Overrated novels

Here is one nomination for the most overrated novel of the 20th century.

I wonder about Gide and Sartre as well.  J.D. Salinger is too easy a target, as is John Barth.  How about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird?  I keep on thinking there is an obvious and juicy British nomination (just look up how the Penguin Guide to Classical Music treats Elgar recordings), but I can’t settle on a single glaring name which stands above all others.

For the most overrated major author, I’ll pick Carlos Fuentes.  I love Mexico (and I’ve tried reading his works in Spanish), but I find he deadens the place rather than bringing it to life.  Had he not been around for the fashionably left-wing, anti-imperialist 1960s, he’d just be another guy with a pen.

The most overrated good book is Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, which although very good is far from his best work.

What are your picks?


Gravity's Rainbow -- It's as if Pynchon read Slaughterhouse Five and decided to make it as long, boring,
and confusing as possible. I wouldn't try to read this again without a Ritalin prescription to keep me
focused, and even with that I'm not sure I could do it.

Portnoy's Complaint

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Harry Potter

it's no wonder people can't appreciate joyce and pynchon when this stuff is so popular.

Glenn maybe your just not into poo jokes. :) I guess I never grew up so I love Don Quixote.

Nabokov considered Don Quixote overrated, until he actually read the book and wrote a highly interesting meditation on it. I suggest you read Don Quixote first, then if you're curious, you may like to read Nabokov's essays on it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated?! This was the only novels we had to read in high school that students actually liked.

If you don't like Catch-22, avoid Heller's Something Happened like a radioactive plague.

I'm noticing a trend here and this is something I've been thinking about for a while. A lot of post-war novels don't seem to hold up very well. Heller, Pynchon, Salinger and even Vonnegut seem far less accessible today than 19th century authors like Dickens, Austen and Eliot.

Oh and Tyler how about a post on underrated novels???

Catch 22 is absolutely awful.

Mrs. Dalloway

Will Perkins, why not throw in all of Virginia Woolfe? Good pick.

It would be nice to see a post on underrated novels, as well.

The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway requires a high threshold for nonsense.

Why do Joyce zealots often rely on the "You're stupid" defense of aesthetic value?

John Goes claims of Ulysses, "It is a bit dense and one may need time to understand his style."

The preferences of an intellegent few are of no interest to me, unless that intellegence correlates with something else like the preference for beauty or wisdom. Remember, crosswords and Sudoku are complicated, dense and require time. Whole systems of medieval thought are dense and require time. And indeed the people who loved these useless frameworks were probably intelligent.

I don't understand how many people hold "Brave New World" in higher regards than "1984." Orwell's work is more entertaining and more powerful than Huxley's. This is no knock on Huxley though.

Enduring Love, Ian McEwan.
Underworld, Don Delillo.
Independence Day, Richard Ford.

After the whole Oprah debacle, I read The Corrections just to see what all the hubbub was about. It very much reads like someone that envisions himself to be the next Roth, without any of the skill.

(1) Mistrust anyone who says that the problem with Catch-22 is that it should have read more like an Ayn Rand book.

(2) Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a masterpiece; mistrust anyone who says otherwise.

(3) Concur w/ TC about Portrait of a Lady -- after reading James's late works, one finds it almost tedious.

(4) People who don't actually care for literature, but just want stories they can read, should recognize that their opinions on Pynchon, Joyce, etc., are dubious.

(5) Jult, if you haven't read Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, please try it. The quintessential Faulkner work.

Patrick Suskind: Perfume

Hemingway. Short choppy sentences = lack of writing ability, not superior writing ability.

Emily Dickinson, though a poet and not an author. She lived in an attic and never came out. I have long held that her "amazing/insightful/what-have-you" use of dashes was simply an utter lack of understanding of proper punctuation.

White Noise by Don Delillo

Heart of Darkness.

Most over rated "Atlas Shrugged". I enjoyed parts but found most of it tedious.

Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

1984 by George Orwell - A brilliant satire and intellectual examination of totalitarianism- a complete failure as a story.

And I'll stick up for To Kill a Mockingbird- one of my favourites.

