The Overrated Writers of 2006

Here they are, the Literary Kicks Overrated Writers of 2006: Philip Roth, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem.

What these writers all have in common is that I once cared about each one of them. You don’t get on my Worst Five list unless I once had high hopes for you. Each of these five writers seemed to be right up my alley when I first heard of them.

My fateful Cormac McCarthy encounter came on an airplane to California, after I’d excitedly purchased Blood Meridian for a gripping read. I ended up reading the in-flight magazine for six hours, because the writing was better. But I sure thought I’d love that book.

I had very, very high hopes when I first heard of William T. Vollmann, because the subjects he writes about are fascinating to me. I share his interest in the philosophy of history, I like his eclectic craziness, and I bet I’d become a big William Vollmann fan, if the guy would only deign to become readable. I still hope someday he will … maybe after carpal tunnel syndrome catches up with him.

What I’m trying to say here is — you can’t really hate a writer unless you also love something about them. For example, Joan Didion came up with one of the all-time best book titles ever, the Yeats-inspired Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That’s some title. Jonathan Lethem is a Mets fan. Philip Roth is a cranky old weirdo. What’s not to like, right?

My week-long rant is now hereby over, and I have to tell you I feel about fifty pounds lighter after getting all of this off my chest. It’s a good feeling. So now I’d like to ask you to vent your own opinions. Who are the writers you are really sick of hearing other people rave about? Who left you feeling like a loser for buying his or her crummy book?

This is your chance to let it all out, and I’d really like to hear what you have to say.

39 Responses

  1. the sun also sucksI’m looking
    the sun also sucks

    I’m looking at my bookshelf right now, and I’m looking at The Sun Also Rises. I only spent a couple bucks on this and it’s used, but can anyone out there give me a good reason to finish this?

    I just don’t get it, Vonnegut seems to like Hemingway, why oh why can’t I? The character has friends and girls in Paris and in Spain, and he drinks wine and plays tennis and walks a long road, but I ask again, why should I care about this book? Or Hemingway at all for that matter?

    Also, how in the world could you label Cormac McCarthy as a stereotypical writer and yet profess a fondness for John Updike? I challenge you to name one Updike book (besides “Poorhouse Fair”) that isn’t at least 70% aging white guy talking about bj’s and the flora around his house. I admit “A&P” is a good short story, but seriously, Updike deserves your list way more than McCarthy, or Roth for that matter. Roth may be charting the territory in his own head, but at least he isn’t a dick like Updike.

    I liked your list. Vollman and Didion are both seriously overrated.

    And, OK, there’s The Witches of Eastwick, but that was just Updike trying to save his soul, admit it.

  2. I can’t deny that Updike also
    I can’t deny that Updike also often seems stuck on certain themes, mostly the theme of marriage and adultery in suburbia. I think Updike could be easily criticized and made fun of for his own brand of predictability. But I won’t be the one to criticize him, because I just love his work — not only his fiction but also his critical essays, which I think uphold a higher standard than that of almost any other author/critic I can think of. That counts for a lot with me.

  3. Bad taste and form and big
    Bad taste and form and big bucks

    Despite all the obvious reasons (mass media whore, bad reviews from legitimate readers etc.) to dismiss Dan Brown without even reading him, I decided to take the plunge a few months ago. I set out to read Angels and Demons with an open mind.

    I did this for two reasons. One, I always take into consideration that a successful writer automatically collects jealousy like a balloon in a field of static electricity. The other reason was that I value a good story, no matter how poorly it may be written.

    I look up to a person who may be toothless and ignorant, but who can tell amazing stories. Everyone should know a great story-teller. When I write, the specter of the great story-teller is always looking over my shoulder.

    Well, Angels and Demons was not well written, and wasn’t a great story either. The dialogue was trite to the point of distraction. The story was pieced together around tidbits of malarky and trivia about secret societies and secrets in general.

