Tom Perrotta, Francine Prose, and others on "great books" that aren't great.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 11 2011 11:46 AM

Overrated

Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great.

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If you like it, you say: This all fits together like the cleverest and most tessellated of rainbows. You love the circular plot and the way its structure echoes the rainbow-shaped trajectory of a V-2 rocket, and the recurring motifs of those same rockets, plus dense dialogue broken up by bits of silly poetry and chunks of Tarot, a rash of paranoia and, of course, a lot of kazoos. I myself admire the 400 characters and the numerous special effects. The riffs on behavioral psychology and sexual slavery almost did me in.

For people who like this sort of thing, as Muriel Spark wrote, this is the sort of thing they like. I prefer Muriel Spark.

Stephen Burt, author most recently of The Art of the Sonnet, with David Mikics

The spirit of the survey seems to ask about novels, rather than about polemical nonfiction, for example, or books of poems.

The Bostonians

There are many much-admired novels that I have never finished, because I didn't like them all that much and didn't have to finish them: Gravity's Rainbow, for example, and Lawrence's The Rainbow. There are fewer much-admired, so-called canonical, novels that I have (a) finished and (b) loathed: Henry James' The Bostonians comes to mind, though I'm not sure that anybody thinks that one's so great unless they are paid to think so.

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The only book on the Modern Library list of 100 top titles that I have (a) finished and (b) thought widely overrated was Doctorow's Ragtime, and you don't need me to tell you what's wrong with its model: Greil Marcus has already done it. (See his review of Ragtime, in The Dustbin of History.)

John Crowley, teacher of creative writing at Yale and author most recently of Four Freedoms

I have no business dismissing classic novels. Novels that I find unpleasing I stop reading. I believe I dislike The House of Seven Gables, because in the first chapters the prose is so fatuously intense: that striving for effect that makes it the ancestor of all horror-novel writing. But maybe it got better. One that I did finish—or almost finished, put it down at bedtime with a few scant pages to go and never picked it up again—is Gravity's Rainbow. I had already stopped responding to it except with a sort of mild disgust (the Marvel Comics heroes run amuck, the shit-eating German general) and kept going out of the love I had and have for V. and The Crying of Lot 49. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, but doesn't always get there in time. I gave up waiting.

Dwight Garner, book critic for the New York Times

The book I'll reluctantly fire from my canon is Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Every five years or so I pick up Walter Starkie's 1957 translation, which my wife has enthusiastically devoured twice, and, struck by Cervantes' lively and multijointed prose, get a bit excited. In the margins I'll write, "He's the world's first great food writer," underlining a passage on Page One in which he goes on about pigeon, tripe, and salted beef and mutton. Genius! Here's the man who popularized the phrase "the proof's in the pudding"! The momentum slowly fades; the blood drains from my face; was that a news alert on my iPhone? I'm asleep on the couch, deeply ashamed but contentedly drooling, by Page 37.