I've been embarking on reading great novels of the past lately. Some of my thoughts:
Wuthering Heights was almost unreadable for me, but Pride and Prejudice was highly enjoyable.
Brave New World was horrible, and is extremely dated.
The Old Man and the Sea wasn’t bad, but I’d have to disagree that it’s one of the best novels ever.
Charles Dickens might be the best novelist of all time.
Modern writers are all lightweights compared to those of the past.

If the books were bad, why would people still buy them?

Because they have been overrated.

I thought Catch-22 was overlong; it bogged down in the second half. The first chapters are nearly perfect though.

Most of the books people have nominated in this thread as "most overrated" (at least as far as I've read them, and I've read most of the ones mentioned so far) don't deserve the honor.

The "Reader's List" at Modern Library is a joke: three books by L. Ron Hubbard in the top ten and four by Ayn Rand? Puhleeze.

I personally would put The Great Gatsby at the top of my "Board's List," if I had a board. Most of the Board's top choices are reasonably sensible, if a bit safe; it's when you get further down that the real clunkers surface (e.g., Catcher in the Rye at #64).

However, near the top of the list you see Brave New World and The Grapes of Wrath. These are so widely assigned to high school kids in America and so stunningly awful and dated that I'd nominate them for the "Most Overrated" prize.

Faulkner and Joyce are overrated in exactly the same way, their shorter stories are excellent, but their later novels make me want to pluck my eyes out.

i love the books proposed as overrated that don't really even merit ratings (there's no risk dan brown or perfume gets onto any 100 best lists).

and overrated books seems a dime a dozen -- i can't think of much that holds up, things are critically well received for how they reflect on their times. once that time's past, they don't resonate very well. e.g., the rabbit books? no, thx. same with books from just a couple years past. the corrections? ummmm, no. absurdistan? please. the adventures of K&K? the last 1/4 is embarassing. etc.

even great books are overrated. checking the top 100 list, is lolita really the 4th best book in english? do people still find much of value in roth? i'claudius is great, but seems a little lite to be so highly regarded. the magus? a little hokey.

Anderson, the sad thing is that making Catch-22 more like an Ayn Rand novel would be an improvement.

Anything by Joyce qualifies. Technical prowess is not a sufficient condition for a great or even good novel.

"White Noise" by Don DeLillo. All of Pynchon. I tried, I tried, I really tried to understand what profound truths about American and the world that the authors were imparting and found zippo.

I loved reading "The Corrections" by David Franzen but never got why it was billed as an informed comedy/satire about our times instead of a great yarn about a screwed-up family.

Harold Bloom has a scathing takedown of the "Harry Potter" books that's easily found online.

Atlas is bad, but Ayn Rand is underrated as a writer. We the Living is especially good, and The Fountainhead is at least no worse than The Grapes of Wrath. I will say that Ayn Rand is underrated partly because of her own behavior and that of her followers, who still try to push Atlas as her best work, when it's clearly her weakest by far.

In addition, Rand's insights about human nature and the tendency of people to just mouth whatever they hear and Rand's more strident statements about the virtues of individualism tend to go underappreciated.

As I've read up on prediction markets and group decisionmaking, it becomes pretty clear that groups make good decisions when individuals have some incentive to form accurate beliefs and when individuals report their own actual beliefs. As the old story in The Wisdom of Crowds goes, when you take the averages of many people's beliefs about the number of jelly beans in a jar, you get an accurate number. That occurs because people are doing their best to report their own honest belief.

When people respond to social pressure and do not truthfully report their beliefs, then group decisionmaking processes can become quite awful.

On the jelly bean example, imagine how bad an answer you might get if you put people in a room and asked them sequentially. Imagine how much worse the answer would become if there was a person in the room who wanted the answer to come out a certain way (especially if that person were "higher" in some group hierarchy) and started using cues of social approval and disapproval to elicit their favored answers.

People (often those people are called "attorneys") often use such manipulation to distort group decisionmaking processes in order to achieve a desired end.

Thus rabid individualism (in terms of forming accurate beliefs and then reporting them without regard to social pressure) is the highest social good, because it makes more group decisionmaking processes accurate and less manipulable.

This is also why prediction markets are so grand, because they incentivize individuals to be informed and truthfully report their beliefs.

