The Contrarian Roams From Blog To Blog

I'd originally put a version of this over on Ropes of Sand, which purportedly is the blog of the Iowa Writers' Workshop class of 2005, but in reality is a moribund, navel-gazing and strangely silent bunch (oh wait, that's us, not the blog itself). But anyway, there were few folks there with the balls to jump in. And I'm certain that Barrelhousing includes the ability to look beyond the conventional wisdom (I mean, Barrelhousers have admitted to liking REM and Coldplay--where's the hip quotient in that) and of course there is my own public paean to Magnum PI.

But it's Thursday and therefore it must be literature. Which means that I am done with my two classes of summer school, which were remarkably difficult considering the change from Iowa (as in, I had to show up and I had to read books, etc). But the all-white, all-male syllabus of one of these classes got me to thinking about the following: we're force-fed a handful of books again and again, the canonical offenders yes, but also the hip lit of the moment etc. I feel like throwing a bomb or two.

Therefore I posit this question: what is the most overrated book you've ever encountered? Or maybe a book that was handed to you by someone whose taste was usually infallible, yet turned out to be awful. I'm thinking here specifically about Doctor Copernicus, recommended whole-heartedly by an otherwise very fine visiting writer last year. I read that book and became convinced that John Banville's notion of authorial choice was not to make any authorial choices.

Nominees for most overrated? Everything is Illuminated? Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? Anything written by a Brooklyn hipster doofus who has yet to publish a second book yet somehow has a tenured teaching job?

In the spirit of generousity, I'll accept votes for the all-time underrated team. The literary All-Maddens. The men and women who do the dirty work, crank out solid work and ought to be well-read, but aren't. I'll give you a short list to start. Andre Dubus. Bausch. Frederick Barthelme. Mary Robison. George Garrett.

The book you've been asked to read the most? (Mine, far and away is Gatsby--not overrated, and I still find something new each time).

Let the flinging begin.


joe said...

In sort of a mutation of Steve's question, I can talk about a book that I went into wanting to dislike but ended up loving. Mike and I were actually discussing this at the bar last night. How we'd heard about this book called "The Corrections" by a guy named Jonathan Franzen who, a few years early, had written this huge diatribe for Harpers about his disillusionment with the "State of the American Novel" and that his next book, supposedly a big honking mother of a tome, would try to "correct" for all the problems he sees in contemporary fiction.

Right buddy. Blow it out your ass, I thought.

But then I read the book. And, amazingly, Franzen did everything he said he was going to do in the now notorious “Harpers essay.” He created characters that were a joy to read about. He then placed them in situations that were not at all naval gazing, that allowed the author to present thoughts and opinions on a bunch of different aspects of life in America at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one: fast wealth through the stock market, happiness without the work through designer prescription drugs, the inability for younger people to settle down, the necessary physical division of families at a time when the industry that drives the US is shifting, and on and on and on.

And those are the things I got out of it the first time. When I went back and reread it I saw how incredibly structured and layered the novel is, how much Franzen worked to connect and intersect the stories and characters in interesting ways.

So yeah, long story short, I loved it.

In terms of stuff I find totally overrated, the nod goes to anything by David Foster Wallace. I admire his ambition but I can’t get down with what he does. However, he did have a story in The New Yorker a few years ago that really creeped me out, which I guess is a good thing. I’ll also never understand why John Steinbeck gets so much play in high school. It’s not literature—it’s a bunch of clich├ęs thrown together in the dust bowl.

Mike said...

I read Rick Moody's The Ice Storm after seeing the movie, and I have to say that's maybe the one time I've liked a movie more than the novel. Something about Moody's sentences makes me nauseous. Then I read Garden State and couldn't get through the whole thing. Then, because I'd read one of his short stories in a magazine, I picked up The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven and got annoyed all over again. There were one or two stories I liked, and then a lot of self-indulgent stuff that made me want to urinate on Rick Moody's carpet.

Unlike Joe, I like Steinbeck. I think a lot of those Dust Bowl cliches are only cliches now, years after Steinbeck wrote them down.

If I could knock one book off high school required reading lists, it would be James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers. That one induced many a nap back in my junior year of high school.

dave said...

This might be an easy answer, but Atlas Shrugged is by far the worst book I've ever read. Lousy, romance-novel writing and cheap philosophy that might work if there were less than, say, one hundred people on the planet. I couldn't have hated that book more.

