Critic, Book World

Let’s set aside for a moment President Trump’s relentless assault on the press.

Sunday morning he went after novels, too.

In a double-barreled tweet, the president claimed, “The Washington Post is far more fiction than fact. Story after story is made up garbage — more like a poorly written novel than good reporting.”

That’s a curious comparison for the president to make. He’s never claimed to be a big reader of novels — well or poorly written. A few months before the election, he told Michael Wolff that he was rereading “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which he considers “one of the greatest books of all time.” But beyond that 1929 classic, there’s been no mention of novel reading in the Oval Office. Which is a shame. Just imagine how much Trump might enjoy Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” — President Barack Obama’s favorite book of 2015 — about a charismatic man whose success is based on an act of deception.

The president’s tweet reflects the way novels too often suffer in loose conversation. When someone objects to a news story, they growl, “It’s pure fiction!” — as though fiction were synonymous with deceit.

And let’s not be too quick to dismiss poorly written novels. I know poorly written novels. Poorly written novels are friends of mine. Keep in mind that those bloated tomes earn most of the publishing world’s profits. By selling millions of copies, they fund the work of thousands of fine literary writers who sell just a few thousand copies. Not to mention that poorly written novels provide material for wicked book reviews.

I also take exception to the president’s insinuation that poorly written novels are composed of “made up garbage.” Even if we add the necessary hyphen to “made-up,” his assessment seems misinformed. Some of the most wonderful novels are packed with “made-up garbage.” After all, making up stuff is what novelists do for a living. As the world’s most prominent source of fantastical claims, Trump should have more sympathy for his fellow creators, brothers and sisters in the field, as it were.

’Twas ever thus. The disparagement of novels arose right along with the form itself. Puritan sermons were laced with warnings against gaming, whoring and reading novels. We await the president’s impassioned tweet against those first two corrupters of youth.

In the literal sense, wholly made-up garbage is fairly rare in works of fiction. One of the last novels E.L. Doctorow published was “Homer & Langley,” about a pair of hoarders in New York, but his story is based on the real lives of the Collyer brothers, whose bodies were found under their accumulated junk in 1947. A better example might be a terrific novel by Jonathan Miles called “Want Not” (2013) about the grotesque volume of material we waste and discard in this country. It’s far and away the best trashy novel I’ve ever read.

Otherwise, inventiveness — what our Critic in Chief calls “made up garbage” — is typically a quality we admire in novels. The bizarre worlds created by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin provide some of our most memorable reading experiences.

Even in so-called realistic fiction, we expect authors to “make up” their stories, to forge, as one of the president’s advisers once so elegantly put it, “alternative facts.” It’s the reason most novels begin by reminding us: “All the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.”

Anyone who has read lots of novels knows that what truly distinguishes them is not their relative content of made-up garbage. The mark of a bad novel is not excessive invention; it’s excessive laziness.

That weakness expresses itself in a variety of depressing ways. A bad novel offers us characters who are stereotypes; they behave just as we know they will and speak in dialogue that has no relationship to the way actual people talk. A bad novel is written in prose that’s consistently witless, colorless and pocked with cliches. Such books mistake action for plot, they substitute sentimentality for authentic emotion, they pass off cynicism as profundity. They suggest nothing entertaining, insightful or provocative about how we live. In short, they give us only FAKE NEWS about human existence.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.

critic's notebook