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America's 40 Worst Books - WTF?

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message 1: by Matt, e-monk (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
The American Book Review has taken stock of literature and come up with its Top 40 Bad Books. The list targets some big, popular favorites -- F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic "The Great Gatsby," Richard Yates' "Revolutionary Road," the James Bond novel "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming and Cormac McCarthy's National Book Award-winning "All the Pretty Horses." Really? If they're the worst, what's the best?

Most books were selected by university professors. On the one hand, these are some of America's best-read people, so we should be able to trust their analysis. On the other hand, their analysis sometimes reads like this: "Badness enters the nonparodic historical novel when an author overtly uses historically situated people, places, and cultures as mirrors, and denies their difference." That's part of a critique of Toni Morrison's "A Mercy," E.L. Doctorow's "The March" and Ian McEwan's "Saturday" -- whatever those three writers' offenses, their sentences are certainly more direct and graceful.

The list itself is slightly misnamed -- it has 40 responses about bad books, some of which list several offenders, while others refuse to name any. If there is any constant, it's that the best books that appear on their worst-book list are subject to the most unreasonable critiques.

Christine Granados of Texas A&M University writes:

When I read what I consider to be a bad book, I notice that it is usually written by an arrogant person. Cormac McCarthy’s "All the Pretty Horses" (1992) comes immediately to mind. I think of it as a romance novel for men, his trilogy included. Like all good romance novel writers, McCarthy uses clichés and derivative characters to sell millions of copies.

Perhaps Granados has met McCarthy; if not, it's hard to figure how or why she's decided he's arrogant. I'm not sure what is wrong with a romance novel for men -- Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which enjoys a pretty good reputation, would fall into this category too. I'm also not at all convinced that McCarthy, a longtime purveyor of literary fiction, had any formula for selling millions of copies.

At least Granados got into the text of the book. The same cannot be said for Tom LeClair of the University of Cincinnati, who condemned "The Great Gatsby" based only on a distant recollection.

If badness is related to perceived greatness, then I offer "The Great Gatsby" (1925) as the worst novel in American literature. I haven’t read it for many years, since the only time I used it in a Modern American Fiction class, but I remember it as incredibly smug about its relationship to the traditional realistic novel.

Exactly how a book might be smug about its relationship to other books isn't made clear. A second complaint targets a book for having a kind of impossible agency. Robyn Warhol-Down of Ohio State University wants books to understand themselves in a way she believes they don't:

[Novels:] that irritate me the most, though, are novels whose protagonists’ tribulations can be attributed to their active alcoholism, but the novel has no idea. As I remember "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (1996), one of the protagonists has some drinks, then has a fight with her boyfriend, then has a few more, then argues with her mother. The novel asks you to take the substance of the fights seriously. My reaction: "Get sober and then tell me about it!"

There is one good lesson in the enterprise. Sophia A. McClennen, from Pennsylvania State University, doesn't name a bad book; she writes, "In almost every class, I teach a bad book, an awful, poorly written, sometimes sexist, racist, reactionary book." She doesn't tell her students, though -- they read it on the syllabus and come into her class, disturbed, upset and engaged. That's a bad book -- put to good use.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

message 2: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod

here's the actual bad book review. it's actually a pretty fun read. thanks, matt.

message 3: by Martyn (last edited Mar 10, 2010 05:58PM) (new)

Martyn | 299 comments Patty wrote: "

here's the actual bad book review. it's actually a pretty fun read. thanks, matt."

Thanks for posting this Matt...and thanks Patty for posting the pdf! :)

As soon as I saw references to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer...I got their numbers! Somebody should make a Bad Academics list. Some of the reasoning is pure bunkum.

I did like John Domini's entry. I still highly recommend the works of Professor John Carey if you care for literary criticism.

Also...I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Gatsby...should I apologise?

message 4: by Patty, free birdeaucrat (new)

Patty | 896 comments Mod
Marjorie Perloff's made me laugh out loud.

message 5: by Martyn (new)

Martyn | 299 comments it also reminds me of the old saying, "those who can't, criticise".

