Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Op-Ed - Ten Classics That Shouldn't Be

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – Melville wasn’t a tidy writer. Perceptive readers might have noticed that Melville first intended a character named “Bulkington” to be the book’s protagonist. After writing the character of Ahab, however, Melville found him to be so much more interesting. Rather than change what he’d already written, as that was too much work, Melville simply disposed of poor Bulkington by allowing him to be swept overboard and lost at sea. Melville also tended to overwrite, not a little, but a lot. Entire chapters are dedicated to such topics as the color white, a whale’s tail, and endless descriptions of the sea. While interesting at first, this overwriting soon leads to mind-numbing boredom on the part of most readers. More than once, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the book slipping out of my hands to the floor with a thud.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – Sure, this is “the” novel of teenage Angst, but is any character in literature more whiney than Holden Caulfield? He spends the entire book just walking around, wasting his life, with no burning needs and no overriding desires. I realize that Salinger was trying to capture the feeling of hopelessness we all experience sometime between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, but that’s still no excuse for writing a story that is no story. Other Angst-ridden characters, characters who owe their very existence to Holden, try to find some purpose in their shallow, misdirected lives, no matter how small. Think of Tom Henderson, Dennis Cooverman, and DeeDee Truitt. Holden just walks around in a daze, unable to even get laid by a prostitute, for heaven’s sake. And at one point, I thought if he mentioned calling Jane Gallagher one more time, I would have fired a gun into the air while screaming, “Just pick up a pay phone and call her, you *&^%$! Do something! Anything!” And the ending really sucks. Everything is still pretty much like it was in the beginning of the book. Too much time has passed between the carousel scene and the epilogue. What the heck was going on? Why is Holden in California? He told Phoebe he wouldn’t leave. Is this the mental institution alluded to in the beginning of the book? He's still there? Who figured out he’s insane? I just wanted to give this kid a good shake and scream, “We all have to grow up!”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This book could have been horrifying, but it asks the reader to accept too much. For starters, I can never get over what a bunch of pre-pubescent English schoolboys are doing on a plane, above what must be Polynesia, during World War II. If a person can get past that, he or she must realize that there is no way anyone at all, not even James Bond, Chuck Norris, or MacGuyver, could start a fire with a pair of glasses, and no way a bunch of little kids could hunt down a raging wild boar with some pointed sticks. Jeez.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – The prose in this book is so bad it honestly reduced me to tears when I first encountered the novel in high school. And if writing poorly isn’t bad enough, Dreiser tends to be redundant. I kept flipping through to the end, checking to see how many pages I had left and wondering if I could endure them. For those who don’t know (count yourselves lucky), the book is 828-pages (too) long. Now, even in high school I wasn’t stupid enough to read the whole thing, but I did persevere to page 350 before I threw in the towel and made do with a better-written synopsis, so I’ve had experience enough. Dreiser manages to milk his bleak and hopeless narrative for all it’s worth and ends the book in a typically (for him) anti-climactic manner. Bottom line: There really is no reason on earth why any sane person should waste his time, valuable or not, on this blight on the face of literature. Avoid this book like the plague.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse – First I need to admit that I despise Hermann Hesse’s entire oeuvre, with the possible exceptions of The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmann, and even those aren’t dear to my heart. I despise the books, in part, because proponents of the old “hippie” movement of the 1960s gravitate toward them, and I can’t stand anything to do with “hippies,” “flower children” or anything “counterculture.” It’s not that I’m satisfied with American life the way it is. I’m not. It’s that I’ve always found people who ascribe to a “counterculture” to be so idealistically phony and fake. Non-conformists are so very conformist; they just conform to a different set of “rules” than mainstream America. The problem with this book is the fact that its protagonist, Harry Haller, doesn’t want to be a member of any “counterculture” at all, despite his dissatisfaction with his life. He’s really quite bourgeois. He’s miserable peering into all those homes. Haller knows he’s the one who has it wrong, not the people tucked up safely inside. But I can well understand why Hesse’s work is so popular with the ‘60s counterculture movement. I’m sure it all goes down a lot smoother and easier with a bong.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – I hate this book, and I hate Hester Prynne even though the woman was treated unfairly. I’ve always thought this book was the reason behind the high drop out rate in American high schools. I also believe it’s the reason why kids on a rampage target the English departments of universities. You can’t just “forget” The Scarlet Letter. Once you’ve read this book, you’re a different, though not a better, person. It was this book that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I ran into bad prose. If you like the following, this might be the book for you: In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. ZZZZZzzzzz.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I mean seriously, they try to kill themselves by sledding into a tree, and then are surprised when it doesn’t work. It’s almost laughable.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway wrote fabulous stories, and The Old Man and the Sea is a fabulous book, but readers need to stop right there if they want to appreciate Hemingway. They shouldn’t, by any means, read A Farewell to Arms. Cardboard cutouts for characters, a trite and almost non-existent plot, sentimentality galore. Hemingway had a fascination with pregnant women, and he loved to kill them during childbirth. Nowhere is this more evident than in this book. Beware.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – The truth of the matter is this: Atlas Shrugged is one of the worst books ever written. It’s filled with characters more flat than the pages on which they live, who nevertheless lounge around in Art Deco mansions and spout philosophical gibberish. Atlas Shrugged, with The Fountainhead, are the only books I’ve read in which the dramatic climax consists of a 100-page monologue on some sort of philosophical/political subject. And in the midst of all this philosophy, Rand tosses in a few lurid, rape-like sex scenes worthy of Jacqueline Susann or some other romance writer whose name I’ve blessedly forgotten. She’s not even mildly entertaining in the way that Dan Brown and Dennis Lahane can be mildly entertaining. Blech! Rand is not for me.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – A lot of people love this book, but for me, it’s a contrived, pretentious piece of work. I mean every line, every word. Steinbeck never tires of pounding it into our heads that “this” is “art.” The terrible dialogue, the shallow message that is artificially “deep.” Unlike the other books, however, I don’t recommend intelligent readers stay away. I think everyone should read this book so they more fully understand how easily people not only swallow shallow tripe, but go on to proclaim its (non-existent) virtues as well.


CharmedLassie said...

I had to read The Scarlet Letter for a module and it was mind-numbing. It became a running joke afterwards that no book could put me through what that had put me through. I know what you mean about the bad prose. The characters could've been excused if the writing was anywhere near good but...well, it wasn't!

A little concerned that A Farewell to Arms is on your list. It's been sitting on my bookshelf gathering dust for quite some time and at some point I have to read it.

Gabrielle Renoir-Large said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I kind of liked THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but I can't stand Ayn Rand, either.

Kay said...

Ah yes, Hesse and the hippies. I had to smile when I read your review of STEPPENWOLF. I was a "flower child" and LOVED DEMIAN and STEPPENWOLF, still have my old copies, but cannot remember much about either book. Sadly, I have to agree that a lot of the hippie "thing" was fashion.