Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The most overrated novel, book, poem, or author of all time

The Denver Bibliophile (actually, see here) and the Commonplace Blog are asking for nominations for the most overrated novel. Nominees so far include The Lord of the Rings, Atlas Shrugged, Brave New World, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Beloved, and Emma (?!?!?!?!). Also, The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, submitted by a reader who obviously misunderstands the game.

No one really bothers to say why they picked a particular book, or what criteria they might be using.* One guy picks The Catcher in the Rye, on the grounds that he doesn't see its appeal, which is approaching a reason.

I've never liked the overrated game myself. It's so imprecise. Just look at the Denver Bibliophile's question: "Which do you consider to be the most overrated novel(s)"? This could mean "the most often overrated novel," in which case adolescent enthusiasm for Tolkien or Rand may very well provide the correct answer. I once overrated Tolkien my own self.

Or it could mean "has the largest gap between the conventional estimation of its value and its true value." That estimation does not necessarily depend on the book being read that much. Finnegans Wake and The Dream of the Red Chamber and Clarissa are esteemed, but rarely read. We rely on experts (expert because they actually read the thing) to report back - "Even more brilliant than I expected!" or "Oh-ver-rated!"

One could perhaps use a historical approach, comparing reputations over time. Assuming that we, right now, are correct, Walter Scott's novels are among the most overrated of all time. Same for those of James Fenimore Cooper, or George Sand.

But Scott and Cooper and Sand are still read (just not ranked nearly as high). Perhaps one should look for the once-esteemed but now completely unread. The novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Ainsworth and Eugène Sue, say. They're hard to discuss, though, because almost no one has read them.

Leaving novels aside, I can think of some interesting examples. Voltaire made his reputation on his plays. Now they're completely dead, not even performed in France. It was the plays that were great, everyone knew that, not his sneering little Candide. The plays of Voltaire were, it seems, greatly overrated.

Meine Frau reminds me of the Christian verse epic of Klopstock, The Messiah (1748+), the last great epic, successor to Milton, etc., etc., now regarded as one of the most boring books ever written. Or the playwright August von Kotzebue (1761-1819), in the early 19th century not just the most popular dramatist in Europe but the best. Everyone knew he was the best. Now he's food for book mites.

The Little Professor seems to have had a similar reaction. She follows this vein with examples from her own research.

I suppose that people mostly mean "Everyone else thinks this is great, but they're wrong and I'm right," weighted in some way by the status of the book. Using that criterion, or the historical one, my pick is The Pilgrim's Progess (1678), a morally questionable book that was for a long time the second-most popular book in English. Since it is now massively less popular, it was, in that narrow sense, greatly overrated. Bunyan's novel is filled with imagery and language of the highest originality, and has had a permanent impact on our language. So maybe everyone else is right and I'm wrong. Still, it's among the books I dislike the most, for what are basically ethical reasons.

The second most overrated must be, let's see, The Compleat Angler (1653+)? Hugely popular, never out of print since it's publication. It's sweet. It's charming. It's about fishing, for Pete's sake.

This whole overrated business struck a chord of interest because I'm currently reading a real test case, a once-overrated, or perhaps now-underrated, poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. More on that tomorrow.

Feel free to chime in, here or at one of the above sites - but make a case, huh?

* Update: But see the D.G. Myers comment at the Little Professor's post - now that's the way to do it.


  1. Oh, this question is horribly vague and yet I feel compelled to wade in.

    There is the issue of popularity vs. quality, which you bring up. I am emotionally inclined to agree that this is the most useful way of addressing this question and say that the Twilight books and anything by Dan Brown by their nature are necessarily overrated.

    But as we all know, quality is much too subjective to discuss generally. I am pretty sure that the Twilight books are shit but how can I completely dismiss people reading for pleasure? That way lies hell and damnation and the death of the book!

    So, can we narrow the field of quality down further, to say things like writing? or characterization? or atmosphere? or ideas? etc? I suspect all these sub-categories come back to the quality of writing but that too is entirely subjective. There's no way to measure good writing and no agreed upon standard, either amongst individuals or over time periods.

