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LQD: the books we hate to love.

by Sassafras Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 02:43:39 PM EST

A lazy midweek discussion partially inspired by this comment from ThatBritGuy in poemless's diary Sasha Hemon, or, Turning sad European Lemons into delicious American Lemonade!

I've been nursing a parallel theory that we confer official museum-grade status on writers from ethnic groupings we feel guilty about - 'we' meaning the mostly white, mostly middle class, slightly angsty and concerned audience which reads what's usually called 'literature'.

This isn't about talent, or the lack of it. More that there will always be talent which isn't picked up because it doesn't tickle the ethnic 'oh, the horror' guilt buds in the right way. Even when there's plenty of horror and brutality - which seems to be another essential contemporary ingredient.

I don't know what TBG will think of his new bedmate, but Rod Liddle, in a recent Sunday Times article, collected nominations for fiction with an undeserved reputation, and had something similar to say:

Here's a bunch of stuff we were all told we had to read by the political and cultural climate of the day; because it would be good for us and because, way beyond this, it was our responsibility to start patronising writers from minorities because it was only the oppressive white male cultural hegemony that kept them in an ethnic- or gender-defined ghetto.

What draws these nominees together? They perhaps captured a certain spirit of the age in which they were written, replete with its fashionable literary conceits, its political leanings (or lack of them), its mannerisms. And this is what characterises almost all of the books that were nominated. They were not so much deemed to be shocking at the time, or too difficult, or experimental - there is no Henry Miller on the list, or Robbe-Grillet, or Sartre. Instead, they seem to be books that fitted in far too comfortably with the sensibilities of a certain chattering-class elite when they were published.

So, which classic books do you think are overrated?

My nominations-anything by DH Lawrence, most of the counter-culture classics (vaguely interesting as museum pieces only-sorry) and the works of Ian McEwan, who I  suspect would be regarded as a writer of potboilers, were his characters not upper-middle class.


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I suspect a lot boils down to taste, as I LOVE this idea, but disagree with some of the nominees.  

OTOH, I have a gnawing urge to nominate "All of them."  

I tend to avoid like the plague any book people tell me I have to read or that has a lot of hype surrounding it.  If an author has been on NPR I am immediately suspect of their talent.  Gushing NYT or Guardian reviews confirm I will hate the book.  Sometimes I am wrong (Hemon) but that is a very very rare thing.  Working in a bookstore most of my formative years gave me a smug cynicism toward the lit industry directly proportionate to my deep appreciation of a well-written book.  It is for this reason I have actively avoided the works of Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer & David Foster Wallace.  And anyone I think may be remotely related.  Fortunately in my academic life I've concentrated on Slavic Languages & Lit and have been largely protected from the cannon of English Language overratedness forced upon liberal arts and MFA students.  I was still unable to avoid Lermontov (overrated).

However, since you asked, some writers I'm currently considering overrated, with various degrees of active loathing attached, include Willa Cather, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Johnathan Franzen.  I will even go so far as to say The Corrections is by far the worst book I've ever read, possibly ever written.  No one should ever have to read that book.  It should be a crime to distribute it!  

I've never been able to get into Toni Morrison or Salmon Rushdie.  

Nabokov is overrated.  

Oh, and Hemmingway.

I like to set a high bar.

:)

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 03:45:22 PM EST
poemless: Nabokov is overrated.

Other than Lolita, more or less agree.

poemless: Oh, and Hemingway.

Only read For Whom The Bell Tolls.  Was not a big fan of that either.

poemless: Philip Roth

Oh, hell no.  You did not just say Philip Roth is overrated.  Here I'm afraid I must respectfully very much disagree.

... all progress depends on the unreasonable mensch.
(apologies to G.B. Shaw)

by marco on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 07:52:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll back you on Philip Roth. He may have written too much, but the better stuff is really good. And, having sprung to prominence with Portnoy's Complaint, he can hardly be accused of having been promoted as the Serious™ author everyone needs to read.

Also on Nabokov. Lolita is a jewel, but I never managed to finish anything else of his.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:46:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Pale Fire is wonderful, Pnin is a lot of fun, Ada is great for the first two thirds or so. Of his Russian stuff I like The Gift, The Luzhin Defense and Despair. What I love most about his English language stuff is the the ridiculously well crafted style. That and the games he plays, most notably in Pale Fire, but in his other novels as well, including Lolita. Hmmh, maybe it's time for another go through of his stuff, I'm getting shivers of pleasure just remembering.
by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:13:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]

Nabokow is absolutely not overrated.

