Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on “great books” that aren’t all that great

From Slate:

Bannedbooks_catcherrye Tom Perrotta, author most recently of The Leftovers

On a recent episode of South Park, the kids got all excited about reading The Catcher in the Rye, the supposedly scandalous novel that's been offending teachers and parents for generations. They were, of course, horribly disappointed: As Kyle says, it's “just some whiny annoying teenager talking about how lame he is.” Is it more than that? Lots of people, including some writers I revere, seem to think so. But I've never been able to see what they're seeing, nor can I buy into the myth that Holden is some sort of representative American teenager. He's a self-pitying prep school esthete obsessed with his little sister, the kind of boy who takes it upon himself to erase obscene graffiti from bathroom walls. And that fantasy about catching children in a field of rye? “Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around—nobody big, I mean—except me.” What's that all about? I'm not suggesting we need to like Holden in order to consider him important, I'm just baffled by the reverence and affection so many readers seem to feel for this peculiar creep.

Ulys Daniel Mendelsohn, frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books; his books include How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, a collection of his essays and reviews

Honestly I've never been persuaded by Ulysses. To my mind, Joyce's best and most genuine work is the wonderful Dubliners; everything afterwards smacks of striving to write a “great” work, rather than simply striving to write—it's all too voulu. Although there are, of course, beautiful and breathtakingly authentic things in the novel (who could not love that tang of urine in the breakfast kidneys?), what spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all. Reading the book, for me, is never a rich and wonderful journey, filled with marvels and (no matter how many times you may read a book) surprises—the experience I want from a large and important novel; it's more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats. Which, of course, makes them not feel very much like treats at all.

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