On Overrated Books

There’s a silly little article at Slate today about “overrated” books. The article collects a decent survey of critics and writers discussing the “great books” that they find boring, difficult to read, or otherwise overrated. There are a few tomes I agree with on the list—I am proud that I read all of Tess of the D’Ubervilles in the 10th grade, unlike most of my peers who, undoubtedly wiser than I, resorted to Cliffs Notes, but Hardy’s book was the biggest chore of my young reading life. There are plenty of books targeted in the article that may be overrated, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad or terrible books. But Slate is always quick to post a catchy, “provocative” headline, no doubt intended to generate hits; indeed, they’re almost as bad as Huffington Post, which has published similar articles in the past, including this recent execrable example of “literary criticism,” “Bad Classics: Books We Think Are Overrated.” Huffington Post’s list is ridiculous, taking weak stabs at Waiting for Godot, Moby-Dick, and that most sacred of cows, Ulysses.

Joyce’s big book shows up on the Slate list too. I’ll be the first to admit that the book is likely overrated, held in perhaps too high esteem by those who haven’t read it, and the academic industry it has produced does its reputation no favors among a general reading public. But it’s not a “bad classic.” It’s a beautiful, moving, and, yes, important book, and because of its status, both in the academy and in popular culture, it has become yet another easy target for contrarians. From the Slate piece, here’s Daniel Mendelsohn of the NYRB, explaining why Ulysses is inauthentic and has never “persuaded” him —-

. . . 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.)

I understand that Ulysses’ place in the academy can be terribly frustrating, but Mendelsohn’s critique strikes me as populist rubbish; it’s more an attack on the reputation of the book than the book itself. But I don’t really care; I mean, Mendelsohn is entitled to his opinion, which I’m sure is well-informed.

What I’m ultimately concerned about here is the potential effect that pieces like these at Slate and Huffington Post (and similar sites) can have on a reading public. How freeing to be told by the experts that Ulysses or Moby-Dick or Gravity’s Rainbow is not worth my time! I can get back to those Swedish crime novels now, or those vampire books written at a 4th grade reading level, or, better yet, fuck books. I’m sure there are spoiled rotten housewives throwing chardonnay at each other on TV.

Author Elif Batuman also didn’t care for Ulysses, but she offers the most sensible response in the entire article—-

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.

I think Batuman’s tone and approach is perfect here; I also admire her complete avoidance of playing those favorite games of internet writers: swiping at sacred cows and trying to point out that the emperor is naked. Instead, Batuman acknowledges the inherent fun in articles like the one she’s participating in and then quickly points out that reading is not a contest. She saliently points out that “the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book.” To my shame, a younger version of myself wrote some nasty things about William Faulkner on this blog, suggesting that he was the most overrated American writer of all time. I took it all back, of course, and now would rate Light in August and Go Down, Moses as two of my favorite books. I am happy that I read Go Down, Moses at the right time—like Batuman says, timing is a huge factor in how a reader receives a book.

It seems to me that articles like the ones at Slate and HuffPo are symptomatic of an empty populism sweeping through much of America today. I am in no way suggesting that the writers and critics in the surveys are practitioners or purveyors of empty populism; rather, their estimable talents have been circumscribed by engines of culture-production (and culture-absorption) to absolve an increasingly distracted populace from even making a pretense of reading some really great and important books. Articles like these engender slapdash and shallow thinking, licensing poseurs to make claims about books they’ve failed to read. Even worse, these kinds of surveys provide ammunition to the those who hold the word “elite” as an insult. I am not suggesting that articles like these will undo the Western canon, or that they signal the death of the novel, or an end to complex reading — but they certainly don’t help.

26 thoughts on “On Overrated Books”

  1. I agree that works such as Ulysses and Don Quixote or even Infinite Jest are difficult and not to everyone’s taste, which should not disqualify them as deserving merit, but what about novels that were fashionable and have since aged poorly? Or, in today’s academic climate, novelists whose works fit a certain theory and are hence studied, praised and discussed as if the books are legible let alone important. Here in Canada I think of a writer like Dionne Brand, whose work is difficult without being rewarding and whose presence in the academe and her stature in Canadian letters is based almost exclusively on a small group of intellectuals who push her novels on undergrads. Don’t you think some books just age poorly?


