in The New Yorker:
When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?
Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other...
Novelists can be likened to omnicompetent tour guides—as they gloss and vivify the wonders of unfamiliar terrains, the marketplaces, the museums, the tearooms and wine cellars, the gardens, the houses of worship. Then, without warning, the suave cicerone becomes a garrulous rogue cabdriver, bearing you off on a series of sinister detours (out by the airport, and in the dead of night). The great writers can take us anywhere; but half the time they’re taking us where we don’t want to go.