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.
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.
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.
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.
Gerald Howard, book editor in New York
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
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.
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.