    I feel like the real issue is really the disjoint between personal expectation and personal experience. A book gets hyped enough and one either becomes certain it's the best thing ever written or (if contrary like myself) convinced it's the worst thing ever written.

    Beginning a book with no expectations I think yields one with the cleanest reading experience and allows one, perhaps more objectively, to comment on whether or not a book is overrated - but then it's still about subjective tastes and how often do any of us anymore come to a book completely sans expectations about its quality?

  2. I don't play this game for I find it childish and an attempt at self-justification by its players. It seems to be played most often by those who fear that they may lose popularity/credibility if they don't appreciate a particular work that is highly regarded by others of their tribe.

    Rather than admit that they don't like the work, for whatever reason, they have to denigrate it to justify their own preferences. In this way, the book is at fault, and its readership is at fault for enjoying the work.

  3. You didn't mention the part of D.G. Myers's methodology involving the Modern Library Top 100. Not that I think this is decisive or anything, just that it's a bit more justifiable, to choose a list (of course, which list? but whichever) and say, "Well this shouldn't be above that." More circumscribed, probably at least a bit more sensical.

    And with that one you can also complain about the board *and* the normals. All four of Ayn Rand's novels in the top ten? Woah. But then you've got the board snubbing Conrad until 46.

  4. die geneigte LeserinSeptember 22, 2009 at 5:02 PM

    I think it's entirely legitimate to say: this book is popular, it gets a lot of attention, people recommend it, and it's complete crap. I'm not worried about the death of the book. If Dan Brown's books die, they aren't going to take Eudora Welty and Chaucer with them; I feel very confident in saying that.

    Look, we abandoned Eugene Sue, and we replaced him with Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy.

    It's true that there is no way to "measure" good writing. But it is certainly possible to judge it. It's common for people to assume that a lack of a single standard means that there are no standards, but that isn't remotely true. Some books are garbage, and some are works of art. The latter are different from the former in many ways, and that's what's worth discussion.

  5. This (and Colleen's adendum) is a terrific analysis of the Overrated game. It reminds me that I wrote my own list of the most overrated stuff of all time last spring. I never posted it, though, because declaring something that other people enjoy "overrated" seems like a pretty aggressive way to start a conversation.

    Looking back at it now, though, I note that Dan Brown, Emily Dickensen, and Thomas Pynchion don't get listed side by side all that often....

    In my guise of amateur Shakespearologist, too, it seems like a mention of Julius Caesar is in order. It remains among the big hits, despite being a dramatic non-starter -- there's not a whole lot of suspense in the question of whether or not Caesar is going to be assassinated or not -- and a play that drags on pointlessly for two entire acts after its logical finale. Most overrated Shakespeare play ever.

    Most underrated? Titus.

    OK, I'll shut up now.

  6. Hard to chime in when you and Colleen said everything I would say. :)

    A few random notes:

    Rated by whom, of course, is the key. Popular choice or pundits? I'm sure Dan Brown as pleased as punch to be so overrated.

    The pundits don't really count because they have a hard time convincing people to actually read the books and decide for themselves. I mean, Finnegans Wake may have been over-anticipated, but it barely "rated" on anyone's scale. It rates high -- like, the top -- of my list of Books I Read But Didn't Understand.

    I would have picked The Fountainhead as more overrated (overrateder?) than Atlas Shrugged.

    I just loaded Pilgrim's Progress on my iPod, hoping to get more out of the audio version than I did from my high school reading of the illustrated version. We'll see.

    In general, I'm not interested in this kind of Dutch auction of literary assessments. I prefer debating the "Best Of" literature. But if I had to pick, the first that pops to mind as most overrated is Less Than Zero.

