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

40 worst booksAll the Pretty HorsesCormac McCarthyF. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby


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

Comments () | Archives (31)

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This sounds more like a case of bad, arrogant professors than bad books. The only time I've ever thought a book might be bad (not to be confused with badly written, which these critics don't seem to concern themselves with) was when the author's politics supplanted the truth of the character. I'm a super-liberal so I have no issue at looking at how race, politics and difference fit into story-telling, but maybe they'd all be more happy with political tracts. Try reading the books and taking them for what they are folks. Perhaps they might just figure out they're not the intended audience. Or maybe check their egos. I wish we were all as smart as they are. More useless crap to fill papers and get noticed. Seems to be less thoughtful criticism and more about attention-grabbing. Ridiculous.

It is fitting that most respondents didn't correspond with this 'theory of badness' and gave it the cold shoulder it deserves. If Jay Gatsby and associates are somehow dis-real and Fitzgerald smug, then give us more in this century than we had in the last. The only smugness I discern is among those second tier associate profs who somehow purchased tenure.

I am a college professor and actually enjoy reading. One of the books I enjoyed last year was "Casino Royale," an interesting thriller I found groundbreaking (look at the dynasty it began) and fascinating in its redefinition of 1950s British masculinity. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues judge everything by how close it comes to Joyce's "Ulysses," which they reread annually. A friend of mine was at an academic conference session about "Ulysses." Someone on the panel referred to an episode where a character in the novel had coffee at a restaurant. The rest of the panel turned on him, and one of them hissed, "It was cocoa!" Now do you see why this ridiculous list came about?

Best and worst lists are absolutely worthless. As long as people READ, that's what counts! Everyone to their own tastes, I say.

Now imagine getting graded by these people.

America's worst books are the ones I had to read in high school.

Making a case of the badness of a list, which despite the title of this article isn't actually a list of bad books, might just qualify itself in the badness and sloppiness of reporting that quantifies the "bad" list to begin with. Bad run-on sentences might also qualify comments as bad. Bad list! Bad!

Oh, dear. I'm somewhat embarrassed to see both a fellow alum and one of my undergraduate professors appear in this piece together. I'm not surprised that Prof. LeClair didn't like 'Gatsby'--not DeLillo enough, I imagine. But really, this piece picks on Ohio too much. And there's no mention of the shameful way these pseudo-academic anthologies are pieced together and dumped onto the public (a small one) via book-fair readings and silly group talks. I can see the posters now...."The famous Prof. Tom LeClair and author/A&M lecturer Christine Granados argue with Sohpia McClennen for one and one half hours! You'll laugh, you'll yawn...you'll wish you had ordered one more drinky-doo before coming to this panel discussion!"

None of the dreadfully-written and wildly popular "Twilight" series made this list? Those books must set some sort of record for purple prose, yet they don't rate a mention. I expect these smug professors don't read what the general public does, though.

Other than Toni Morrison, I have never heard of the other critics. I suppose when a professor teaches a fixed syllabus decade after decade, anyone can fault in a handful of sentences.

Get up everyday and write. Screw the critics.

The criticism is so woefully written that it puts these academics to shame. Other than the unintelligible psuedo-speak of the first comment (nonparodic? Seriously?), the others read like high school essays -- vague and unsubstantiated claims from picky people.

Worst book: The Fountainhead.

I agree with mbgriffith. This list is an arrogant joke. I bet a lot of these critics are unimpressive, uninspired writers.

This is what you get when you ask about books to people who wish they could write one.

Now you see what we few sane literature professors have to deal with: idiotic, intellectually dishonest colleagues (who can't even write well).

Those who can, write,
Those who can't, teach.

Reading this post brought this to mind:

If they think Gatsby is a bad book, they should spend a week reading self-published novels, or reading a publishers slush pile. This list is more accurately the Worst of the Top One Percent of Literature.

P.S. I'd love to see real writers judging the worst academic criticism sometime. THAT would be fun.

These so called literary 'scholars' aren't intelligent nor witty enough to work as book store clerks much less as professors/lecturers at universities (but, sadly, they do). If these nutjobs think that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, E. L. Doctorow, et al. are 'bad,' I'd hate to think what they think is 'good.'

Little more than a cat fight between educated people who are no longer able to appreciate good writing. Too bad they can't see the forest for the trees.

........I think I'm basically an illiterate,but fanatical reader,I read mostly man-action,legal and thriller books.
........I've never understood how anyone could read any of the books from "Yadomanitiwatchooe County" or whatever it's called-how boring they all are!

The actual article doesn't say what it asked these professors, but I'd be willing to bet all they were asked is what books they think are bad, and that all they felt they were offering was their opinion - not some universal literary truth. An inflammatory headline or title doesn't make for actual inflammatory content.

