Friday, August 12, 2011


It’s the question that everyone has an answer to. What is the most overrated book of all time? The three titles most often cited are Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, and the Bible.

That was the case two years ago, when readers of A Commonplace Blog named their least favorites. And it was the case again yesterday, when fourteen writers and editors told Slate the books they didn’t really like. Elif Batuman and Daniel Mendelson both admitted to Ulysses, while Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Rosen came up with The Catcher in the Rye. Matt Weiland, a senior editor at Ecco, tried to be funny by offering the book of Genesis (“its style is so sloppy and varied it seems almost to have been written by committee”). Get it? Critical scholarship has changed our estimation of the Bible for all time! Ha ha.

The only real surprise was Francine Prose’s choice. (Prose continually surprises. That’s one mark of a writer worth following.) Beowulf was her choice. “I felt nothing when Beowulf was killed,” she said. “Mostly, I was grateful that the poem was almost over.” Far more interesting was why she was reading the Old English poem in the first place: for a course on representations of evil. Now there’s a reading list I’d like to have.

On Twitter afterwards, I added to the confusion by challenging friends and other writers to name their most overrated novel. John Podhoretz suggested A Farewell to Arms; Max Boot, The Naked and the Dead; Rachel Abrams, Everything Is Illuminated; David Harsanyi, Infinite Jest; Sam Schulman, The Death of Virgil (a book I suspect Schulman of having invented). More than one person offered One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children (“we already said One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Schulman complained). My own choice is well-documented.

But what’s the goal of the game? I believe in pricking overinflated reputations as much as the next critic, but too often the game can edge over into mockery and envy. The goal should be to encourage readers to put down bad books and pick up better ones—books that succeed where the overrated books fail. John Podhoretz recommended Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy Put Out More Flags (1942), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961) instead of Mailer’s Naked and the Dead. Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) is a better choice than One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In the end, though, what matters is the quarreling and the debate—the partisanship for some books and against others. Down with reading circles, book clubs, and bubbling uncritical enthusiasm for the latest reads!

The tyranny of suspense

A couple of days ago Jonah Lehrer had a provocative squib in the Frontal Cortex, one of Wired’s science blogs. Lehrer reported the outcome of a study by two researchers at UC San Diego, who studied the effect of “spoilers” and concluded that “almost every single story, regardless of genre, was more pleasurable when prefaced with a spoiler.” Lehrer’s title summed up the results: “Spoilers don’t spoil anything.”

Lehrer goes on interestingly to speculate about the significance of the findings, but he misses the obvious. Namely: the research exposes the phoniness of suspense stories. Literature is not a game of suspense. We don’t read to find out what happened, but how—and how it could have ended differently.

In far too much bad fiction, suspense has replaced drama as the motive force of storytelling. There is, in fact, an entire subgenre of fiction dedicated to the ignorant error—“thrillers.” Suspense, however, is the sworn enemy of good fiction.

To create suspense is to induce anxiety—that is, to cause distress. And naturally, then, the craving is for relief. You read as quickly as possible to discover what happens, to allay your uneasiness, to release the tightness in your chest. The outcome is not a literary experience—literature is the freedom to dream up other possibilities—but the unpleasant feeling of being manipulated. Anxiety has a “coercive character,” Karen Horney says. So does suspense.

Why then the widespread lust for thrillers and the obsession (as Lehrer puts it) with avoiding spoilers? My guess is this. Suspense has filled the vacuum left by the abandonment of tragedy in modern literature. Lehrer points out that, “for thousands of years,” the stories that were widely told and widely enjoyed were “incredibly predictable, from the Greek tragedy to the Shakespearean wedding to the Hollywood happy ending.” (That’s quite a jump, from Shakespeare to Hollywood, passing over the novel without a word, but Lehrer’s subject is science, not literary history.) The latest research confirms the preferences of those thousand years, Lehrer says: “We like it best when the suspense is contained by the formulaic, when we never have to really worry about the death of the protagonist or the lovers in a romantic comedy.”

While he’s right about the worry—for reasons I’ve suggested—Lehrer is wrong about the containment. In fact, it’s just the opposite. (He’s also wrong about comedy, which still performs its traditional function.) What we like best is that things might turn out differently; Oedipus might not murder his father and marry his mother, or might not recognize that he has done so; Lear might not mistake a loving daughter for a hateful one. We are afraid for them—afraid that nothing can be done to avert their terrible tragedies—and we pity them when the worst befalls them. Lehrer is right that we usually know in advance what will happen. But how it happens—the accidental errors, the blown opportunities for repair, the avoidable recognitions—plays upon our emotions. The scuffle between inevitability and possibility, between containment and spillage, is the source of what used to be called the “tragic pleasure.”

(Romantic comedy operates on the same principle. As Lehrer says, the lovers’ coming together is “incredibly predictable.” The fun lies in the obstacles that hilariously delay the inevitable.)

By contrast, the resolution of a thriller is usually both pat and far-fetched. I don’t think I’ve ever read (or watched) a suspense story without feeling let down at the end. The difference lies in the emotions. Fear and pity are compliments to human freedom, to the possibility of change and variation in human stories; suspense and anxiety are the taxes paid by an impoverished culture of reading to the literary tyrant that occupies the throne once held by tragedy.