But when you have nonmarket decision settings, Randian individualism is a moral imperative (at least to the extent you morally value good decisionmaking by the group).


That only holds if all complexity is equal, and hence equally useless. Some complexities are genuinely innovative and clever, and therefore enjoyable for those concerned with the technical aspects of narrative. Some stories are complex where complexity adds little: perhaps quality of the story must merit the complexity in these cases. Some stories offer complexity that interests readers on its own. It would be more accurate for you to say you found the complexity of Joyce's works tedious, instead of saying that his complexity was generally worthless, which it is not.

Sometimes problem solving is enjoyable in itself.

Keith, you should pick up Caplan's book. It disproves everything you just said with evidence garnered in the real world. You should also look up Mancur Olson's work on collective action problems, which offers a more theoretical (and accurate) rebuttal of your argument that rabid individualism always functions as a social good (and it would have to universally function that well in order to become a moral imperative). Rand just isn't compelling any more, although her prose captivates on the first listen (at least, it did to me).

"Keith, you should pick up Caplan's book. It disproves everything you just said with evidence garnered in the real world."

Actually, that sentence just shows you don't understand Caplan's book, Olsen, or my argument. And my argument is based in the real world. The average of many guesses of jelly beans in a jar is far more accurate than individual guesses.

I think you need to read my post more carefully.

Rand is actually very compelling where she discusses the cognitive processes by which people fail to try to form accuare beliefs and/or fail to report their actual beliefs. In The Fountainhead, I think she does a pitch perfect job outlining how people's need for status and approval often leads them to deviate from forming and reporting their actual beliefs.

I think there are some interesting reasons why she doesn't get her deserved due. At least some of these reasons have to do with her own behavior and that of her more rabid followers.

But it's funny how the things I've seen in the world have actually increased my estimation of Rand over the last few years. The degree to which people instinctively lie or omit truth in order to avoid disapproval is overwhelming and is likely the biggest cause of institutional failure.

I know lots of people who are mad about The Brothers Karamazov, but I was incredibly disappointed when I read it. All that hype... and I didn't enjoy a single page of it.

"I am far to ignorant to knock it, but any Joyce fnas out there care to defend Finnegan's Wake? Does that book make any sense at all?"

Flip daddy punch bowl rulemaking.

I agree with the above posters: One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The most painful novels (maybe not most overrated) are the ones that offer just enough promise to keep you reading, even though they are awful. I nominate two road trip books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and On the Road.

finnegans wake is all that, you just have to realize there's no literal meaning to decode, it's to be read for effect, humor, etc. that is, put down the notes and just read it, preferably somewhere you have no other options (i read it on a hiking trip), and read it aloud, even if only in your head, because there are tons of puns you won't catch otherwise.

as for those others trying to take down joyce, you can say joyce isn't to your taste, but it's hard to argue with the consensus. i grant it's somewhat stupid to read something you won't necessarily get the first or second time, but for those so inclined, ulysses is all that too. put another way, objections to complexity are no different from objection to length. yes, great russian novels tend to be way long. but that doesn't mean they're not great, even if you don't have time for them. similarly, do you really question whether shakespeare is great just because the language is kinda tricky if you're not that familiar with it? no, that'd be idiotic.

(as for life of pi, total disappointment in the end, --SPOILER -- i can't stand "and then i woke up" resolutions to anything.)

I loved reading "The Corrections" by David Franzen but never got why it was billed as an informed comedy/satire about our times instead of a great yarn about a screwed-up family.

The author's name is Jonathan Franzen.

The family portrayed is beset by ordinary internal frictions and is in fact more orderly and its members more able than is the case with most families in this country today.

The author's attempt to situate the familial drama within a matrix composed of narratives about markets, technology, politics, and culture has its successes and failures.

Portrait of a Lady

I thought that Atlas Shrugged was badly in need of an editor. The Fountainhead was much better.

I thought Catch-22 was hilarious, and the Harry Potter series was/is excellent (consider the audience!!)

No offense, but a lot of you sound like the old drunk sods at the local watering hole who constantly belch "they don't make rock like they used to".

Overrated: Dave Eggers.

Underrated: Salinger.

Should never be rated: Joyce. The premier literature of do-nothing intellectuals.

