What the Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1945)
  • BOOK READ: Madwomen, translated by Randall Couch

One of the strange side effects of writing for young people is that young people give you their writing. Over the years, I’d estimate that young fans of my Lemony Snicket books have sent or handed to me perhaps fifty full-length novels, plus hundreds of short stories, poems, comic strips, and excerpts from diaries. The vast majority of the material is fan fiction, with some clearly autobiographical bits as well. The grammar and spelling are often better than you’d expect but not as good as you’d like, and the prose tends to be imitative and impulsive. So when I write back, I politely but firmly inform the young writers that their work is terrible—structurally sloppy, stylistically immature, and, by any reasonable standard of literature, plainly bad.

No, no, of course I don’t. I say thank you and what a pleasure it was to read. I don’t offer an honest critical judgment, because I don’t think one is called for, and there’s not a soul on earth to whom this needs to be explained. Not in this case.

Follow this philosophical path through the literary landscape, however, and it leads pretty quickly to quicksand. We can all agree that a novelist shouldn’t be given the Pulitzer Prize because, gosh darn it, she tried her very best. And we can all agree that you’d be a complete asshole if you told someone that a poem sent from a dying sweetheart was lousy with clichéd imagery and cheap sentiment. But there’s a lot of literature in between. I get tired, for instance, when a book gets called “a searingly honest and necessary story,” and it turns out that’s code for the fact that it’s a badly written piece of work with an impeccable moral pedigree. But what if it just speaks to people? Plodding, melodramatic memoirs inspire readers to change their lives; victims of terrible tragedies are comforted by the tritest bits of verse.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

March/April 2014
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