  7. AR- your brother and I played a version of the overrated game before we met (top 5 overrated things). In the second round he had the audacity to say that brussel sprouts and violas were overrated. I jumped all over that, "Rated highly by whom?"
    I'm thrilled that he now rates them highly themselves.
    Pilgrim's Progress didn't do much for me, but I partially read it because C.S. Lewis hated it, so it wasn't highly rated in my knowledge before I read it.
    Without being much of a Shakespeariologist, I'd have to second that Ceasar is overrated, at least in the educational system(i.e. taught frequently despite not representing the best of Shakespeare), and that the comedies are udnerrated (i.e., not taught).

  8. Actually a lot here I disagree with.

    I guess I did bring up the idea of popularity, but I did not quite mean it. Scott, Sue, Kotzebue - they were not merely popular. They were esteemed. They were Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth and Toni Morrison. They were among the greats. Serious readers knew it.

    That's who I'm curious about. Otherwise, the overrating game is not that interesting. Dan Brown, Ayn Rand, Twilight - what small fish. They'll all be replaced by other books that update their pleasures. The only interesting candidates are books with well-established reputations.

    Fred, I know this game results in a lot of pseudo-sophisticated nonsense and trivial dismissals, but it's really just another angle at discussing whether a book is worth reading or not, an essential activity. Often - almost always - the book is at fault. One should say so. The readership, well, they have their reasons. I'm OK with them.

    At some point, soonish, I'm going to spend two weeks arguing, as forcefully as I can, that the novels of John Galt are criminally underrated. How is that exercise different than arguing that some other writer is overrated? It doesn't step on any toes, I guess. But I will be implicitly arguing that you clear space for Galt - by removing the overrated.

    Nicole - you (not just you) should check the link to the Little Professor's site. Myers reveals his methodology for calling Beloved the most overrated novel. It warms my heart. That's the way to begin.

    As for that Modern Library list, it was a publicity stunt to begin with. The popular list, based on an online poll, merely reveals who was using the internet in 1998 - Scientologists and Objectivists.

    Michael - I think you're misplacing the central interest of Julius Caesar. Don't be fooled by the title - or perhaps retitle it The Tragedy of Brutus.

    Rose - in the long run, at least, the critics count a lot. Some of them don't even have to convince people to read a book - they just assign the books in their classes!

  9. Julius Caesar is so prevalent in secondary education because it is one of Shakespeare's linguistically simplest plays. Probably does not hurt that it covers a famous historical episode. But it's the linguistic accessibility that's key, not any idea that it's especially great Shakesepare. Although it's pretty great.

    The comedies, by contrast, are generally among the most linguistically sophisticated plays - the puns and whatnot. So they don't work as well with a general high school audience.

    Pedagogical goals trump notions of quality.

    Yeah, violas, brussel sprouts, what's up with that? No one likes them in the first place. No, no, no - no one. No one.

  10. Wow, you've taken an exercise I find completely silly, and actually made it into a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay! I'm impressed.

    As I wrote in a comment on one of your other posts, I tend to be unexcited about ranking books, or tossing them out of (or into) The Canon. But it's interesting to think, in a more general way, about how to measure the degree to which books are valued - over-valued, under-valued, whatever - by a given society.

    Maybe, rather than thinking about some kind of objective "quality" in literature - something about which certain people are Right and other people are Wrong - there is a possibility that people of a given time and place are attracted by what they need, what speaks to them. The stuff that doesn't speak to them isn't necessarily objectively "worse," but it may be shunted aside until some kind of sea-change occurs where people in the future find what THEY need in its pages.

    More cynically, I could also see the argument that people of a given time and place are drawn to what is non-threatening, which tends to be one step behind what they actually need. :-)

    1. Great literature doesn't wait for that sea-change, it creates the change.

  11. die geneigte LeserinSeptember 23, 2009 at 5:06 PM

    Emily, Michael McKeon's _The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740_ makes that argument in detail. McKeon explains how the needs of a new group of readers fed the development of the novel as we know it. Of course, this says nothing about any one novel. But it does tell us something about our categories for making judgments.