Wow. I'm certainly at odds with this group on these matters. I find Joyce, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky nearly unreadable and therefore over rated (though, of course, I battled my way through these when I was young and pretentious... maybe I would enjoy them more today?).

On the other hand, quite a few of my top ten favorites are derided here as over rated, including To Kill a Mockingbird, One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1984 and Catcher in the Rye. OK, nix top ten... those 4 are in my top 5. Actually, they are my top 4, because I am having trouble coming up with a fifth to fit in with those. Maybe For Whom the Bells Toll, and Hemingway is also seen here as overrated. But in my view that book is not in a league with the other four.

Over rated... pthooey. I feel serious pity for those that cannot enjoy One Hundred Years of Solitude... they are missing out on one of life's great pleasures.

Another vote for 100 years of solitude, absolutely unreadable.

I think Joyce is extremely overated too, but parts of Ulysses are good.

Does it have to be a novel? Cause I'd nominate Collapse or Guns, Germs & Steel. Diamond likes to tell us his thesis in the first 20 pages and then back that up in such repetitive boringness that you can't read past page 100. But because he is rated so highly everyone feels that tinge of guilt for not finishing such a great book.

I like Atlas Shrugged in the same way I like silly Sci-Fi books and alternate histories. At the end of the day that's what it is, right? Just an overlong preachy beach novel. Hardly something to build your life on. And does anyone ever read that whole speech John has over the radio? Everyone I talked to reads about five pages and then flips through the next 50 to get back to the plot.

What I never liked about Catch-22 was what was Heller's solution to the Nazis then? Yes, the war was evil and awful but Heller seems to be saying we should of sat that one out because it is so bad. Anyone ever read the sequel Closing Time? Pretty rough...

'Cien años de soledad', Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Since nearly every other "greatest novelist of the 20th century" has been named in this
discussion, does nobody want to nominate either Proust or Mann? Hey, I've forgotten so much
of time past, I don't even remember what it is that I forgot...

The Great Gatsby=waaaaay overrated. I even read it again last year just to see if I missed something back in high school.


The Great Gatsby=waaaaay overrated. I even read it again last year just to see if I missed something back in high school.


I will nominate "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Wide Sargasso Sea". Both appeared in the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

Barkley: On Mann, Dr. Faustus is under-rated. But my own favorite Mann is *Buddenbrooks*. As for Proust, *In Search of Lost Time* is the most wonderful thing I have ever read. Packing for the proverbial desert island, that's the first thing that goes in - well, after the Wealth of Nations of course! (-;

Overrated old school: John Dos Passos
Overrated new school: Dave Eggers
Underrated old school: John Fante
Underrated new school: None. All of contemporary literature is overrated.

Eggers and Rand: Overrated. Potter: not literature.

But Steinbeck? Joyce? Heller? They may be widely taught and widely praised - but that's because they're damn good at writing. Lets not forget that novels become famous for a reason - and that cliches don't start out as cliches.

One Hundred Years of Solitude.

A completely weak novel that was just a one shot stream of consciousness freestyle mess. Maybe you could say that he was the first of a very, very long line of so called 'writers' with ethnic names who the literary world simply lay down for due to pc sensibilities. Sherman Alexie, Junot Diaz, Chang Rae Lee, Amy Tan etc. Just a bunch of ethnic memoirists that no one has the nerve to criticize for fear of being called racist. I nominate the flood of ethnic,cultural assimilation memoirists as a whole as the most overrated novel in recent times. They're not even writers and everyone falls at their feet when they trot out their teenage diaries and jazz them up a little with a thesaurus. sickening.

Overrated novel? How about Jack Kerouac's ON THE ROAD? What exactly is the point of that novel?

To late to add an overrated novel? How about an author?
I wouldn't normally mention his name but I think I am allowed to state Robert Ludlum as being the most overrated author. I wouldn't normally call him an author but since Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' has been mentioned...

To late to add an overrated novel? How about an author?
I wouldn't normally mention his name but I think I am allowed to state Robert Ludlum as being the most overrated author. I wouldn't normally call him an author but since Dan Brown's 'The Da Vinci Code' has been mentioned...

How about "The Good Earth" by that "Nobel laureate" Pearl S Buck

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