Hemingway - I agree, though I like his short stories.

Salman Rushdie - Midnight Children is amazing.

Overrated but not bad - Pynchon

Should be assigned only as a disciplinary measure: Dickens.

Phillip Roth, largely agree, though he has his moments.

by MarekNYC on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:09:07 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I should make it clear that I believe it is possible to both have talent AND be overrated.  Overrated: meaning the praise and hype they receive is disproportionate to the quality of their work.  I believe these writers are indeed talented and even worth a read (save Franzen) but their authority and genius I dare to question.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 10:55:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm honestly not well read enough to start slagging off the classics!  Well this will send people into a frenzy - I've never been able to force myself to finish Lord of the Rings.

Shame on me, I'm sure, but I can't hold all that detail in my head.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 03:50:58 PM EST
I first read Lord of the Rings in hospital at the age of 11, but I've been less impressed with it every year past the age of 18.

I tried to read the more recent "Children of Hurin" and  couldn't get beyond page 15.

Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) is another.  I've been told many, many times that it's far superior to Lord of the Rings, but I found it completely unreadable.

by Sassafras on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:20:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Take it that you're not all that keen on Dark Age and Medieval Germanic poetry (Beowulf) and literature (Icelandic Sagas) either?  

How very odd.  

;-)

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:47:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It would be fair to say that I find it hard to engage with and retain long genealogies, yes   :)
by Sassafras on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:52:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Amen on LOTR. I absolutely loved it when I first read it at age eight. Devoured everything by him plus anything like him - from SF to Homer, from medieval history to high fantasy. But by my late teens the charm was wearing off. I recently read him again, and there was some nostalgic pleasure, but not that much.

On Catcher - I read him at age 13 and again at fifteen or sixteen and loved it. Haven't reread it, and don't want to for fear of spoiling my memories.

by MarekNYC on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:18:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Me too on LOTR. I read it three times in the first wave of its popularity, mid-'60s, and at the end of the third read I was no longer under its spell.

It's part of a very English phenomenon pertaining to, roughly speaking, Tolkien's generation (there's the literary club he read episodes to, the Inklings, of whom the other well-known member was C.S.Lewis, and I'm also thinking of poets like John Betjeman and to some extent Philip Larkin), that quietly exalts a supposedly quintessential Englishness involving nostalgia for an imaginary Anglo-Saxon rurality and a stable social hierarchy in which the lower orders properly know their place but are solid, brave creatures that do things like battling through the Blitz.

I flipped through the pages of LOTR again last year. Unreadable.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:35:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd aimênu!

:-D

I feel the same way about Serious™ Novels.  Can't keep the characters associated with their various neuroses, dysfunctions, and obsessions.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:24:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's because Serious™ Novels are about your various neuroses, dysfunctions, and obsessions. Get hip.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:13:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I enjoyed Hobbit and Lord of the Rings the first time, when I was young, but found it rather boring second time through in my later teens or early twenties.

I didn't get the whole class problem of it until the movies, which I enjoyed even though something was nagging me all through - when I put the class argument together, I was finally able to stop fidgeting, relax, and enjoy the movie as spectacle.

However, I am still an avid reader of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as I've been since my youth.

And I've been an avid anti-fan of proper literature for quite some time, and have mostly avoided it.  Every so often I've been forced to read some.  

Austen was pretty good, actually, and Dickens was sort of passable, and I love Twain.

I thought Midnight's Children was okay, but nothing special.

I absolutely loathe Virginia Wolfe.

by Zwackus on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 05:26:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd like to suggest reversing this idea.
How about a regular feature of books we would like to share. This can either be neglected classics or recent books which we have found worthwhile.

For example, I'm finishing up an interesting philosophical book which has just been published: "Moral Clarity" by Susan Neiman. I was thinking of writing a diary on it, but I think mentioning it as part of a regular feature would be sufficient.

Any one else interested in such a regular program?

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:20:16 PM EST
I'd be interested in a book series.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:24:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm game.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:25:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Spoken like a true pheasant. ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:06:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wondering when you were going to break cover.

Me duck.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:22:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Prey tell me more, sire ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:30:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's a really fowl set of jokes...
by Sassafras on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:34:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hare, hare, hare!

