Friday, September 18, 2009

Overrated novels

Continuing the discussion that he broached in the comments section to a post here, Alex Jurek asks his readers to name the most overrated novel of all time.

His choice is The Lord of the Rings. His readers suggest One Hundred Years of Solitude and Emma (no way, no how).

The highest ranked novel in the Modern Library’s 100 best that does not merit its perch, as I told Jurek when he asked, is Brave New World.

Upon reflection, though, the most overrated novel of all time is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

And you?

27 comments:

R. T. said...

Here is a variation on the theme:
What novel is the most highly rated (perhaps correctly) yet least read novel (perhaps understandably) of all time? James Joyce's _Ulysses_. Agree? Disagree?

Frisbee said...

The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I realize that your readers may not be familiar with her work, but this novel is enjoying a revival and has been championed by Elaine Showalter in her new book about American women's literature. It's not bad, but is hardly a classic.

Jeremylars@gmail.com said...

Catcher in the Rye seems to be pretty well-regarded in high schools. Not sure why... Young kid drops out of school, wanders around aimlessly, can't go all the way with a prostitute, winds up oddly optimistic about his future... woo hoo.

Kevin said...

Hi D.G., can you expand on your criticism of Beloved? As for R.T's challenge, I've been on page 352 of Ulysses for five years and can't decide if this implicates my mid- to low-brow aesthetics or Joyce's annoying literary antics. I find the experience of reading Ulysses worse than masochistic, as I derive no pleasure, perverse or otherwise, from his prose, with the exception of a few lyrical phrases, like scrotum-tightening, snot-green sea, etc. What's your assessment of its literary status?

Brandon said...

_Catcher in the Rye_ definitely gets my vote: a novel whose only claim to greatness is that it became the cherished novel of a generation by speaking to all the features of that generation that every other generation will inevitably find either boring or insane.

Amateur Reader said...

I have continued the discussion, for what that's worth, here, in the process nominating The Pilgrim's Progress.

Millions of devoted readers were wrong. I am right. Oh-ver-rated!

Why isn't a dissection of the youthful attitude that everything about the adult world is phony an interesting thing to write about? The fact that millions of adolescent readers have misunderstood a novel is not proof of anything. They may have overrated it in some ways, but underrated the book in others. So it averages out.

R.T. - Finnegans Wake is surely less read than Ulysses. I'll bet you a dollar that Clarissa is less read than Ulysses.

Eric said...

Kevin:

From what I can tell, Ulysses is still regarded as the preeminent 20th century novel. Perhaps others still in academia can speak otherwise?

You might want to try James Joyce's short fiction, Dubliners, which is quite readable and some of the best short fiction ever written.

I agree with everyone who suggested Catcher in the Rye. I recently re-read the book on my blog and I felt that it was overrated. Don't get me wrong, I still thought it was a decent book, but I didn't like it as much as I did when I was younger.

wwriter said...

How about overrated writers? I nominate Phillip Roth to start with.

D. G. Myers said...

I am the wrong one to receive a proposal that Philip Roth is the most overrated writer. I have written about him here and here and here and here and here, and have referred to him more than in passing here and here and here and here.

He is, in short, a touchstone for me. Small wonder I am teaching a seminar on him this fall!

R. T. said...

Response to Amateur Reader:
"R.T. - Finnegans Wake is surely less read than Ulysses. I'll bet you a dollar that Clarissa is less read than Ulysses."
Yes, to the first statement, though you have to love to browse through the verbal gymnastics even if they are generally unfathomable. Yes, to the second statement. Clarissa, though, never seems to make it to the lists of "greatest novels" even though it deserves to be included (but seems to be read--in parts or abridgment generally--only by graduate students in English departments). Since you brought of Richardson's novel, I prefer Pamela (shorter and more entertaining) and Fielding's "response," Shamela (shorter still and even more entertaining).

Eric said...

Yeah, Philip Roth is good stuff. Although I sometimes think you need to be Jewish to fully appreciate his work.

D. G. Myers said...

I sometimes think you need to be Jewish to fully appreciate his work.

