This past Christmas two specific books found their way onto the pile:
The first was a (signed no less) hardcover edition of the latest Longmire book by Craig Johnson, ‘Depth of Winter.”
The other was Bill Bryson’s latest, “A Walk to Little Dribbling.” Let’s take that one first.
The gushes on the front and back cover are spectacular. “Wonderfully engaging… Bryson is a keen observer of what’s amusing, ironic and absurd.” (USA Today, and we won’t talk about the Oxford comma…)” Riveting… Bryson is a master…Almost as satisfying as being there yourself.” (Entertainment Weekly) “Bryson is a jovial companion and his typically funny self.” (Chicago Tribune)… They are not wrong. They are not WRONG.
And yet…
Let me first say that I did have cackling-out-loud moments in this one. I read significant passages to my husband, and he shared the cackles. It’s a Bryson book, that follows, we’ve been doing that since “A Walk in the Woods.”

Perhaps it was their publishers

But if I were to be asked to boil down this book into a sentence it would be “Bryson goes on a relatively pointless trip in order to satisfy his publisher’s demand for a new book, and spends most of it visiting museums, complaining about how expensive things are to get into these days, and bemoaning the fact that museums seem to be built around cafes and gift shops these days instead of the other way around and how difficult and expensive it is to get a cup of tea anywhere anymore.”
We are trotted into this or that more or less dying ex showpiece of a town or a quaint rustic village and we are treated to a list of the shops that used to be/no longer are or a slightly mocking “why is this shop here” list of emporia out there right now. I now know which village has a fishmonger’s or a post office, which one has lost a bookshop or a drugstore, and which particular pub appears to have lost its marbles about the idea of actually serving food it advertises.
There are A LOT of stopping places where something or someone is venerated or commemorated, but that something or someone is not an idea that even the author is familiar with. There are lots of references to “I read up on it/I looked it up” moments, which, even if that was the case, is the kind of crack in one’s awareness that one should have expected to have been papered over before it was revealed in a publication.
If you had to look up your subject matter it kind of behooves you to do it out of your reader’s focus. In other words, do your research BEFORE you write about whatever you’re writing about – make yourself look tolerably knowledgeable or at least enthusiastic enough about your subject to know obscure factoids about it. There’s something vaguely annoying about reading about your author reading about the things he is writing about in the book you are holding in your hand. I mean, you really could have done the pre-reading yourself, actually.
What you’re reading the book for is a kind of prism through which you can view the subject matter you’re reading about. Everything else is under the surface of the sea.  At least PRETEND you knew the things you needed to know before you needed to know them,
There are two niggling thing about this book.
The first one is that it appears to have literally come into being as a follow-up to “Notes from a Small Island.” That was a much better book. It had a reason to exist, as and of itself – not just as a “sequel” to something that was once a success.
The enthusiasm and elan of that first book is oddly lacking in this one. It’s almost as though the entire thing is a bit of a chore, really, and you know, through the litanies of the shops open and closed in main streets of British settlements large and small and the “I looked this up just for you!” moments touching on some truly obscure things… you can tell.
This was a journey through a land the author may well love, but it was not a journey of love. It was a tick-off-this-box itinerary. “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Stonehenge. Let’s see, what factoids can I trot out about Stonehenge? Okay, that’s enough about Stonehenge now. What’s next?”
The second thing that niggles is perhaps purely personal – but this Bill Bryson can be downright MEAN sometimes. Even if he is savagely right, in some instances, he can be thoroughly mean. He is very much the elderly uncle swirling his cane at everyone else and telling them in no uncertain terms to get off his lawn. He’s snide. He’s sniffy. He’s downright dismissive. And he does seem to be so very ANNOYED at everybody. It all leads to the reader being marinaded in this kind of attitude and it’s… well… it niggled.
I was reading a book for pleasure and I ended up being annoyed at people I have never met. You know. There are lots of annoying people I can name right off the bat without needing to be annoyed second-hand by someone whom somebody else has found to be a trial.
Perhaps this was all just tired enough that such an annoyance was more obvious than it might have been before. Bill Bryson is who he is, and he has a wit and a turn of phrase which is uniquely his own (there is a passage in this book about Microsoft which I intend to type out and send out to M$ employees current and past whom I know…)
I finished the book without once finding it “riveting”; I finished the book… with a weird sense of relief. Which is sad, when it comes to Bill Bryson.