I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else. One of my favorite mentor on learning how to write a book is Mark Victor Hansen, co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I cant believe they went after Gatsby. that's like saying Michael Jordan couldn't really shoot hoops.

Ditto deeaiden. The worst literature is generally written by college professors.

In college, I had a professor who made me seriously question Gatsby, which was a novel I loved in high school. He asked some really pertinent questions, I believe, such as what portion of American culture did this represent at the time of its writing (meaning the wealthy), since we regard the "roaring 20s" as being a realistic period of life here. Well, it represented a small percentage then as it does today: the rich. He also pointed out that in the first page Nick Carraway couples his dog, his dodge and an old Finnish woman who cleans his house in the same sentence, indicating he equates them all as equal. And while some first person narratives indicate on the author's part an unreliable narrator whose views they don't agree with, there's not much of an indication that Fitzgerald didn't agree with this, that he didn't see this as satire, but as a genuine sincere narrator meant to be looked upon as trustworthy. Then there's the matter of the last portion of the book that leads to the "great" last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." He then asked us what these pages meant in terms of what we had just read as the novel, and no one had an answer. After this I hated Gatsby for a while, but I do believe I've come to terms with what it is, a pleasant reading experience, a soap opera in novel form in which the poetics of the text take precedence over meaning. And that's okay, it's a good book, and an enjoyable read, but should it have been number 2 on the best novels in English of the 20th Century? I believe there are much better books, Light in August by Faulkner or Winesberg Ohio. I think Gatsby is justly questioned. Should it be in regard to the authors arrogance? No. But should we question, what does it mean and are we seduced by how beautifully F. Scott writes into ignoring the fact that he's not really offering a critique of wealth but saying that the desire to emulate it is normal and we should all pursue it and there's nothing wrong with forgoing morals in its pursuit in order to achieve it? I think Gatsby is good, but we need to really reassess just how important this novel is….

My point overall is mainly that calling it worst is reactionary to how many people think it's the "best." Look at it honestly, read the text and question it and ask, "Should this one have been number 2 behind Ulysses as the best books of the 20th Century?"

Did any commenters here actually go read the article before writing the contributors off as academic hacks who don't know what they're talking about? They are asked to define "bad" in terms of a book, and then give an example. Sure, there are some to disagree with (I love "Gatsby," for one) but if they define "bad" in such a way as "I didn't enjoy it," or "I found it pretentious," or "I don't think it achieved its literary goal," then they have set their criteria for thinking said book is bad. Many of the critiques contradict each other - on the first page, Eyal Amiran of UCal-Irvine, comments that Ian Fleming's novels are the epitome of genre novels which are, in his/her opinion, awful. Three reviews later, R.M. Berry of FSU, comments that "genre books aren't bad. In fact, they are the paradigm of good books." It's clear that this is the opinion solely of each of these academics, and they don't even agree with each other. And guess what? That's okay! I have professors who would give you a death stare for commenting that "Women in Love" is a bad book, but I agree immensely with Michael Berube of Penn State who comments that "it took a lot of effort to produce a book that bad." Sure, there are a lot of academics who are blowhards, but the reaction to this small article is way overblown.

Example: I did my thesis on Harry Potter. I think it's a good series, given the criteria of being a young adult fantasy novel. My Medievalist friend in my English Department at my university, however, thinks they're awful for the ways they twist Medieval mythology, but recognizes its importance in YA Literature. We all have our own lenses with which we approach these books, and we're all going to teach these books because they are important within their time periods, NOT because they are necessarily good or bad. I consider some very famous books to have some terrible writing - has anyone EVER been able to get through Heart of Darkness without wanting to poke their eyes out? - but, they are still important to teach because they do say things about the human condition, about their time, and about some sort of Truth with a capital T. This is why we study literature.

Gatsby made it on the list and twilight did not? huh that already ruins the credibility.

These are the "porseffors of Engrish" that Richard Mitchell would have had a blast at verbally disemboweling in the 'Underground Grammarian', were he still alive. But, alas, he was a Casandra and the wooden horse has entered our gates, pulled by blind fools in academia. Truly, we live in an illiterate age. These so-called critics can neither argue their claims nor write clearly. They probably dislike The Great Gatsby because it is too well-known to seem hip. It is too clearly written fit their pretentious tastes. And, it is too intellectual for their pea-sized mush-brains to handle without bleeding out of the geek-sized ears that first drove them to seek solace in the Ivory Tower --since everyone said they were dorks in school. What exactly DO these drooling human pests enjoy? Coming of Age in Samoa? The Handmaiden's Tale? Ha. I bet they think Shakespeare is sexist and therefore bad, and that 'Miss Julie' is an abomination. I bet they think "history" is a sexist word. I bet they think it means "his story", when it actually comes from the Latin, "historia, ae", which is a feminine word, (and everyone with half a brain knows that).
God, I hate everyone.


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