  12. Emily, there's not a possibility that literary value varies by time and place - there's a certainty.

    The most interesting cases are the Shakespeares, the Cervantes, whose books do so much that they're highly valued by a succession of times and places.

    Perhaps a future time will once again love Whittier and depose Whitman. I doubt it, but who knows. T.S. Eliot and some of his peers resurrected the Metaphysical Poets because of certain resemblances to Eliot's brand of Modernism.

    I am actually constantly ranking books, and including and excluding them from my own canon, the set of books I most value. As for The Canon, it can and will take care of itself. Someday I'll bore everyone by writing about that.

    I really should read the McKeon book. It woks as a prequel to Ian Watt's brilliant The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1957). That book is really about how this small set of now-canonical books worked for their contemporary readers, not about how they work for us.

  13. AR -- As you saw, I linked to this discussion as my inspiration for posting The Daily telegraph's 1899 list of the "100 Best novels in the World."

    It ties into these ideas of popularity, rating, and the literary needs of societies at different times.

    For one thing, the list shows that the Victorians were in great need of novels about serving in the British Navy -- "rum, buggery, and the lash" and all that. ;-)

  14. That 1899 list is fascinating. Everyone should study it. It has so many, let's say, startling features.

  15. Oh my, I love the sound of the viola! After I wrote a blog post
    (here) about Danilov the Violist, a musician left some listening suggestions, including the Shostakovich Viola Sonata. I've never been a big Shostakovich fan but I loved it.

    I don't think I'll ever like brussel sprouts, though!

  16. As penance for my anti-viola joke, I just downloaded the BIS album "The Russian Viola," which includes the Shostakovich sonata.

    It's not exactly a severe penance.

  17. Lisa, really b sprouts can be wonderful when roasted (not boiled or steamed-- water brings out the nasty smelling sulfur compounds) with butter and pine nuts. AR's brother now cooks them for his parents that way. I think they are way underrated.
    I still like the cello better than the viola, but stand by my assertion that cellos are overrated and violas under.

    Sorry AR, I know this is not the conversation you intended to provoke. I will need to find the viola concerto for my husband, however.

  18. Amateur Reader,

    You are right. That is a fascinating list. I have read only about 20 from the list, and many I've never heard of until I saw them on the list.

    I think it's great resource, even if it is flawed if one considers it a list of the top 100 novels from the 19th century.

  19. "I think you're misplacing the central interest of Julius Caesar. Don't be fooled by the title - or perhaps retitle it The Tragedy of Brutus." -- Well, I'll have a chance to revisit this eventually, and maybe I'll warm up to what I think of as the fairly bland Brutus business. As for now, I'm hardly alone in thinking it was Shakespeare who misplaced the central interest in Julius Caesar.

  20. Well, those others, whoever they are, were right. The central interest of the story, as Shakespeare later showed, is with Antony.

    By the way, while we're arguing by authority, have you taken a look at Harold Goddard's 2 volume The Meaning of Shakespeare. I found him particularly helpful.

  21. Oh, and "arguing by authority"? You overestimate me. The others are just friends and acquaintances I've talked to about Shakespeare. My line of argument wasn't so much appeal to authorities as "me and my pals, we don't go for Julius Caeser.

  22. First, that Bulwer-Lytton post is excellent. Great work.

    Second, argument by authority is a rhetorical device. It does not depend on any actual authority.

  23. I love Brussel sprouts. Baked with butter or pan fried. Yum.

  24. I'll also add to this old thread to say that the viola is one of my favorite instruments, and Brussels sprouts one of my favorite foods. Bah!

    I can report that I finally read one of Bulwer Lytton's novels, "Zanoni." I can see why it was once so popular, since it's about Rosicrucians and the French Revolution, both juicy subjects, and has memorable characters. I can see why it fell out of favor, too: it's very earnest and romantic (and prolix) by modern standards. I wouldn't know how to rate it. He was an odd one.

  25. I should try a Bulwer Lytton some day. Rosicrucians - that has to help keep the interest up.