    1. Absolutely some books age poorly — for me, Richardson’s Clarissa was the worst book ever. It was the only assigned book I abandoned in my grad school work, and I honestly feel like an excised portion and a summary would’ve been fine for the course’s needs (it was about Restoration era works, libertines, etc., and most of the plays in it seemed fine, Aphra Behn in particular). Clarissa is an example of a book that is important because of its form and the time in which it was produced, but it’s not a great narrative—I mean, it’s basically like a soap opera.

      But, yeah, I think the academy is pretty terrible at producing well-rounded readers; I guess I’m going to sound old and conservative, or align myself with Harold Bloom (oh horror!), but, yeah, I think there isn’t enough emphasis on stuff like Melville and Shakespeare and Don Quixote and Dante—especially, in my experience, in undergrad sections, where professors often do like to add books to fit the theories they’re “exploring” (even worse: an emphasis on literary theory over lit itself).


  2. it’s so funny how different the connotations can be with this whole idea. when I think of things that are “overrated” I tend to jump to the books that are just interesting enough to be critically praised but easy enough to read that they blow up “normal” readers as well, so they occupy this weird space for books that are totally okay, but seem less good for every person you meet who claims they are “amazing”. I’m thinking of trend books like: Cloud Atlas, everything written Jonathan Safran Foer, The Corrections, etc. These always seem like the definition of overrated because they are decent books that get trumpeted up into the level of “best book I’ve read in years” by people who just don’t read that many books, which is fine. but annoying as well.


    1. hey, ben — i agree with you on a number of points: i tend to think of “overrated” books mostly as newer stuff that gets “hot,” for lack of a better term. i know we’ve talked (emailed, i suppose) about Cloud Atlas, and i would admit to probably overrating the book when i reviewed it, in a fit of enthusiasm no doubt (although i’d like to think that i read quite a bit). at the same time, i like to think of myself as wary of overpraised contemporary lit (see: Franzen’s Freedom https://biblioklept.org/2010/10/22/an-obligatory-review-of-jonathan-franzens-freedom-2/ , Shteyngart’s SSTLV, https://biblioklept.org/2011/01/25/i-super-hated-gary-shteyngarts-super-sad-true-love-story/ , Cronin’s The Passage https://biblioklept.org/2010/08/15/the-passage-justin-cronin/).

      i know what you’re talking about though: i get the sense that Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad can’t be nearly as good as everyone claims—i think it’s a similar effect to what you’re talking about. i also worry that really good authors like David Wallace and Cormac McCarthy will have their reputations somewhat sullied by an overly-enthusiastic fanbase that is out to saint them (St. Wallace in particular).


      1. Ed you read more than I do and will be forgiven infinity times for whatever brief lapses of judgement you have ever displayed. And for me you operate as a definite permission-giver when it comes to disregarding books that I am suspicious about considering. The reviews you cite (super sad bullshit and freedom) were a breath of fresh air and let me know that despite what all my friends were saying at the bar on friday, I do NOT “have to read them”.


  3. Good post in general: saying something is not to your taste even though it has a high cultural reputation doesn’t meaningfully equate to overrated. I also agree with Ben Collins’ point that a more apt target for the “o” word would be the new book that cultural media have fits over for a season or two…until it’s forgotten.

    My main reason for posting is that I always am saddened by cheap slaps at Ulysses, which I happen to love. People who want to hate it: try reading it through as chronicling the pleasures and sadnesses of three very specific people, and of a very specific time and place. If you read it again, you might like all the classroom stuff, but youncan take or leave as much as you want.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I totally agree w/ your take on Ulysses here, Anne. I think that the book pisses people off b/c reading it is too often treated as some big important project — instead of, like, reading a book for pleasure.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great response, if a little bit ranty. Ranty is okay. The most offensive snippet in the Slate article was Lorin Stein basing comments about The Alexandria Quartet on two pages, mainly the first sentence. I happen to really like Justine, even though I wasn’t immediately attracted to it. I could easily say that Finnegan’s Wake is overrated because everything I have ever read about it seems ridiculous to me, but since I have never even attempted to read it (and two pages is not an attempt), I have no business judging it, especially not in Slate.


  5. And in the Huff Post, I can’t imagine Moby Dick without those 822 pages. It wouldn’t be Moby Dick. Does “struggling through” something make it “bad”?


