Overrated and Underwhelming
by MAXWELL KUHL
Slate published an article last week titled, "Overrated: authors, critics and editors on 'Great Books' that aren't all that great." It's a charming title and a pithy thought, fraught with possibility, potential anarchy and an air of literary excitement. What follows the title isn't really any of that.
I don't know the author, Juliet Lapidos, and I don't know the literary people she cites (though they all have serious literary gigs), and I don't have anything personal against any of them, but this article stretches the limits of useless intellectualizing and confirms that the internet, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There are two main problems with it. First, her definition of "great books" seems at once misguided and charitable. Second, the "takedowns" are dreadfully limp and banal.
As for her notion of greatness, well it's a little unclear. Beyond a book simply being "one of the greats" and a "must read" (she puts both in quotation marks), she doesn’t say all that much. The quotation marks suggest she's reluctantly deferring to someone else (without saying whom) and lacks the conviction to make her own judgment. She subsequently reveals her own wobbly standard with an ambivalent account of struggling to convince herself to read the great Thomas Hardy... unless that's a joke, which would be way too abstruse for this article — and actually funny.
She then takes issue with "several works" on the Modern Library's Top 100 list. For the sake of reference, here's the Wikipedia account of how that list is chosen, because it has a great deal to do with publicity, sales and an insanely ridiculous voting system and absolutely nothing to do with greatness. So she's underwhelmed by something underwhelming, which is basically saying less than nothing.
If her goal is to ruffle some feathers, why attack a pigeon? Fucking go for it. Take on one of the great dead birds of literature: call Jane Austen the Judy Blume of the 19th century. Quote someone hilarious turning Hemingway into, "And then Gertrude Stein punched me in the face." (Or Roberto Bolano who said, "Asked to choose between the frying pan and the fire, I chose Isabelle Allende.") Why not tell a joke?
"Thomas Mann walks into a bar. No one cares."Or recreate a conversation between yourself and your friend where one of you says something like, "You haven't read Great Expectations?" and then the other one says, "Are you serious right now? Great fucking Expectations? Motherfucker was paid by the installment."
"A cheaper, less sophisticated version of Heidegger, that, because of his friends and politics, gets way more credit than he deserves."
Instead, she alludes to excessive drinking in Under the Volcano (impressive) and an Englishman struggling to express his love in Of Human Bondage (most impressive) in what I assume are attempts at creating an air of levity. Instead, they establish an air of indifference toward how fascinating this whole project could be if she actually put some fucking work into it.
She then stumbles into the unfortunate body of the article (the part by the authors, critics and editors) by warning the unfortunate reader that now the "beloved writers [will] take a drubbing." Never has the word "drubbing" been more effete. What follows doesn't constitute a drubbing. It's not a bashing, or an evisceration. It's hardly even a bump. Here are a few examples of the "drubbing":
• "So if at a given time you don't either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else."Daniel Mendelsohn, fortunately, seems to have taken the project seriously (and in the process embarrassed everyone else). He's the only one of the group whose words are worth mulling over because he's the only one who takes a stab at what it means for a work to be "great" and what the value of it might be. Ulysses may be great technically, but shouldn't greatness be more than technique? Shouldn't it also have something to do with being genuine, and, by extension, shouldn't greatness in literature share something with greatness in general? In other words, if a work is "great," but only really for its own sake, what's its use? This kind of subtlety doesn't come out in cheap phrases and half-assed witticisms. To really draw out the questions he's posing would take more time than he has here, but he's respectful enough not to push them aside. He touches on why we should even care about "great" works in the first place. Of course, he totally pulls his punches at the end, quoting Virginia Woolf instead of really leveling Joyce, but who knows? Maybe he didn't want to make his colleagues look even worse.
• "It wasn't fun for me".
• "For people who like this sort of thing, as Muriel Spark wrote, this is the sort of thing they like. I prefer Muriel Spark."
• "I didn't like them all that much and I didn't have time to finish them."
• "I believe I dislike..." (emphasis mine);
• "A book I'll reluctantly fire from my cannon."
• "I'm not suggesting we need to like [The Catcher in the Rye's] Holden in order to consider him important, I'm just baffled by reverence and affection so many readers seem to feel for this peculiar creep."
• The Francine Prose bit about Beowulf is so embarrassing that I can't even quote any of it. And her name is "prose."
• Johnathan Rosen smothers a perfectly good Twain quotation, and then goes on to say reluctantly that he recalls never being able to read The Catcher in the Rye, which reminds me: since when has any seriously respectable academic regarded The Catcher in the Rye as great? There's a reason that only teenagers take it seriously. That reason is that it's a monument of mediocrity.
• J.D. McClatchy ruins his contribution by saying, in a moment well worthy of it's subject matter, "Shakespeare seems wordy." I believe I dislike that sentence.
Compare Mendelsohn on Joyce to Lee Seigel. I'm actually totally confused by what Seigel is saying. I can't quote the whole thing here because it's too long and rambling, but it breaks down like this. First he "just can't do Finnegan's Wake." Then he calls it a masterpiece. Then he describes not reading it for a while. Then he offers an unhelpful aside about Hegel which (unfathomably) leads into a story about graduate school — still, perhaps, not reading Finnegan's Wake — which leads into a second unhelpful (and even less fathomable) aside about the subprime mortgage industry. Don't worry, it all comes back around. (No it doesn't.)
Seigel wraps up by having an "adult realization" that allows him to just let the "sublime beauties of Joyce's language and ideas" go. Presumably this is because the "mystery of everyday life" is, wait for it, "fathomless." He either put Finnegan's Wake and a bunch of other words into Babelfish, translated them into Urdu, then into Dutch and then back into English, or he genuinely doesn't give a shit about stringing two sentences together that have anything to do with each other.
Criticism like this is wildly offensive because precisely this sort of lazy, half-baked genuflection to the altar of faux-compelling ideas happens all the time on the internet. Criticism like this is speculative, utterly devoid of rigor and useless when it comes to doing its own job (however lighthearted). But it's worse in that it's disguised as something interesting, original and worthwhile, so it promotes mediocre thinking that thinks that it's enlightened thinking.
In pursuit of pageloads from idly clicking moms and office dwellers drawn by the promise of eye-popping titles, Slate is willing to add another ripple to the Malcom Gladwell effect: you read conclusions that sound fascinating and then realize that they're actually pretty obvious (except that they were written in a pretty and erudite way), and you were duped into thinking that something obvious was not obvious before the waffling, vague non-conclusions were revealed. This might all be fine, except people somehow think this fancy wordplay actually shows an original way of considering the world. Lazy intellectualization trickles all the way down (cf. The Book of Basketball).
Maybe, if these critics read more great books (instead of marginal canon work) and had some intellectual courage to say something original (instead of all this, "Oh, well, I don't know, I guess if I had to pick one..." and, "So-and-so is a bore!"), people who read their books and reviews might take their careers more seriously, pay them better and generally have a higher regard for the fine arts. The crazy, monumental irony of this whole thing is that Slate put out a culture podcast that same week lamenting the decline of the witty, funny, incisive and muscular literary review. They must have been thinking of this article.