    The person I borrowed the book from told me it would be a “quick read”. It took me three painful months to finish that piece of garbage. I realized I could easily finish writing a novel like Angels and Demons if I just didn’t care about much of anything.

    Another author I have been disappointed by is Mark Haddon. I thought “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” blew chunks. It was syrupy. It was Barny the purple dinosaur in book form. In fact, it made me question Haddon’s claims about working with autistic children. I’m sure he did, but maybe his imagination took over a little too much or possibly he had so many preconceived hopes that they clouded his perception of reality. I found the inner dialogue of the character wholly unbelieveable.

    I may be completely wrong about Haddon, but being wrong still won’t make me value his writing.

    Okay, I let it out and I feel much better now.

  4. I think I love Hemingway and
    I think I love Hemingway and Updike for the same reason. They both had/have something that can’t be taught: a great ear.

    Some writers can tell a great story, but lack the musical kind of rhythms that play so easily in my mind like Updike and Hemingway.

    With Updike, it isn’t so much the subject matter, but his writing style that makes his work such a pleasure for me to read. Of the two, Updike is definitely my favorite.

    I enjoyed the Sun Also Rises so much that I read it until it fell apart. I have no interest in bull fighting and I’ve “Never Been to Spain” (i just had to say that). But something kept drawing me back to read it over and over again. I may have even learned a thing or two from it.

  5. Motherless Brooklyn remains

    Motherless Brooklyn remains a favorite of mine because Lethem captures the essential absurdity of group loyalty. When the Mina Men cross the river to Manhattan they become invisible and ridiculous. The story veers into outright satire and loses some humanity but Lethem salvages his idea at the end.

    No Country for Old Men surprised me because I didn’t expect to like it. McCarthy uses imagery to suggest meaning and the truckload of dead guys on the high plateau means trouble, right here in Cactus City, podner.

  6. Three for youFocusing on the
    Three for you

    Focusing on the living. . .

    1. Larry McMurtry. I think the first post I made on Litkicks, years ago, was about Lonesome Dove. I didn’t get the fuss then and I don’t get it now. The book meandered and went nowhere. McMurtry comes up with different plots which all lead to nowhere. His characters are simply that, characters, and don’t seem real. Worse, I didn’t really care what happened. Big time overrated.

    2. Nick Hornby. What is the deal with this guy? Okay he’s somewhat topical and, arguably, hip, but no more than anyone writing in Entertainment Weekly. Hell, the writers in Entertainment Weekly could all have probably written something better than About a Boy. That book opened up with a premise that had promise and crapped out a third of the way into the book. It’s like he had a short story and tried to crank two hundred pages out of it. How about some black comedy or biting social commentary instead of a sappy book that seemed to want to manufacture feelings? What, was I supposed to empathise with these loser characters? How about, I don’t know, maybe a plot twist? I saw this one coming all the way down Michigan Avenue. Hornby and I are done.

    3. Cormac McCarthy. Levi, I agree with you on this one. I read No Country For Old Men and wow was I pissed off. The plot was standard fare. This guy has some chops but his abilities are burried by what I can only guess at is his attempt to be hip. For example, the book lacked any quotation marks. The first time I read a book without quotation marks I thought it was kind of cool, but after several books, culminating in No Country, it just got old. And for some unknown reason, sometimes McCarthy would use apostrophes and sometimes he wouldn’t. There was no rhyme or reason why he would use an apostrophe in “didn’t” but wouldn’t use one in “won’t.” Everytime I came across a word where he didn’t use an apostrophe and should have it pissed me off. But worse than that, don’t kill off a major character in a kind of flashback with forty pages left in the book. At least give me the satisfaction of showing me and not telling me. And then to close the book with a twenty page diatribe by a throw away character? I won’t be reading this guy again. Or should I say I wont be reading this guy again.

  7. Interesting, Pelerine — I
    Interesting, Pelerine — I wasn’t surprised to hear that you liked Joan Didion, but I am surprised that you didn’t like Mark Haddon’s book. I can’t say it blew me away, but I found it very enjoyable to read, and it taught me a few things about autism. I think you’re the first person I’ve heard from who didn’t like this book … and for that reason, I’m glad you spoke up about it.

  8. The Book of JohnWhile Updike
    The Book of John

    While Updike sits at the anointed right hand of god, and-or-King David as-in-Remnick, his work has no life-giving significance to me beyond the amusing sight of a tired old man now reaching for commercialism. I guess he needs the money, but terrorism as grade B movie is one more overdone Hollywood yawn. They need to get it over with, give the guy his Nobel, and be done with it so the rest of the planet can get on with life.

    After meeting his characters, I still do not know them beyond the reality I do not want to know them. Juxtaposed against a contemporary context, their contrived conceits melt into the chaos, and so what. Nothing is revealed of the chaos. It only is. And if that’s the point, what is the point.

    The work strips density down to syle cluttered by self-consciousness, the accumulation of picky, illustrational technique for the sake of technique where surface detail seduces the ignorant, but obscures the substance of what could have been. Never mind that this is the hallmark of his generation now slipping into the bowels of memory, but it’s also the signature of his aristocratic class which disingenuously pretends it is not the aristocratic class, and is, in fact, an apostolic magnifying glass that from time to time amuses itself with a focus on the Little People.

    The worshipfulness of his worshipness is appalling even if it does pretend there is no pretense. Pretending to be the masquerade of timeless form where nothing is elevated as transcendant, and, like pornography, is ultimately cynical as gynocology, but unlike pornography, the trappings of social attributes hanging on this over-decorated Christmas tree, drop, and break, and make no sound.

  9. So you’re essentially saying
    So you’re essentially saying he’s much like the rest of us, then?

  10. Hi, Pelerine. I understand
    Hi, Pelerine. I understand what you mean about Dan Brown, but I’ve got to say, having only read The Da Vinci Code, that he at least made certain aspects of historical research accessable to young people. I’m not saying the book is historically accurate, only that it opened up discussions among me, my son and his girlfriend, and some of my adult friends who don’t ordinarily read much. Sort of like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I guess I think of it as one of those books that “had to be written” but maybe it should have been done better. The thing that bothered me most about The DaVinci Code was that trite plot developement where the guy they went to for help turns out to be a bad guy.

  11. I appreciate your comments,
    I appreciate your comments, Nasdijj. I know that my affection for John Updike seems inexplicable to many people, and I think you explain his flaws very well here. I’m not going to try to defend him — only John Updike can speak for John Updike. Speaking just for myself, all I know is that his books and articles somehow thrill me beyond all reasonable explanation. I know I’m not alone here, because Nicholson Baker wrote a whole book about his own obsession with John Updike, U and I, that does a better job of explaining my position than I ever could.

  12. Yo Bill, spoiler alert!!!
    Yo Bill, spoiler alert!!! You should warn people before you reveal a plot twist. Although I guess everybody’s read the damn book and seen the movie already, so we’re probably okay.

  13. Yes, ordinarily I would have
    Yes, ordinarily I would have issued a spoiler alert, but the book and movie have been out there a while and discussed endlessly. It’s like telling how the Passion of Christ ends.

  14. The only problem I had with
    The only problem I had with The Sun Also Rises or A Moveable Feast is that these books constantly made me hungry and thirsty. Hemingway’s characters are always eating some fucking cheese, bread, eggs, or roasted meat, and washing it down with every foreign word for alcohol you can imagine. Aperitif my ass.

  15. well you ruined it for at
    well you ruined it for at least one person. 🙁

  16. Catcher in your EyeOK, this
    Catcher in your Eye

    OK, this isn’t really about an author as much as one work in particular, since it’s all I’ve read by him. It’s the high school english classic Catcher in the Rye. Everyone I know who’s read the book think it’s a masterpiece of literature, the ultimate saga of bitter teen angst and despondency. I won’t deny that Salinger definately said plenty of things throughout the book that I could relate to, that really made me think about life and people around me, but really, this book has zero plot. The climax I think would be when Holden is accosted by that pimp, and that’s like halfway through if I remember correctly. The entire rest of the book is him wandering around the city being generally pissed off at everything. When the book was over, I felt like someone had pulled a fast one on me. “You’re serious, that’s it, that’s all this has lead up to?” And then everyone else thinks it’s an American classic, it makes me nauseous.

    It’s not just because it was overhyped to me, because I generally don’t have a problem overlooking others’ opinions when reading a work for myself, plus I’m not the type who’s reluctant to hop on bandwagons, if it’s good it’s good. And it isn’t only because of the lack of a storyline, because I recently read Ham on Rye by Bukowski which was similarly lacking in a continuing plot, and I loved it. Maybe that was because it took place over the course of many years rather than just a few days like Catcher. All I can say is that the book just isn’t for me, which actually surprises me since I’m one of the more cynical and bitter people in my circle of friends, and all the rest of them adore the damn book.

    I could say that I feel better after all that, but this isn’t the first time I bitched about this book, so I’d be lying.

  17. Bill — he gets resurrected,
    Bill — he gets resurrected, right? SPOILER ALERT!

  18. dc, the one event in the Da
    dc, the one event in the Da Vinci Code that I revealed is only a small part of the story, not enough to spoil the whole book.

  19. Thanks, Malt. I’m with you
    Thanks, Malt. I’m with you on Hornby. He makes writing novels seem very, very easy. Just blab on about your favorite music for 200 pages, send it off to your publisher, done. I can’t understand why he’s a famous novelist and I’m not, and it bugs the hell out of me.

    The only reason he’s not on my list is that I haven’t heard people raving too much about him lately. Especially not since that awful, terrible movie called “Fever Pitch”, which made the original novel look brilliant by comparison.

  20. Are you saying that Updike is
    Are you saying that Updike is a phony? ‘Cause there’s a lot of that going around lately…

  21. I never said Updike was
    I never said Updike was phony. I said he was an aristocrat. There is a difference. All Stories Are True. John Edgar Wideman said it (not me). Some are simply more true than others.

  22. I have to agree; I could
    I have to agree; I could never get much from it either. So many of my favorite books are primarily comprised of cynical ranting and complaints, and I always really wanted to like the book, but Holden Caulfield never did it for me. I always thought that, if put in his position, I could be far more cynical and obnoxious than him.

    And as for whether “Catcher” being so overrated qualifies Salinger for a similar title, I would say that it does. Granted, “A Good Day for Banana Fish” is a brilliantly subtle little story, but being the legendarily unprolific recluse that Salinger is, the bulk of the man’s reputation rests on a single book. If that one book doesn’t hold up, what else do you have to go on?

    I think that Salinger, like Hemingway, is more revered as a literary icon than as a writer. But unlike Hemingway, I can’t see that Salinger has left any indelible mark on literature, and I really can’t see “Catcher” continuing to be relevant for future generations.

    Speaking of literary icons with no great works to their name, does anyone actually READ Gore Vidal?

  23. I read Gore Vidal’s pamphlet
    I read Gore Vidal’s pamphlet on 9/11 and found it an excellent polemic.

  24. Ellis Blows Fight Club Sucks
    Ellis Blows Fight Club Sucks Gen. X Nonce

    Lunar Park by Brett Easton Ellis sits unread on the bookshelf because it’s as full of excess as American Psycho. Ellis is a one-hit wonder if you can can call Less Than Zero a hit. It’s not bad, but it’s the best of the four Ellis titles read by me. The writing’s good but there’s a lack of content, or the content is porn-violence in Armani, ie, American Psycho.

    Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Fight Club is the classic example of an excellent movie made from a subpar book which never came alive.

    Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is all nonce words, eg, McJob; and at the beginning, a good Lichtenstein knock-off with the dialog bubble capturing the zeitgeist of early ’90s relationships: “If it doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced.”

    Mark Twain: “A classic is a book no one’s read but says they have.” There’s an incredible amount of books that are loved by the critics that don’t reach me and someone like Stephen King–a story teller’s story teller–isn’t considered literary enough. I’d chose a King book anyday to read in line over Updike.

  25. McMurty’s Last Picture Show
    McMurty’s Last Picture Show is the classic riveting portrayal of a small town. The characters walk off the pages into your mind. I also enjoyed his book on Billy the Kid but didn’t read Lonesome Dove. The TV mini-series wasn’t too awful for TV.

  26. overratedI try to think of

    I try to think of “overrated” authors, two come to mind. The first is Albert Camus, who wrote a couple of good books, and some not so good books. But his little volume, The Stranger, was so wildly popular with the post-war young intellectuals, it was almost biblical. So one should perhaps forgive Camus for his lesser works. But then, at the height of his popularity, he could’ve been (like Jack Kerouac) the voice of leadership and reason for the emerging newly-aligned world. Instead, he chose, like Kerouac, to die young. Which is rather inconsiderate, but perhaps both men had personal problems that outweighed their obligations to “save the world.”

    The second “overrated” writer that comes to mind, is Ian Fleming. I only read one book, but that adventure goes like this: Spending a couple of days at my aunt’s house, nothing to do; find a couple of books lying around the shelves. One is Thunderball, which is okay I guess, but not to where I’d ever read another. But Fleming perhaps invented his own new genre – the action hero super spy. And I once heard someone suggest that he created a nationalist hero for a post-war spiritually-defeated, economically-deflated nation. So maybe one should, as in Camus’ case, forgive him his shortcomings also. The trouble is (for me) the other book I found to read in my aunt’s house, was The Human Factor, by Graham Greene. Which to my way of thinking, is essential literature (that is, you can’t live without it) as opposed to Flemings’ writing.

    One final note, on taste. When I was a sophomore in high school, reading Anna Karenina because I wanted to be “edumacated” (and my friend was reading War and Peace, because he didn’t want to be outdone) our teacher had us read a book by Daphne Du Maurier. I told her that was stupid. But how uneducated of me not to realize that for our teacher (a pretty young celibate nun) a romance novel might be very appealing to her. And thus by way of human nature, she would naturally think it would appeal to others. Sister Maris, I’m sorry.

  27. I gotta defend my man
    I gotta defend my man Palahniuk here. Fight Club is my second favorite movie ever (next to “I Heart Huckabees”), and it is definately an example of a movie that you can’t rightfully say the book was better. BUT, I think the main reason for this is because the movie was so close to the book that it’s scary. Aside from a few scenes that were taken out or rearranged, reading the book is like reading a script for the movie with commentary added. Thus, reading the book gives basically the same effect as the movie, but without the cool visual effects and superb acting. If the movie had never been made, the book would be held in much higher regard I think, but because it WAS made, it pretty much turned the book into a watered down version of the film. This is a classic case of a book you need to read before seeing the movie to really appreciate fully. Then again, that’s just my opinion.

    As for Stephen King, he’s one of the main reasons I’m even a writer, so I find it hard to knock the man, although his work has been rather sappy lately (see “Bag of Bones”, “Hearts in Atlantis”, etc.), and quite a few of his endings leave something to be desired. For example:

    *SPOILER ALERT*: “It” is a fantastically chilling book, and the TV movie is also respectable in it’s own right, but having the monster turn out to be a giant spider in the end? That’s ridiculously campy, I felt like someone had stolen the real ending and put it one from a 1950’s B-horror-movie. OK, I’m done.

  28. If they’re going to go on
    If they’re going to go on about that God stuff you should ask for a bowl of soup at the end of it. Are you really living in France? I don’t know if it’s the best place to go to get away from self consciousness, least not for me anyway.

  29. Just for the record, I was
    Just for the record, I was also impressed by “Fight Club”. It certainly showcases some highly original ideas and techniques.

  30. I would imagine that the
    I would imagine that the reason your “pretty young celibate nun” required you to read Du Maurier is because her work is well-crafted and well-regarded in English literature. Descended from the rich tradition of the Brontes et al, it’s shame to dismiss her work by confusing Romanticism with “romance novel”.

  31. Having seen the movie Fight
    Having seen the movie Fight Club, I decided to skip that book and read some others by Pahlaniuk. I liked Choke but I loved Diary.

  32. Possibly Camus should be
    Possibly Camus should be re-translated as Notes from Underground was but The Fall still would resonate in today’s society. Even though I read the translation, there are images that stay with me and I read the book long ago. His others that I read–The Stranger, A Happy Death, The Plague–were tedious reads but one must remember that existentialists used novels and plays to convey their ideas.

  33. I passed on Pahlaniuk the
    I passed on Pahlaniuk the other day at the bookstore, and Walsh’s Porno — which I looked at –f or a couple of other non-fiction books I needed. Whether the pair have staying power remains to be seen. It’s harder to stay in literary favor than it is to be a pop star.

  34. Oui. La France pour
    Oui. La France pour maintenant. Elle change beaucoup et rapidement. Je suis lecture Genet. Je devrais etre projectile. Selon la pression nous sommes “sur la fuite.” Jesuis tombe excedent riant quand j’ai lu celui-la. Les media est absurde. Les Francois adoreent l’absurd. Lls appellent le football du football. Nous le jouons chaque nuit en parc. Je prends des notes. Ll m’entre dans beaucoup d’ennui mais je les prends de toute facon. Au lieu de l’echiture. My French truly sucks.

  35. I did enjoy Fight Club as a
    I did enjoy Fight Club as a movie but I think Chuck P. is highly overrated. He’s GOD to the hipster demographic and I don’t think it would bother me as much if people didn’t react like this: “Oh (roll of eyes) YOU don’t like Chuck P?”

    I’ve read all his books and think they would work better as movies, they’re all plot plot plot and essentially there’s always a character who’s Tyler Durden in different skin, someone who has a rolodex of random knowledge at their disposal but doesn’t say much besides. I believe all great literature or anything that should be put in the pantheon of literature is essentially character driven, an understanding of the human condition. Nothing Chuck P. has ever written has made me think twice.

    Levi (brooklyn, correct?), I agree he might’ve brought some new ideas to the table, but new techniques, I don’t believe so.. but I could be wrong, please elaborate. He’s alright at best, I’d put him a touch above some of the mainstream writers but he’s right there.. when he did a salon interview he basically said he doesn’t write for readers, then who pray tell is he writing for? I also don’t think it’s a compliment when you say his book is a watered down version of the movie.. Chuck P.? Ack, you can have him and Eggers and Ellis..

  36. Chuck Palahniuk writes bumper
    Chuck Palahniuk writes bumper stickers and ironic t-shirt slogans one after the other and calls the pileup of potentially witty one-liners a novel.

    I’m looking at you, Diary.

  37. Just to go back to ‘The
    Just to go back to ‘The Curious Incident…’ Pelerine, which made you “question Haddon’s claims about working with autistic children” – there’s a reason for that. The child as Asperger Syndrome, not autism. Furthermore, as someone who really has experienced Aspergers (from the outside looking in, like Haddon), I found the details realistic and believable and the book as a whole original, moving and brave.

    Interesting how we’re all sitting here navel-contemplating and picking holes in massively successful books. How about we all try and write our own instead? Then maybe Mark Haddon and Dave Eggers can get together and post mean stuff about us all in anonymous glee…?

  38. Also, I hate to quibble with
    Also, I hate to quibble with you, firecracker, but “Romanticism” is a literary movement which ended in the mid nineteenth century… Daphne du Maurier wrote between around 1927 and 1987. So actually, “romance novels” are what she wrote — but assigning them that label doesn’t make them bad literature.

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