen his owner’s brother to help construct a “cloud-cutter”—basically a flying boat. The novel ends up being a picaresque that takes the ex-slave on adventures around the world, from the Canadian Arctic to the Moroccan desert. It’s just a wonderful adventure that hits on some painful truths about friendships between people of color and whites that persist to this day.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading like ten things at once, including Bolaño’s 2666, which, of course, I’m not sure I’m going to finish. If there are murders, why not just start with the murders instead of 200 pages about a love triangle between feckless academics, one of whom savagely beats a rideshare driver and appears to face no narrative or psychological consequences? It’s much heralded, but maybe I’m too dumb to get it.
I didn’t like 2666 either. I’ve tried hard in the intervening years to figure out whether I was turned off by the repetitiveness of the murders or whether I was too American to absorb the book in the way it was intended. Usually I love very long novels.
Did you read A Brief History of Seven Killings? Repetition was an issue for me in that book too. Lots of supposedly distinct characters repeating the same information in the same way across points of view. I’ve come to believe that the well-edited 700+ page novel doesn’t exist.
So as not to bore our readers, I’m not going to argue that point. Do you keep books or give them away?
I live in a small Brooklyn apartment; I give them away.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
Nah, I’m a lover, not a fighter.