Archive for August 13th, 2011

What’s the worst great book you ever read?

Saturday, August 13th, 2011
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Stick to "The Dubliners"

A cadre of leading authors and critics are on a roll over at Slate, dissing the great classics.  It’s over here.

Disses are always fun to read, so here’s a potpourri:

Poet and Yale Review editor J.D. McClatchy says he would put himself first on the list, if he were rated at all, but then he characterizes Virginia Woolf as “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.”

James Joyce takes a drubbing more than once.

Author Lee Siegel confesses “I just can’t do Finnegans Wake”:

“As a graduate student in literature, I was surrounded by people who claimed not just to have read Finnegans Wake 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.” He concludes: 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.”

"Lame" himself

Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, adds to the pile-on: “what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all…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.”

J.D. Salinger?  Forget it.  Author Tom Perrotta recalls:

“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.'”

Not unsurprisingly, the most generous words come from Elif Batuman:

Generous spirit

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.

FYI on Elif:  Her The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, was plugged by Imitatio here. (hat tip, Dave Lull). Why the a surprise?  Imitatio is the organization founded to study the ideas of René Girard, and some consider her book to be a spoof of those same ideas, with an obsessed  and charismatic graduate student so unable to break the chain of mimetic desire that he finds peace and happiness only in a monastery.  My own opinion:  she has done a lot to revive an interest in his ideas for a new generation.  The site links to the glowing Guardian review that notes the hit memoir’s “detailed engagement with René Girard’s theory of the novel and mimetic desire.”

René told me he hadn’t read it, but when I explained the plot story about the graduate student, he chuckled sagely.

The “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Patrick Kurp over at Anecdotal Evidence has written about the same Slate piece today, with his own nominations for the overrated – it’s here.

Meanwhile, in the comments section at Slate, Terrence Wentworth offered this: “Cool idea, but reading author after author being bashed got depressing by the end. It was surprising how many respondents were willing to pass judgment on books they hadn’t finished. Saying “I couldn’t finish it” is not a very powerful argument for a book’s inferiority. And I thought being well read entailed knowledge of books one didn’t like or find agreeable. I think a call for praise of un-PC works would have been much more daring. But how many contemporary critics are even willing to look for beauty in, say, Ezra Pound?