Not true, I think—but I know the feeling. My students share it. (None of them is a Jew.)

I am developing a reply, but it is complicated and it’s not ready for publication.

Later this week I will be writing up something about Portnoy’s Complaint, and I’ll try out a defense of its “universality” (wrong word, but all I’ve got handy at the moment).

Dr. Platypus said...

Two words: My Antonia.

Voracia: Goddess of Words said...

I love Philip Roth! But I too would like to know why you think Beloved is the most over-rated novel?

Anonymous said...

I'll call your "My Antonia," and raise you, "Things Fall Apart." (I was forced to read both in high school, unfortunately). But the most overrated book ever? The Bible, by a huge margin.

A. Mundi said...

If we're going by just "overrated" not all the way to "terribly disappointing" I'd like to nominate Lolita, as, even though it's a calumniation of many Nabikov obsessions, it is certainly not his best.

But Catcher in the Rye and Beloved are also excellent picks.

D. G. Myers said...

[T]he most overrated book ever? The Bible, by a huge margin.

One of the most ignorant comments I have ever read. Probably why it was made anonymously.

By “the Bible” exactly what is meant? The Hebrew Scriptures in the original? Is this anonymous critic qualified to comment upon the original Hebrew? If so, does he believe that, say, the Hebrew of Genesis, the prophet Ezekiel, and the Psalms is all of a piece?

If he knows the Hebrew does he also know the Greek of the Christian Bible? Or does he mean one bible and not the other?

If he means both, could the problem be the awkward combination—the arranged marriage—of the Hebrew and Greek?

Or does he mean an English translation? Which one? The English of the King James Version is pretty hard to overrate. Perhaps the Revised Standard Version, which Dwight Macdonald singled out as a representative example of midcult?

Who knows? Who can tell? The important thing, in adolescent fashion, is to shout out a daring impious comment on “the Bible”—in reality, about as daring as criticizing your parents—and then hide behind anonymity.

R. T. said...

So, "Anonymous," you were "forced" to read to fine novels in high school, and you now deride those and The Bible. (There is a lot of information in that sentence that is ripe for argument, but here is not the place.) Since you did not explain or defend your assertions, let me explain something about opinions versus arguments. Arguments are assertions (claims) backed up by evidence with attention to the ethos, logos, and pathos of the argument. On the other hand, opinions are often empty-headed assertions that have no support in any kind of evidence. For goodness' sake, move beyond the flimsy fallacy of poorly presented opinion and offer instead something substantial in the way of explanation and evidence. My guess is this: you cannot support your "critical" opinions of Cather, Achebe, and the Bible. But, please, give it your best shot.

Anonymous said...

My point is that the Bible is held to an entirely different, and much lower, standard than other literature. I was attacked for not backing up my assertion that the Bible is overrated. Why was Professor Myers not attacked for his unsupported assertion that "Beloved" is overrated?

A hypothetical: What if a highly regarded novelist, say Roth, for example, wrote a meandering 1,000-page morality tale that advocated killing homosexual men, killing brides who are not virgins and urging slaves to reverently subject themselves to their masters?

He would rightly be dismissed as a loon. Yet the authors of the Bible are, quite literally, saints.

D. G. Myers said...

I briefly defended my claim that Beloved is overrated here. Soon—soon—I promise Kevin and Voracia a longer defense of the claim.

But the latest nonsense by Anonymous is just that—stupid retread anti-biblical nonsense. Notice that he or she, still hiding timorously behind the screen of anonymity, rose to none of my challenges. Instead, our intellectually independent correspondent displays further ignorance and muddle-headedness, mischaracterizing the Bible, in whole or part, as a “morality tale.” And wrongly, and stupidly—very, very stupidly—suggesting that it “advocate[s] killing homosexual men,” among other assorted (and non-existent) horrors.

In Anon’s case the adage is true: a little education is a dangerous thing.

Voracia: Goddess of Words said...

Thanks D.G. Myers for the follow-up comment regarding Beloved, and I look forward to reading your further-explained version. ;) I haven't read it since high school but remember liking it. That's sure not a good argument as to why it's not over-rated, so, I was just curious!

