Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

Less (2017), by Andrew Sean Greer

Readers with long memories may recall that I heard Andrew Sean Greer speak at the Auckland Writers Festival in May and decided there and then that I would read his Pulitzer prize winning book.  I didn’t buy it then, because I had a suitcase full of books by NZ authors, and I didn’t buy it when I got home because I’d rather spend my money on Australian authors who haven’t won a prize that guarantees best sellerdom all over the world. (Did you know that the Pulitzer winners only get a mingy US$15,000? But the fame must be priceless.)

Anyway, the popularity of Less explains why I have waited all these months for my turn with the book from the library…

To be honest, I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about.  It’s amusing, as Greer was at the festival, but a mild and not particularly witty satire about a middle-aged man’s sorrows just didn’t engage me much.  I mainly kept reading it to offset a really demanding book that I couldn’t make myself read at bedtime, (more about that in due course) but I wouldn’t have cared much if I’d run out of library time, and already I can’t remember much of the episodic plot.

I had my one-and-only laugh-out-loud moment on page 103…

Arthur Less is a mid-list author who has wangled his way into assorted literary commitments around the world in order to avoid the patronising judgements that accompany attending, or not attending, the marriage of Freddy, who used to be his lover.  So Less has a gig in Germany as a guest lecturer at the ‘Liberated University’ because (he thinks) he speaks fluent German.  He has dusted off a writing course he had given at a Jesuit college in California and put the entire syllabus through a computer translation and called it Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein.  And instead of the expected three students, he finds the classroom overflowing with 130 students.

‘I am your Mr Professor.’

He is not.  Unaware of the enormous difference between the German Professor and Dozent, the former being a rank achieved only through decades of internment in the academic prison, the latter a mere parolee, Less has given himself a promotion.

‘And now, I am sorry, I must kill most of you.’

With this startling announcement, [LH: Remember, he is American, where they have A Lot Of Guns and Don’t Hesitate to Use Them] he proceeds to weed out any students who are not registered in the Global Linguistics and Literature Department. (p.103)

Less is pleasant, light-hearted reading, and it makes a change to read a gay love story that isn’t a melancholy tragedy. (Actually, it’s rare to read any book, these days, that isn’t angst-ridden).  But it doesn’t strike me as great literature.  I’ve read about a quarter of the Pulitzer winners from Saul Bellow to Annie Proulx and more, but Less IMO isn’t in the same league as the ones I’ve reviewed on this blog:

But then the Pulitzer has always seemed to me to be an uneven prize.  All prizes can be, but I’ve had too many disappointments with it to take much notice of it. I liked Less, but I find it hard to believe that it was the most impressive book of its year.  FWIW it wasn’t included in The Best 20 novels of 2017 at Harper’s Bazaar.

However, Simon at Stuck in a Book has recently read it, and he liked it a lot.  See here.

Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Title: Less
Publisher: Abacus, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group (Hachette UK), 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9780349143590
Source: Kingston Library



  1. I found it amusing and quite enjoyed it for its lack of angst. It was a refreshing read for me.


    • Yes, it’s good to have a book free of angst every now and again. I just think it’s a bit lightweight for such a significant prize. After all, it’s not as if they have a lot of prizes in the US, not well-known prestigious ones that is. And when you compare it to, say, The Underground Railroad, of The Sympathizer, or The Colour Purple or the Known World, it lacks gravitas.
      (OTOH, imagine what sort of book might win The President’s Prize for Literature. Nothing more than 140 characters, eh?)

      Liked by 2 people

      • 😂😂 !
        I do agree with you on Less in terms of prize worthiness. It’s not what I expected in that context.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I have heard a lot about this book. I read Simon’s take o it just before reading yours. Interesting to see your difference of opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I too was a bit disappointed by this, particularly as I’d heard very good reports on it from a range of sources. (Tbh, it’s probably not my kind of book, but a friend picked it for our book group during the summer so I had to read it.) Anyway, I found is pretty repetitive after a while – another location, another embarrassing incident at a literary festival, another reflection on the author’s life etc. etc. As you say, it’s enjoyable enough, but fairly slight for a Pulitzer winner.


    • Yes, that’s it exactly. Nice enough to read, especially to balance something pretty torrid, but I can’t see that there would be much to talk about at a book group.


  4. My relatively uninformed opinion is that a lot of the books that win big awards are relatively middle brow and nearly always safe. Less sounds a lot like campus lit. I’ll give it a try when it comes up as an audio book at the library but I expect to be disappointed as I was with that fashionably post modern one about a President.


    • Yes, though the Goldsmith’s Prize is brave, and sometimes, against all the odds given its nomination process and the absurd size of its longlist, the Dublin can come up with something terrific.


  5. Think I’ll give this a miss, given your thoughts and those of the commenters above.


    • But did you read Simon’s review? He liked it much more than I did.


  6. If you give Less a miss you’ll be missing out on a very funny and insightful book.Why does everything we read have to be full of horror and angst? It was so refreshing to read a novel by a gay man about a gay man without it descending into misery.I don’t care about the prizes I just found it a joy to read.


    • That’s very true, Bernadette. That Patrick Melrose series that’s on TV at the moment is just awful. Clever, well done, but awful all the same.


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