Onto the Craig Johnson disaster

This Longmire novel continues from the cliffhanger ending of the one before. Cady Longmire, the sheriff’s daughter, has been kidnapped by bad guys. This book is about What Happens Next.
And what Happens Next is… thoroughly unbelievable, and a complete betrayal of the character so lovingly built up by his creator over the course of this series. This is a book where the protagonist – ringing the change in accent, from clipped Brit to languid Wyoming – more or less introduces himself as “Longmire. Walt Longmire”.
He is no longer the sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming so much as a vengeful James Bond who goes solo into a nest of adders and comes out from multiple explosions and oceans of blood with a slightly singed hat and bruised knuckles. The daughter kidnapped by really REALLY bad guys comes out of it all with absolutely ZERO physical damage. I mean, to the point of there being specific references to people who had shown signs of “disrespecting” her, lovely euphemism for rape, being summarily dispatched by the head honcho. Which… is just hard to believe.
Both these books have one thing in common. They have been written by authors who have “a following.” They might well have been pushed by publishers eager to capitalize on that following. They may not have been written by an author who felt enthusiastic about the project, and who may therefore have just been “going through the motions”. The Bryson book felt like it fell far short of what it might have been. The Johnson book felt like a somewhat desperate attempt to do something new with a character whose course may have been – at least for the time being – done.
The Bryson book doesn’t quite work, the Longmire book is a disaster.
Both are “legacy” books – in terms of author, in terms of subject matter – they are books that may have been greenlighted and published because their publishers to keep their “dibs” on a corner of the market that they have become accustomed to claiming as their own and are deeply reluctant to abandon to anything or anybody else. The end result, however, is that the placeholder book is not what the readers might want or expect or enjoy, and the author may well end up paying the price for that.
I have been to many of the same places that Bryson mentions in his book; I’ve even written about some of them – and while I am no Bryson, I can also be observant and amusing about things when the mood takes me – but I wonder why such a talented and funny a writer as Bryson would write this particular book about a place he clearly cares about, but which he seems to find it difficult to write about without being mean.
In this book, even his amusing stories have an edge of annoyance and meanness to them. Yes, even when he is being nice, and being kind. He just sounds… exasperated. Even with the things that he loves.
I suppose I hate it that the sense of exasperation is what I am left with after putting down a Bryson book.

2 thoughts on “When good authors go awry

  1. Interesting…to both; I’m also a long-time Bryson fan, and have just discovered the creator of my favourite TV character for many years – Walt Longmire. I suppose anything can go on too long – witness Jethro Tull and teh Rolling Stones as two good examples – but it’s a pity to hear this about Bryson. And I think I’ll stop with Walt at the book before the one you just reviewed B-)

    1. I have ALL the Longmire books. I, even though I don’t read mysteries as a genre, fell in love with the whole Longmire persona, his world, the Cheyenne mythos in the books, all of it. And I’ve BEEN to Wyoming, and I know those skies. And he had a fan there, did Craig Johnson, from a wholly unexpected source – and that’s an accomplishment, if you’re a genre writer, drawing in non-genre readers and keeping them. But this last book… gah. Don’t read it, Ed. Not if you like Longmire. I’ll give the author one more chance – assuming he takes Walt back where he belongs – but if he insists on pushing forward with this nonsense… I’m done…
      As for the Bryson, like I said, there is good stuff buried in there somewhere. But I mean that – buried. You’ll have to dig for it if you want it 🙂 I’ve written an essay/review of a MUCH better book which is going to be on my Patreon (you aren’t on that are you?) – exclusively, for at least a month – I may release it to the public after, I will see. But in the meantime… if you want a good book… pick up “The Overstory”

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