    1. Yeah, Stein should know better.

      Moby-Dick is probably my favorite book, or one of my favorite books. I think the HuffPo article is embarrassing for everyone involved (the author, the editors, the publishers, the readers).

      You point out what my big problem with these types of lists is, Laura, which is that they point to the cheapness of our culture, which seems to increasingly say “oh, you don’t get it? relax—not your fault!” — it’s the culture of advertising, of mass media, etc. — the culture that honestly believes hollow statements like “you deserve it!” or, my favorite political rhetoric, “the American people are smart.”

      If Slate were being honest, they’d publish a piece about the weakness of contemporary readers.


      1. Absolutely. Moby Dick is one of my favorites as well, and there were definitely parts that bored me and which I “struggled through.” However, the reward is that I learned that it is brilliant and is so much more than a book about a man hunting a whale, which you might miss if you get the Cliff’s Notes version. And some of it is great. I love some of those crazy description chapters. And the domestic scenes with Queequeg and Ishmael? Really good stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article. I couldn’t agree more with your stance. A book has to reach you at the right time. I despised Faulkner as well, and then something ‘clicked’ (the same way it clicked for me with Pynchon and Bernhard and, yes, Melville). I now rank ‘Absalom, Absalom!’ as one of my greatest reading experiences. I also tried ‘Blood Meridian’ about five times over the course of as many years and now I consider that novel a favorite.

    Hating classics by calling them overrated is the easy way out and kills a discussion before it’s begun.


    1. I think your last sentence sums up what I wrote way better than my rant—thanks for the comment. I love Blood Meridian too, btw, and had two false starts on it. Again, rhythm.

      Absalom, Absalom is in my “reserve” pile, which is this silly technique I use when I read something great and know that the next book has to somehow match it. I don’t know if I’m articulating this well now. I’ve been drinking white wine all afternoon and have decided to field emails/blog comments; always a bad idea. Okay.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I find all the vitriol directed at Gravity’s Rainbow a bit strange. I tried it and couldn’t get momentum the first time, but I think that’s because I was reading it with the wrong eyes. Once I figured out that it’s supposed to be a big, shaggy, rambling, and fun adventure, I raced through it. People who take reading (and themselves) Seriously are missing an amazingly intelligent and playful book.

    The HuffPuff slap at Moby-Dick is just embarrassing, and it makes me think of the Bolano quote you’ve posted regarding big, messy books (the bit about Bartleby the Scrivener vs. Moby-Dick). Of course Moby-Dick is imperfect and long. It’s a master writer trying to fully take measure of life and do something grand. Complaining about that is like complaining that the ocean is too big.


    1. Ha! I love your last line—I guess some folks don’t like their books too big. People seem to get pissed off at any artist who tries to measure life and do something grand, to paraphrase your wording. I was amazed this summer at how many folks were outraged at Malick’s film The Tree of Life for daring to be a large, difficult (although I didn’t think it was really difficult, but that’s another story), metaphysical meditation on life, the universe, and everything—-I was amazed that so many people were pissed off at Malick’s film, but the public doesn’t bat a fucking eye at The Smurfs or Green Lantern or whatever bit of instantly-disposable trash occupies time in the mall cinemas. So, to me, the Slate/HuffPo pieces are the same thing—smart people snarking at the wrong thing.


  8. I hate the tone of your piece. And I believe some of the people whose views you have subtly disparaged are more informed. That said, you do have a point- there is a place for difficult books as there is for complex films Ditto Green Lantern. I still can’t read Faulkner’s novels though I like his short stories- something about the unwieldy sentences puts me off. And that Slate piece isn’t embarrassing. If it is, then I am sure you would have something to say about this comment in a tone I’d hate. Nice blog. I’d be back. We can be friends.


    1. Uh, okay. I’m not sure exactly what you’re saying here, other than you hated the tone of my piece, which seems kind of vague, but fine, whatever. I’ll issue you a refund.


  9. Hey, can I get a refund, too? Even though I loved your tone, I purchased this article long past its expiration date. I bought this article on the 23rd of August and it’s still valid. This is blogging! This is a disgrace! You should really watch this stuff. Write something inane, dammit! Now gimme my refund and I’ll be back and we can be friends.


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