And that "screenwriter" slagging of Lawrence. I'd love to see what awesome shit he comes up with...screenwriter...probably the sequel to Dude, Where's My Car? And it's straight to dvd!

message 6: by Jonathan, the skipper (new)

Jonathan | 609 comments Mod

message 7: by Rhonda (new)

Rhonda (rhondak) In fairness to the critics, they didn't say that people couldn't like these books but that they were bad books. While I might disagree, and if I were all that interested I might pick up some copies and peruse them to see if at least some of these things were so.
Fleming's Bond really is just as they say, a kind of figure to be ordered about... and the books, which I have enjoyed, are all about a man doing what is required of him without a nod to even his conscience. There is nothing like the character Sean Connery made great. As I recall he enjoyed two vices, his gambling and his Bentley.
However when they pick on Lawrence, it's pretty cruel... and then the Great Gatsby? I thought "Their Eyes Were Watching God" was a beautifully written book, the characters brought out more in the weariness of the language than I could imagine.
Isabel Allende, whom I met years ago, writes insipid derivative fiction, in my opinion, as if this were for particularly lonely women who never enter the world. Some of the others hit the mark as well and I am surprised not to see Kerouac and most post-modernists. Still much of this surrounds not liking certain styles like an artist criticizing pointillism. Using one's students as arbiters just suggests that a certain segment of modern society does not recognize anything redeemable in the literature, however...and seems petty.
On the other hand, perhaps modern critics just aren't of the same caliber as what I often consider great writers...and undoubtedly not as timeless.

message 8: by João (new)

João Camilo (jcamilo) | 259 comments Those critics named ridiculous reasons to say very good books are bad books. That is what they are ridiculous, they judgment is basead on something spurious as "McCarty is arrogant".
Saying one person wont like a book is not a problem, they can say it , you have more chances to find people who dislike a particular book, than like.

message 9: by Matt, e-monk (last edited Mar 14, 2010 10:24AM) (new)

Matt Comito | 386 comments Mod
these arent really critics excepting of course that they function in that regard in this piece - these are academics. They make I think various 'critical errors' in their approaches (sorry about the pun).

A for instance: What is the point of going after Casino Royale? Is it a bad book? of course it is - it seems though that Amiran's goal is to discuss genre work and is Casino Royale exactly the right book to approach that subject?

further is it a sound critical approach to focus your critique on the nature of one character (no matter how central)? 'I dont like James Bond' does not exactly constitute a sound hermeneutic. I dont like Captain Ahab, he's an obsessive SOB; I dont like Achilles, he's a preening child; I dont like Richard the 3rd, he's a bit moody etc etc etc - what does the kind of character flaw focused on in Amiran's discussion of Bond have to do with the quality of the work itself?
(Bond as an agent would more than likely be a zero or 'neutral figure', a cipher (that's the most realistic aspect of Fleming's characterization) and Bond considered as a 'character' in any event needs no more than wave his hand across the landscape of popular culture to reveal his place therein and so with an insouciant smile one up Prof Amiran - I must mean something old chap, I most certainly and quite loudly 'signify' - which in fact amiran allows but so then what is his point?)

what in particular in this essay intrigues me though is the mention that Casino Royale is full of cliches - can a work be denigrated for being full of cliches when it is the origin of those cliches in the first place? do we blame the Odyssey for being so rife with the usual quest story tropes? didnt think so - so what before Casino Royale establishes the usual international man of mystery cliches?

message 10: by Martyn (new)

Martyn | 299 comments Matt wrote: "these arent really critics excepting of course that they function in that regard in this piece - these are academics. They make I think various 'critical errors' in their approaches (sorry about th..."


message 11: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Martyn wrote: "Matt wrote: "these arent really critics excepting of course that they function in that regard in this piece - these are academics. They make I think various 'critical errors' in their approaches (s..."

Word, indeed.

To lift a line from Pynchon: "This is less a fighting team than nest full of snits, blues, crotchets, and grudges, not a rare or fabled bird in the lot."

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