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:38:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not such an old grouse after all?
by Sassafras on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:42:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Game, set and match ;-)

I'm off to feather island, as the Finns say.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:59:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I still say the most interesting book I have in my smallest room is 'Charts of Philosophies and Philosophers' by Milton D. Hunnex.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:34:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is both epistemological and conducive to bowel movement...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 05:37:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
How about a regular feature of books we would like to share.  ...  Any one else interested in such a regular program?

Great idea!  You all can start by going over and reading and rec'ing my diary!

I'll do almost anything for a good book recommendation, so I completely support this idea.  However, you don't need to wait for a series to write a diary about a book you'd like to share.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 04:32:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
OK, there seems to be enough interest, now will one of the gods of the front page just post such a thread...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape
by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 06:58:13 PM EST
This blog is a community effort, you could even start your own diary!
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:37:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
So, which classic books do you think are overrated?

Having said that, I am perfectly willing to concede that I simply have not understood those books well enough to appreciate their greatness.  That is particularly true of Kokoro, which I have only read in English, especially since more recently I read I Am a Cat and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Then again, I thoroughly enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo and still did not like The Three Musketeers.

... all progress depends on the unreasonable mensch.
(apologies to G.B. Shaw)

by marco on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 07:46:56 PM EST
Yeah, I have to say, Kokoro was a bit impenetrable.
by Zwackus on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 05:28:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I honestly couldn't stand Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye". But I must admit I was 16+ and rebellious in anything that reeked of English literature. I may need to read it again for a more mature revision.

I've picked my English classics very carefully, and with fair success so far, or it just means I'm not so picky in what I read as long as I'm entertained. I'll wait with the flip thread to expose my meagre amount of English classics.

by Nomad on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 07:47:10 PM EST
Nomad: ... English literature.  I may need to read it again for a more mature revision.

Ditto.

Nomad: I'll wait with the flip thread to expose my meagre amount of English classics.

And ditto again.

... all progress depends on the unreasonable mensch.
(apologies to G.B. Shaw)

by marco on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 07:55:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I honestly couldn't stand Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye"

Well, I must admit it's my least favorite of Salinger's work, as Lolita is my least favorite of Nabokov's, but I love both authors.

And dislike counterculture writers?  as a whole?!?

What's wrong with you people?  Wait, maybe I should be asking what's right with you -- you're evidently not fucked-up enough...

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:24:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There are some who think counterculture refers to queuing behaviour  at fast food outlets. ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:50:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Amen.

BTW, who are these counter-culture writers everyone speaks of?  Wouldn't that adequately describe, uhm, like, most writers?  

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 11:01:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, a counterculture is a subculture that becomes significant in size -- they don't share the stated values or norms of the dominant culture.  I'd agree that a lot of writers are misfits of the culture and criticize it, but don't always reject it's values.  The tag most often goes to writers who came out of the beatnik and hippie movements.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:19:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yeah, it's just like the people of that generation to presume that they were the only ones to have ever rejected the values of the culture they were born into.  Maybe if they'd not dropped out of school to do drugs, they'd know about the American Transcendentalists or the European Bohemian culture, or uhm, Jesus Christ.

Next in this series: "LQD: the generations we love to hate."  

p.s.  Let us ignore for the moment the black berets, closet full of black turtlenecks, complete works of Jack Kerouac and box set of spoken word beat poetry of which I am in proud possession.  And that I am the offspring of a hippie.  These facts are not important.

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:44:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My idea of counterculture would be Michael Moorcock, Robert Anton Wilson, even Frank Herbert. I don't know what the Schrodinger's Cat and Illuminatus trilogies are, but they're certainly not traditional angsty and white Guardian-reading etc. (Well, maybe white - but not so angsty.)

If you're being funded by a major arts organisation, teach at a university, attend literary fairs regularly and have at least one assistant, it's unlikely you're part of the counterculture.

With increasing literary homogeneity I'm not sure there's much genuine counterculture happening now. There people like China Mieville who look like counterculture but aren't, and I suspect if someone wrote something original and bizarre in the Illuminatus style - without being an obvious knock-off of the same themes - it would have no chance at all of getting anywhere near a bookshop.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:28:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The literary output issued under the surveillance of the advertising office is excellent in workmanship and deficient in intelligence and substantial originality. What is encouraged and cultivated is adroitness of style and a piquant presentation of commonplaces. Harmlessness, not to say pointlessness, and an edifying, gossipy optimism are the substantial characteristics, which persist through all ephemeral mutations of style, manner, and subject-matter.


When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:36:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I blame the free-market.

