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America's 40 worst books. 'Gatsby'? Really?

March 10, 2010 |  9:59 am

40worst

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

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