For Kate Christensen, Bad Prose Can Never Yield a Great Book

What books are on your night stand?

I’m living temporarily in a rented house in Iowa City, teaching at the Writers’ Workshop. When I arrived there was not one book in the entire place, so I made an emergency trip to the local used-book store, collecting whatever leaped out at me from the shelves, mostly based on the wonderful titles: “Overhead in a Balloon,” by Mavis Gallant; “Watson’s Apology,” by Beryl Bainbridge; “Anthills of the Savannah,” by Chinua Achebe; “The Brandon Papers,” by Quentin Bell; “The Marquis of Bolibar,” by Leo Perutz; “The Seven Sisters,” by Margaret Drabble; “Bruised Hibiscus,” by Elizabeth Nunez; “A Journal of the Plague Year,” by Daniel Defoe.

What’s the last great book you read?

“Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” by Gabriel García Márquez. I taught it in my seminar last week. Our conversation crackled and popped — you know a book is good when an entire room full of astute readers gets excited about taking it apart to see how it works.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

“The Sea, the Sea,”by Iris Murdoch, and I’m glad I waited, because it felt fortuitously apropos to read it for the first time at my age (I’m 61). This is a powerful novel about the dismantling of ego, the truth of love — I’m in awe of Murdoch’s genius.

Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

A great book can’t be badly written. Nothing can overcome bad prose. If by “bad” you mean false, bad-faith, boring, murky, pretentious, and/or dreadful. A book is made of language. How can a house be great if it’s made of shoddy materials? How can a dinner be great if it’s made with terrible ingredients? It can be passably serviceable but never great.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In a hot bath on a cold winter afternoon, with a gripping novel, the house quiet, dogs worn out after a hike and fast asleep. I live in Taos, N.M., a high-desert mountain town where winters are very cold. My bathtub is enclosed in blue tiles, and sun pours through the skylight overhead, and steam wafts off the bath water and evaporates into bone-dry air. I like to look up from my book and realize with a happy jolt where I am, then immerse myself again. Bath, book.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Most recently, the brilliant, heartbreaking, brutal “Sparrow,” by James Hynes, a historical novel narrated by a young slave boy in the Roman Empire. It takes place so long ago but it feels urgently immediate, and the writing is exquisite. Hynes writes like no one else.

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