Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great.
Francine Prose, author most recently of My New American Life
I hate to say it, but I'd nominate Beowulf. I've been trying to read it all summer. I'm teaching a course at Bard on representations of evil, and I thought: Grendel! Grendel's mother! It's true that the poem has some very beautiful passages and amazing descriptions of battle, the Raffel and Heaney translations both seem terrific. But there's so much filler: myopic tribal history, testosterone-fueled military culture. I preferred seeing How To Train Your Dragon with my granddaughter; at least it was in 3-D, and the monsters come flying at you out of the screen. I suppose Beowulf is a useful reminder that we were warriors before we were anything else, but I'm not sure I need reminding, I've had it up to my eyeballs with warriors fighting dragons. And (spoiler) I felt nothing when Beowulf was killed. Mostly, I was grateful that the poem was almost over.
Jonathan Rosen, editorial director of Nextbook and author most recently of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
When Mark Twain said that whenever he read Pride and Prejudice he wanted to dig up Jane Austen and beat her over the head with her own shinbone, it must have felt satisfyingly subversive. In the age of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it's more of a compliment. Hating great books just isn't that fun when there's nothing you are required to like or read, and perfectly smart people keep telling you that The Wire and The Sopranos, excellent television shows, to be sure, have replaced the novel. But for what it's worth, I could never read The Catcher in the Rye; even as an unhappy adolescent I found the voice cloying, annoying, and frankly phony. And for the record, ducks do very well in Central Park in the winter. If worst comes to worst, Holden, they fly. They're birds for Chrissake!
Lee Siegel , author most recently of Are You Serious?: How To Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly
I just can't do Finnegans Wake. * I can't. I give up. It's like late Coltrane, whom I also can't follow—both FW and Coltrane's crepuscular work disappearing into the furthest reaches of their creators' minds. Heaven knows, I tried. I went through several phases of grappling with what I now refer to as Joyce's masturpiece. Phase One: As a teenager devouring every novel I could get my hands on, I finally pulled FW off the shelf of a used-book store in Passaic, N.J., like heaving Excalibur out of the enchanted stone. I brought it home cradled in my arms, kept it next to my bed, carried it with me everywhere for several months, and never got past the first paragraph. It was like Herbert Marcuse's advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn't understand it: "You're reading too fast," Marcuse told him. Phase 2: As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read FW but to have understood it and I took another futile stab at it. I realize now that they were all frauds who later went to work in the subprime mortgage industry. Phase 3: The adult realization that whatever sublime beauties of language and idea are in Joyce's novel, I have to let them go. Just as there are sublime places—Antarctica—that I will never visit. As I learned from Joyce's Ulysses, the mystery of everyday life is fathomless enough. There is still a world in a grain of sand.
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review I feel unfair passing judgment on The Alexandria Quartet, having read only two and a half pages of it. Life, however, is short, and when a narrator starts off by saying, "I have come to this island with a few books and the child—Melissa's child," you know a) it isn't his fault and b) it won't get better. Matt Weiland, senior editor at Ecco
Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review
I feel unfair passing judgment on The Alexandria Quartet, having read only two and a half pages of it. Life, however, is short, and when a narrator starts off by saying, "I have come to this island with a few books and the child—Melissa's child," you know a) it isn't his fault and b) it won't get better.
Matt Weiland, senior editor at Ecco
OK look, let's be honest: Genesis has a knockout opening line. But it sure goes downhill fast: "And the earth was without form"; "And God said this"; "And God said that"; "And God said the other thing"; and on and on—I mean, did this guy sleep through high-school English, or what? No starting a sentence with and, pal. Not to mention his way with names: Arphaxad and Zillah, Mahalaleel and Magog, really? They sound like the baddies in one of those afternoon shows on the old WB network. Pretty hard to suspend disbelief when you're tripping over your tongue and rushing to change the channel. I admit the part about the flood and the big boat and the animals is exciting (though could have been funnier), and the whole Abraham and Isaac thing certainly leaves an impression. But it's just not well enough imagined to make you believe in it, and its style is so sloppy and varied it seems almost to have been written by committee. Corrections , Aug. 11, 2011: There was initially a stray apostrophe in Finnegans Wake. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) This article originally did not distinguish between the three-member Pulitzer fiction jury and the general Pulitzer board. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Corrections , Aug. 11, 2011: There was initially a stray apostrophe in Finnegans Wake. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) This article originally did not distinguish between the three-member Pulitzer fiction jury and the general Pulitzer board. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Juliet Lapidos is a former Slate associate editor.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Photograph of Thomas Hardy courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress.