We asked every contributor to this issue to give us an overrated book and an underrated book. The rules were simple: any time, any genre, any author, language, style . . . anything. Just one book that’s regarded too highly and one that’s not read enough. Here are their responses.
Debate their picks and add your own at our Facebook forum.
Scott Bryan Wilson reviews William T. Vollmann’s
Riding Toward Everywhere in this issue.
Underrated: Women and Men by Joseph McElroy
Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men is vastly underrated (and under-read). As important a novel as it is massive, it’s McElroy’s masterpiece in an oeuvre of very, very, very good books. There’s a great interview with McElroy where he tells a story about when he and a friend were going to a baseball game, and as the train arrived, the door only opened halfway, and the waiting crowd tried to cram their way in as the departing riders tried to get off. McElroy said to him, “That’s what Women and Men is all about.”
Overrated: The Bible
No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake off the effects of a childhood misspent in church: reading the Bible was a chore or a punishment. Even now, reading for research purposes or from a secular/literary perspective, I find it almost unbearably dull. I know it’s full of sex and violence and epic struggles, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
For this issue, Sam Miller writes about the future of the short story and Stephen King’s all-too-early claims of its demise.
Underrated gay novel: Just Above My Head by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s last novel is an overwhelming experience, although it’s hard to see it in the shadow of stuff like Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. Sprawling yet intimate, political and perfectly written, no gay novel does a better job of exploring how terribly and beautiful we are bound up with our families, and how much joy and pain they cause us. And there’s an exquisite sex scene.
Overrated gay novel: Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran
Widely heralded as a watershed moment, Dancer from the Dance is an oppressive and joyless vision of gay life and gay community. The sense of death and despair is so pervasive that, at times, it’s startling to realize that this is actually a pre-AIDS book. This cynical and racially problematic book’s reputation as one of the most important pieces of gay literature is actually really sad.
John Lingan contributes an essay on Denis Johnson to this issue.
Overrated: Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Perhaps miniaturist Borges isn’t meant to be read in 500-page marathons, or maybe Andrew Hurley’s translation isn’t the preferred one. Either way, I found most of these storiesthe indisputable genius of “Ficciones” exceptedto be intellectually interesting but ponderous. And while I get that it’s not “the point” of Borges, I still wish the man could have written one actual round character in 50 years.
Underrated: Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
Not experimental enough to stand out among more famous ’60s novels, and a few years too early to capitalize on the Hollywood “revisionist western” trend that, ironically, included Arthur Penn’s version of this novel, this remains a staple of used bookstores but is rarely read or taught. A shame, because it’s hilarious and anticipates much of the cultural and generational divides that would erupt in the years following its publication. A masterpiece to stand with other ’60s monoliths like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or V.
Martin Riker reviews Guantanano by Dorothea Dieckmann in this issue.
Overrated: The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth
Everything of value in this book, plus quite a bit of value not in it, is said much more interestingly in Booth’s subsequent A Rhetoric of Irony. But the former is the one that shook the foundations of the critical community etc., so it got canonized.
Underrated: Petroleum Man by Stanley Crawford
As far as I can tell, this book flew under almost every critical radar out there. Ed Park reviewed it, and maybe one other person. I wrote a short review, far after publication. But this is classic Crawford, very smart and funny stuff.
Scott Esposito reviews Dirt for Art’s Sake and Wolves of the Crescent Moon in this issue.
Overrated: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
Not that these stories are bad, but this collection is far from deserving the critical orgy of adulation that it received upon publication. The titular story is very good, as is “Some Other, Better Otto,” and “Window”; the others are well-built but not memorable.
Underrated: Witch Grass by Raymond Queneau
On the whole Raymond Queneau isn’t read enough, but especially underappreciated is his stunning first novel, Witch Grass, often overshadowed as it is by his later, stranger texts. In its near-perfect plotting, its visionary metaphysical quandaries, and its simply beautiful, often hilarious writing, this is the kind of book that few authors are good enough to ever write, let alone the first time out.
Lee Rourke reviews The Power of Flies by Lydie Salvayre in this issue.
Overrated: Ian McEwan
I can’t decide between Saturday or On Chesil Beach. Both books are abhorrent to me in equal measure. Anything by Hilary Mantel, as well.
Underrated: Everything Passes by Gabriel Josipovici
Josipovici is our greatest living writer. Why his fiction doesnt reach further Ill never know. Maybe it asks too many questions for most readers/critics?
Elizabeth Wadell reviews Best American Magazine Writing 2007 in this issue.
Overrated: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
In Chatwin’s “classic” of travel literature (and a Penguin Classic to boot) the narrator tramps up and down southern Argentina, discovering nothing about himself or about the country he is in, except that apparently Argentines are only second-rate Europeans in disguise. Though the narrative structure is interesting, the racial anxiety gets old fast.
Underrated: The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Collected Poems by Myrna Loy
Eliot, Pound, and Stevens are revered as the Modernist poets par excellance, but their contemporary Loy is just as good, if not better. Her poems capture the flashing lights and clanging sounds of onrushing machine age with onomatopoetic brilliance.
In this issue, Sacha Arnold reviews the experimental short story and flash fiction collection It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature.
Overrated: Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel
This is possibly the most clumsy of the novels I’ve read about upscale-y liberals struggling to feel good about themselves after 9/11. Though it delivers a few entertaining parodies of its chosen targets, the book becomes the very thing it derides as its hero drifts closer and closer to radical-chic virtue.
Underrated: Too Loud A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Much more than just an allegory for the censorship of literature under Communism, this story of a trash compactor who destroys the great books for a living but rescues selected volumes for his own education is a miracle of compactness itself. In less than 100 pages, Hrabal joyfully sabotages any easy interpretations as he charts the thoughts and life of an eager, inept, autodidact drunk.
François Monti contributes an essay on the French absurdist Eric Chevallier, focusing on his untranslated novel Démolir Nisard (Destroying Nisard).
Overrated: The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts has been praised as a Borgesian work and a new House of Leaves; it turned out to be one of the worst books I’ve read over the last few years. A lot of ideas, but Hall forgot that windmills are not enough: one needs a knight errant charging them to have a book. Instead, we get sloppy dialog, half-assed characterization, and Hollywood-bound twists and turns.
Underrated: Doctor Pasavento by Enrique Vila-Matas
Maybe it’s problematic to consider an award-winning book under-rated, but quite a few reviewers of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Doctor Pasavento complained that it was just the same book as the previous one, and the one before. Surface-reading at its worst: if Doctor Pasavento, the third volume of Vila-Matas’s metaliterary trilogy, indeed reiterates things that were said in Bartleby & Co. and Montano’s Malady, it does so with much more depth, addressing a very different theme: the difficulty of being nobody. It is the pinnacle of Vila-Matas’s body of work thus far, and it should appeal to readers of Sebald and Walser.
Daniel Whatley reviews J.M. Coetzee’s latest, Diary of a Bad Year in this issue.
Underrated: Interstate by Stephen Dixon
Even though nominated for a National Book Award, Stephen Dixon’s Interstate has not reached the status it deserves. This Rashomon-like novel featuring seven possible takes on a horrific highway shooting will strike fear in the hearts of fathers of young children everywhere. I for one had to put the book down and return a few years later, my daughter older. Alas, the world had become no safer.
Overrated: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Jonathan Franzen was more interesting to me when attempting to meld the familial with larger social concerns of immigration and ecology (even if falling a little short) than when hitting the mark with the lesser ambition of The Corrections—which certainly proved a marketing triumph. Read his first two novels instead, and hopefully the (abandoned?) novel tackling race in America will come to fruition.
Richard Grayson reviews Joshua Henkin’s novel Matrimony in this issue.
Underrated: The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy
Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga trilogy (The Man of Property, In Chancery, To Let) as well as his second Forsyte trilogy, A Modern Comedy (The White Monkey, The Silver Spoon, Swan Song), still hold up for me the way they did when I first read them during the Johnson administration. I guess he’d be scorned by most readers under 50 today, but I feel he took an unfair beating at the hands of Virginia Woolf in her essay “Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Brown.” Woolf was a far, far greater writer whose works I love, but Galsworthy, despite his often graceless and clueless writing, is more fun for me. But what do I know? I like Trollope too!
By far the worst book of the Torah, the Old Testament, and the whole Bible. I find it utterly stupid, but then it’s the only book for which I can place the blame that I’m missing part of a part of my body and that I’m discriminated against for what I do with the part that’s still left. But what do I know? I don’t like burning trollops!
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by The Quarterly Conversation