Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great.
Every year for the past three years I've read a Thomas Hardy novel, and every year I've been sorely disappointed. I couldn't get into Tess of the d'Urbervilles, found Jude the Obscure too preachy, and deemed The Return of the Native simply dull. Hardy had reverse-Hollywood syndrome: He never met a horribly depressing ending he didn't like. And, in the manner of Hollywood, this gets pretty repetitive.
Perhaps I'm to blame. Hardy, after all, is a bona fide literary master—the kind who shows up on college syllabi. (That's why I keep reading him: I'm planning to start Far From the Madding Crowdin a month or two.) But wherever the fault may lie, Hardy, to me, is one of the "greats" who just isn't all that great. I feel the same way about several works on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th century list, including Of Human Bondage (get over her already!), and Under the Volcano (yeah, yeah, drink another mescal).
Because philistinism loves company, I asked a number of authors, critics, and editors, to confess their least favorite "must read." Below, James Joyce, J.D. Salinger, whoever's responsible for Beowulf, and other beloved writers take a drubbing.
—Juliet Lapidos, deputy books editor
Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don't think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves ("I'm so lazy/uneducated") or the canonical books (" Ulysses is so overrated"). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don't either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.
Canonical books I did not enjoy include The Iliad and The Sound and the Fury, and, although I did read Ulysses with some degree of technical interest, it wasn't fun for me. I maintain that this doesn't reflect badly on Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, or me.
Amy Bloom, author most recently of Where the God of Love Hangs Out
Critics and regular (and erudite) people and the three members of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize jury on fiction admire the hell out of this book. (The other 11 members of the board disagreed violently and no fiction prize was given that year.) * Gravity's Rainbow did win a National Book Award and it did make Time magazine's list of the All-Time 100 greatest novels.
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.