For what it's worth, I agree with Anonymous that certain parts of the Bible are quite dispicable. I am not sure that this means it is overrated but it is definitely the reason I don't believe in Christianity. To this day I can remember reading Genesis 19 as a teenage girl, in which Lot offered up his two virgin daughters to the angry mob and told them to rape them instead of the angels he was hiding in his house. And this guy was God's favorite out of the bunch. Um, no thank you, Christianity. And I don't know why you call it "stupid" to say that the Bible advocates killing homosexuals -- see for example Lev.20:13 "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." Sure, it doesn't say "go out and kill them," but it sure gives the impression that this is what God wants.

For me the Bible is overrated from a moral standpoint but not necessarily a literary one. (I just don't care to read it any more, having been subjected to it for years and years as a child). Perhaps that's what Anonymous meant. (Shrug)

D. G. Myers said...

Voracia,

You must admit that discussing the Hebrew Bible under the heading of Overrated Novels is a bit ridiculous.

But consider this much. Whether or not your interpretation of it is correct, you remember Lot’s story “to this day.” Quite a testament to its power as literary art!

R. T. said...

Though you did not intend it, I enjoy the irony of your use of the word "testament" in your reply to Voracia.

There is something odd about the eagerness on the part of some to attack sacred texts, but I know in your original posting you never anticipated that it would instigate a discussion of the books that Christians commonly call the Bible.

Were I a psychologist, I think I would have no difficulty explaining the eagerness of some to deride sacred texts. Instead, as a teacher of literature, I wonder about how much of the TANAKH or the New Testament the attackers have actually read. What I presume to be insufficient reading suggests that the readers do not have a problem with the literary or cultural value of the texts but have some other issues that have profoundly tainted their willingness to understand and appreciate something that has been sublimely significant for good reasons for thousands of years.

Craig D. said...

Brave New World is underrated, if anything. Maybe overrated in regard to the Modern Library's 100 best list -- I don't think it's the fifth best modern novel -- but elsewhere it never gets the respect it deserves. It's always overshadowed by Nineteen Eighty-Four, even though it's a much better novel.

I'll throw my hat into the Catcher in the Rye ring. Even when I was forced to read it in high school, at the height of my teenage angst and cynicism, I couldn't stand Holden Caulfield. It's a bunch of shallow, pretentious, boring whining masquerading as profound literature, and the worst part is that you can't criticize it without its legion of zealous fans accusing you of not understanding it.

Marcus said...

James Joyce is vastly overrated. Anyone can fill 650 pages with verbal gymnastics and obscure references. A great writer is an effective communicator who can clearly and cleanly tell the story. Read Mark Twain's short story the Emperors New Clothes to get a handle on his acclaim.

In fact Joyce was not even the first to be purposefully obscure. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili for instance contained several different languages, and the use of semiotics. Thus the ruling class who had been educated in many languages could distance themselves from those without the same opportunities. The real love professors have with Joyce is that they can claim to be more intelligent and few can argue since few have read the books. Well after reading Finnegans Wake and Ulysses carefully, I think I am entitled to my opinion. Anyone who wants to disagree should read both books first.

Eddie said...

To those who charge Roth with being too Jewish, I can say that it never occurred to me. If anything, he's too Jersey, which would account for my closeness to his work as I am no more than a mere goy from Long Branch.

Marcus, in response to Joyce being an upper class complicator, I would disagree. I bought my copy of Ulysses from a more-or-less bum who esteemed it as his favorite book. Joyce did not care for silver-spoon prick types. In fact, if you're willing to continue a discussion, I would argue that I find more in clarity in Ulysses than mist, clarity about the world, the 20th Century, Dublin, language itself etc. In fact, clarity may be one of my highest held criteria as a reader of anything, but clarity should not be confined to a simple clarity of uninteresting characters and empty words.

kamagra said...

"The Catcher in the Rye" book should be taught everywhere as a sort of guidebook to values clarification for the youth of America.