Signed,
Member of the counter-culture.  Until Jerome starts sending me paychecks.


"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.

by poemless on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:47:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Damn. He's good.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:16:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Published in 1904, too. No wonder his contemporaries thought he was from another galaxy.

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:22:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm not sure there is a counter culture these days for books to come out of. However, SF type stuff like you mention would definitely get published. There's been a proliferation of interesting small presses as a byproduct of the contraction of the SF lines of the big houses and their resulting extreme conservatism. Most of what the small presses publish is just standard SF and fantasy, but they're very willing to put out experimental stuff as well. Along those lines I'd recommend Jeff Vandermeer who has since been picked up by the majors but began with offbeat editions with tiny print runs. Start off with City of Saints and Madmen. He's also one of the leaders of a sort of informal group of such writers that help each other out and his blog is a useful source of information on new stuff.
by MarekNYC on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:54:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Zero chance of finding a copy here.

If we can work out a payment system, is there any danger of a book parcel from NYC?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:21:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Vandermeer's books have been published in the UK. If you mean the small press editions in general, some have as well, but many haven't. While I'd be happy to ship them to you, it would be both more convenient and cheaper for you to order them directly online. No double shipping costs and credit cards are a lot cheaper to use than wire transfers, plus the online people sometimes have shipping deals. Powell's ships internationally (and should be used in preference to Amazon assuming it's possible and not significantly more expensive since Amazon is a pretty horrible corporate entity, while Powell's is pretty good). If neither Powell's nor the main Amazon store has it there's always Abe Books which has pretty much everything ever published - it's a clearing house for booksellers all over the world. Not necessarily cheap or convenient, but if you want something it's there.
by MarekNYC on Fri Jun 27th, 2008 at 01:48:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What I meant by "counter-culture" was:

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Fear and loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

and their ilk.

But it's interesting to see that it means different things to different people...   :)

by Sassafras on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:26:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
3 books that I digested deeply ;-)

The Dice Man was particularly influential at a time when I was visited in Finland by high representatives of that other (then) counter culture organization Virgin Records. At my house in the forest, an A&R man who shall remain nameless got 'Rape Sven's wife' on a throw. But was enough of a South African gentlemen to desist. Not so Mr Branson who got 'Scream at the top of your voice every hour on the hour for 24 hours' - which he did. We took off the next day in a small plane to see a gig in the north of Finland. There was a thunderstorm. It was raining like hell. Just as we lifted off at 6 pm, before the wheels were up, there came a banshee scream that caused the pilot to shit himself. We gave Luke a rest after that.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:38:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Was this counterculture thing directed at me as well?

I don't even know who, exactly, should be considered as counterculture writers, let alone what it would mean if you are entitled as one. Examples please?

by Nomad on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 02:27:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, sorry!  That bit was earlier in the thread.  It was late here and I was too lazy to write two comments.

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:09:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
All genuine artists are counterculture.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 04:39:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm going to nominate Rod Liddle:

Burning is too good for them - Times Online

You cannot be a good proto-commie and enjoy Anthony Powell, I thought to myself in my frowsy bedsit, surrounded by garish SWP posters, Tom Robinson records and the collected works of Marx and Marcuse. You could call it a question of upbringing, I suppose. Instead, I would sit myself down with Edward Upward's trilogy The Spiral Ascent, a hideous and rightly forgotten stab at Marxist literature that can be read now only as unwitting satire. I either didn't know or didn't care that Upward's middle name was Falaise, and that he had been educated at Repton. Maybe I thought Repton was sort of okay, because Isherwood went there too, and he was a good comrade. I think you should be allowed a degree of inconsistency, or stupidity, in youth.

Public school one-upmanship, subtle condescension about one's romantically impoverished radical youth, the phrase 'a question of upbringing', the phrase 'I suppose', name dropping Anthony Powell and Christopher Isherwood, dropping the name 'Falaise', and also name dropping Tom Robinson all in the same paragraph.

What can anyone say? Dear me - people have been strung up from lamp posts for less.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 09:42:19 PM EST
Hmm, some of those offenses go right by me. Though I don't get the adulation of Anthony Powell - he's fun highbrow soap. Nothing wrong with that when it's done well, and Dance is, but that's it.
by MarekNYC on Wed Jun 25th, 2008 at 11:14:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I had a feeling you might not claim him as a soul mate  :P
by Sassafras on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 10:56:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Any antipathy is probably just projection. ;)
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 26th, 2008 at 03:14:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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