And any work of fiction by Tom Wolfe. I almost feel like he's Ralph Nadering himself lately, threatening to overshadow his mammoth early accomplishments by laying them over with crap late in life. Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, all of the nonfiction work still pretty much simmers and pops.

Can I say simmers and pops and not sound like a total douchebag? Maybe not.

aaron said...

I'm with Joe that I loved The Corrections, but I was prepared to hate it and the first 20 pages or so weren't promising, but then I became engrossed and couldn't wait to pick the book back up, a feeling I don't get much anymore.

As far as authors I'm against, Harry Crews is one. I can't remember which book I picked up, but in the first 10 pages there were at least five metaphors that were constructed exactly as the following: "I watched the men [engage in some sort of physical or social activity] in the fashion and manner that men of this kind had always done since time immemorial." I call that grasping for archetypical straws.

And another thing. Can we all sing for joy now that "metafiction" is no more? To me, metafiction has always been a farce. I read one of Karl Barth's stories that engaged in this idiocy (wasn't the the one who started it all?); one half of the paragraph would narrate the story, and the other half would explain what he had just done in the narrative. Exposing the machinery of narrative or plot, or commenting on the audience's anticipated reactions is just not all that interesting. Who would sing a song that got people clapping and then stop in the middle of it and look around and say, "oh, you like that, huh, that's cool, isn't it" or "see how I changed keys there, slipping the dominant fifth into a subordinate seventh?" Finish the damn song! Then write an essay on it if it's so dang good. And that's the nub right there. Metafiction is an act of egotism, for the author must assume that his story, either in its structure or impact, is worth comment, when it very well might only be worth puke and disposal. Let the critics and readers decide that.

My attitude toward Dave Eggers "Heartbreaking" is thus: if he is going to use the first 20 pages to make meta-excuses for the sentimental drama that follows, shouldn't I take him at his word and not waste my time with the rest of the book?

goodbyekitty said...

You guys...you're all so obsessed with Franzen and Moody and Foer and Eggers! Boys, boys, boys. Browse around the book store a little! There are so many other writers, and your mother is buying two extra copies of what they've written for her book club while she's at it.

I'd rather talk about what's good, but while were on the subject of overrated, the National Book Award winning THREE JUNES makes me want to chew my own leg off. ATONEMENT similarly caused me the pain of having to read page after page of exquisite writing, though I'm fascinated that pretentiousness is so in style.

If you want to read something blindingly good, Julia Slavin's new book CARNIVORE DIET is terrific, funny and original and smart.

Kistulentz said...

I am with the mysterious goodbyekitty on the Julia Slavin book. Of course the fact that she has a new book out depresses the hell out of me, because our first published stories were in the same issue of the same magazine almost 10 years ago.

As for Harry Crews, well, that's what happens when you've been writing the same book for 35 years. He says in a documentary called The Rough South of Harry Crews, "All metaphors are bad," a piece of advice that he apparently did not take to heart.

That being said, Harry is at times a visionary. He outed the hypocrisy of televangelists in 1968 with the excellent The Gospel Singer.

Throw more bombs people! Is it just me, or are all Alice Munro's stories about a woman, mostly older, who fears she isn't attractive anymore now that her husband of 30 plus years has left/died/cheated?

Mike said...

No, not Alice! I love me some Alice Munro. Maybe it's the Canadian-nes, which is so quaint and charming. Usually, I'm not that into stories that are extremely long and take a good while to develop, but I don't know. Ms. Munro makes my engine hum.

TMC said...

On a slightly different track than the books already mentioned... the book that most disappointed me-- at least as far as I can remember-- was Catch-22. I'd heard for years how hilarious it was and how it was this great satire and excellent writing and dark humor and every other damn thing I like in writing. And I found it painfully unreadable. I dropped the book in disgust at least 3 times, and quite after 65 pages. I felt like it relied far too heavily on sitcom-esque wacky misunderstandings that could easily be cleared up if just one person interjected on the silliness with a simple explanation. And I don't think that crap is funny.
So, count that as my vote there. Couldn't stand the damn book, and I really wanted to love it.

Most assigned- Heart of Darkness. Had to read it three times in my freshman year of college alone, in addition to several high school readings of it. I hated it the first time, hated it less the second time, and now grudgingly accept it as fine writing, but not captivating storytelling. If those two can co-exist, and I hope they can, because I just finished the rough draft of my book, and I know for sure that the story is not captivating. And if the writing's not fine, i'm fucked.

aaron said...

Catch 22 is a damn fine book, soldier! Now that you bring it up, I just might read it again. However, the movie is quite horrible.