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

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Aug. 11 2011 11:46 AM

Overrated

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

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Gerald Howard, book editor in New York

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The National Book Award-winning Mister Sammler's Planet is usually included in lists of Saul Bellow's canonical works; it should not be. In pitting the ultra-brainy Holocaust survivor Arthur Sammler against the putative intellectual disorder and urban squalor of late-'60 New York (which I experienced as quite a lot of fun, actually), Bellow unfairly tilted the terms of the conflict. He also adopted the hectoring voice that was to mar so much of his subsequent work. Worst of all, it contains some of the most racist and psychosexually creepy scenes ever committed to print by a major American novelist. When the black pickpocket, whom Sammler has been eyeing on the bus, corners him in an apartment lobby, he does not mug him as sensible crooks do. Instead, he whips out his huge and elaborately described member for the professor's contemplation. Elsewhere reference is made to "the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone." At these unforgivable points the reader feels like dialing 911 for some emergency Freudian intervention and/or the NAACP.

J.D. McClatchy, poet, critic, librettist, professor at Yale, editor of the Yale Review

I would, of course, put myself first on the list, if I thought I had been rated at all. But, speaking as a blip, and an aging one, I have been re-reading many of the classics on which I was raised, and most of them, thrilling at the time, now disappoint. Dante is a crashing bore. Shakespeare seems wordy; Faulkner too. Yet Balzac, Stendhal, and Proust hold up. Swift, Byron, Joyce—where is the gleam? Brought up on Hart Crane, I now prefer A.E. Housman, who is more profound and moving. But if I had to pick the most overrated of the last century, I would choose first Virginia Woolf: noxious smoke and dusty mirrors. Not far behind, and for completely different reasons, William Carlos Williams: So little depends on stuff lying around. The absolute worst, the gassiest, most morally and aesthetically bankrupt, the most earnestly and emptily studied and worshipped … that's an easy one. Ezra Pound.

Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books; his books include How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, a collection of his essays and reviews

Ulysses
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Honestly I've never been persuaded by Ulysses. To my mind, Joyce's best and most genuine work is the wonderful Dubliners; everything afterwards smacks of striving to write a "great" work, rather than simply striving to write—it's all too voulu. Although there are, of course, beautiful and breathtakingly authentic things in the novel (who could not love that tang of urine in the breakfast kidneys?), what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all. Reading the book, for me, is never a rich and wonderful journey, filled with marvels and (no matter how many times you may read a book) surprises—the experience I want from a large and important novel; it's more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats. Which, of course, makes them not feel very much like treats at all.

The tip-off, for me, are the Gilbert and Linati Schemas, now included in most editions: the road-maps to the books that Joyce concocted for friends, minutely indicating the novel's themes, its labored structures, the Homeric analogies, etc.—it's as if Joyce were both the author of his book and the future comp lit grad student who's trying to decipher it. Indeed, it's small wonder that Ulysses has become the bible of academic lit departments; it seems to have been practically written for literary theorists. (Dubliners, by contrast, is a book for "ordinary readers"—a term I use admiringly.) Joyce himself clearly anticipated this development: He once remarked that he'd "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant." Putting in is the tell-tale phrase here: It smacks of something illegitimate, from an authentically literary standpoint; something that Virginia Woolf, to whom I'll give the last word here, wonderfully summed up in her diary after finishing Ulysses: "A first rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky."

Tom Perrotta, author most recently of The Leftovers

On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that's been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it's "just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is."

Is it more than that? Lots of people, including some writers I revere, seem to think so. But I've never been able to see what they're seeing, nor can I buy into the myth that Holden is some sort of representative American teenager. He's a self-pitying prep school esthete obsessed with his little sister, the kind of boy who takes it upon himself to erase obscene graffiti from bathroom walls. And that fantasy about catching children in a field of rye? "Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me." What's that all about? I'm not suggesting we need to like Holden in order to consider him important, I'm just baffled by the reverence and affection so many readers seem to feel for this peculiar creep.