What is your least favourite book by your favourite writer? I came across this question at Jonathan Gibbs’s blog the other day and it’s stayed with me. As Gibbs notes, this exercise (however artificial—can you really have just one favourite writer?) is quite revealing. In explaining what we don’t like, we see more clearly what we do.
I have many favourite writers (and I don’t care if this vitiates the proper meaning of favourite). But there are hardly any of whom I can say I have read all, or even most, of their books. There are a few more if I include writers who have (so far) only written one or two books. But the wording of this question seems to favour writers who have written a lot.
The writer who best fits these parameters for me is D. H. Lawrence. Some people would say that all his books are their least favourite. He’s certainly hard to be dispassionate about; that’s one of things I like about him. And by dint of predilection and circumstance, his work is of unusually variable quality. A few of his books are pretty generally recognized as bad, that is, as books that might well be suited to being a least favourite. (But least favourite isn’t the same as bad.) I’m thinking about books like Kangaroo or The Plumed Serpent.
As it happens, I’ve not read either of those books. But I’ve read a fair number of the others. And even when Lawrence is bad, he is always interesting. And when he is good, there are few better. It is hard to top that miraculous string of novels from Sons & Lovers (1913) through The Rainbow (1915) and Women in Love (1920) to The Fox (1923)
Any one of these could be my favourite. If forced to choose, I’d settle on The Rainbow, which everyone should read, especially if you care about the great tradition of 19th century English literary realism.
For my least favourite, though, I’d have to look just a little bit later in Lawrence’s career, right after those novels I love so much. As I was thinking about the question, I first hit upon his two books on psychoanalysis and the idea of the unconscious. Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) are pretty nutty. (A little of Lawrence’s quasi-physiological explanations of the source of the life force—all that talk of the solar plexus and the loins—goes a long way.) But ultimately they aren’t my least favourite, even though they’re not much fun to read, because they’re saved by an incisive question about whether it is possible to understand the unconscious, as Freud seeks to do, without robbing it of its power.
So I abandoned those candidates and looked elsewhere. And then the choice was obvious: The Captain’s Doll (1923), a shrill novella that rewrites the glorious Women in Love as reductively and schematically as possible. The Lawrence I love is generous, kind, stirring. The Lawrence I’m bored by is petty, small-minded, point-scoring. Whenever Lawrence tries to be funny, things go badly. His jokes take the form of weak satire. He turns straightforwardly reactionary. (In my favourite works, which some readers have also taken to be reactionary, he’s revolutionary in a way that transcends the conservative-progressive distinction.) Another way to say what I mean is that for Lawrence to be good he has to take himself utterly seriously, with all the risks inherent to that way of being.
In my favourite works, Lawrence marries ideas with intense sensual description of the known world better than any other English-language writer. In my least favourite ones, The Captain’s Doll in particular, he loses interest in the description, resorts to shorthand, so that there’s nothing for the ideas (about, in this case, how men and women ought to relate to each other) to grow out of and be challenged by.
And you? How do you answer the question? What’s your least favourite book by a favourite writer? And what does your choice tell us about why he or she is your favourite?