The worst American novel ever


As the United States approaches its 221st birthday, what is the absolutely worst famous American novel, and in no more than three sentences why is it both vastly popular and truly bad?

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

Editor of the New York Times book review from 1987 to 1995 and before that, deputy book editor at the Times and book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

No wonder J.D.Salinger went into seclusion. He must have realized that he had made a hero of one of the worst twits in the history of literature. Holden Caulfield's incorrigible piety is mawkish Victorian sentiment at its most embarrassing. Compared to him, Pollyanna is a serial killer. Teachers who assign "The Catcher in the Rye" to adolescents ought to be hanged for corrupting the tastes of minors, a far greater offense than merely messing with their morals.

John Waters

Writer and director of many films, beginning with the classic "Pink Flamingos."

As a child I always hated "The Old Man and The Sea." I resented having to read about a boring man, a stupid fish and a crummy boat and secretly wished all three would sink.

I suppose regular children liked the book because of the struggle but it made me stop reading for pleasure until I was 12 years old and discovered Tennessee Williams on my own.

Carla Hayden

Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Rather than invoke the wrath of thousands of readers by choosing "The Bridges of Madison County," I'll opt for "Love Story."

Was more saccharin, adolescent, condescending drivel ever written? Nonetheless, like Waller's book, Erich Segal's apparently struck a responsive chord among the hopelessly sentimental.

Selecting "Love Story" as my candidate for the absolutely worst famous American novel means never having to say I'm sorry.

Laura Lippman

Author of "Baltimore Blues" and feature reporter at The Sun. She is a widely published critic and journalist.

"The Color Purple," by Alice Walker. On first reading, only the stoniest of hearts could resist this Pulitzer-Prize winning book. On subsequent readings, the story of Celie is mawkish and not terribly original (Letters to God? Paging Judy Blume).

But its worse crime is diverting a truly talented novelist into the full-time persona business, which has weakened her post-"Purple" work.

William K. Marimow

Managing editor of The Sun. He is a widely published critic and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.

I nominate "Chimera," John Barth's 1972 novel, as the worst famous American novel - or, at least, the worst novel by a famous American writer. When I was given the book to review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was thrilled: Barth's novels "The Floating Opera" and "End of the Road" were among my favorites.

But I found the first 200 to 300 pages of "Chimera" impenetrably dense. Slogging onward, I realized I simply could not understand the book. If most readers cannot understand a novel, then - in my opinion - it is a failure.

Terry Teachout

Music critic of Commentary. He writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He is writing a biography of H. L. Mencken.

I hardly know where to start slashing, so allow me to bend the rules and nominate Norman Mailer for a Lifetime Achievement Award. In a recent interview, Mailer called himself one of the top five novelists in America - a good-news-bad-news joke if ever I heard one.

Surely no other ostensibly major American writer has produced so many pompous, pretentious novels over so long a span of time, from the now-unreadable "The Naked and the Dead" (that one fooled a lot of people) to his latest effort, "The Gospel According to the Son," in which the author of "Advertisements for Myself" impersonates Jesus Christ, an undertaking which reminds me of the shortest concert review ever written: "Last night at Carnegie Hall, Mr. X played Beethoven. Beethoven lost."

Dorothea Straus

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species" and "Under the Canopy." She is a widely published critic.

Ernest Hemingway will be remembered for his style that shook the seemingly impregnable mode of the 19th century novel.

But when I reread "A Farewell to Arms" recently, I experienced all the scorn and disillusion that might be engendered by a meeting with an old lover out of my youth.

Michael Shelden

Author of three biographies. He is a widely published critic in national and British publications.

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" is a cartoon epic for people who think the Civil War was one long fashion show. Its gassy narrative and hilariously bad dialogue should have doomed the book to suffer the dusty obscurity that awaits most potboilers, but I suspect that its survival is largely the result of Mitchell's keen eye for Southern Belle clothing and accessories.

Even when she is pregnant, Scarlett worries about wearing a "poorly fitting dress which accentuated rather than hid her figure."

Stephen Proctor

Assistant managing editor for features at The Sun

Call me moron. I vote for "Moby-Dick" as the worst famous American novel. I've never understood why this book is on everyone's list of Great American Novels. I presume it is because no one wants to admit what every English professor knows in his heart of hearts - after that great first sentence, "Moby-Dick" is torture to read.

Marc Arkin

An associate professor at Fordham Law School, she has a Ph.D. in American religious history and a J.D. from Yale Law school. Her articles and commentaries have been widely published.

My candidate for the absolutely worst famous American novel is "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville -but I've never managed to read far enough to form a considered opinion why.

Gregory Kane

News columnist at The Sun.

It would have to be Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" - ponderous, soporific and guaranteed to drive even the most devoted book lover to a television set. If English teachers are still assigning this turkey it's no wonder young Americans are turning off to reading.

"Call me Ishmael," indeed. Call me boring.

Craig Eisendrath

A senior fellow with the Center for International Policy in Washington. He has a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University.

Most Americans secretly hate "Moby-Dick," but they are so intimidated by their English professors that they are afraid to say so.

Melville puts you on a whaling ship and bores you to death for hundreds of pages. The only thing to occupy your mind, outside of untying literary knots, is trying to fathom Melville's deep symbolism.

Laura Demanski

A doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, she is writing a dissertation on Victorian literature and culture. She previously worked for the University of Chicago Press and Simon & Schuster.

"The Fountainhead," Ayn Rand's 1943 roman a clef cum potboiler cum "objectivist" manifesto, is both truly bad and truly American: Trumping up traditional national values like independence and self-sufficiency into an unapologetic philosophy of egotism (and cramming that philosophy into the mouth of a stick figure of Frank Lloyd Wright), it manages to cast some freaky spell that - fortunately - seems to hypnotize mainly the adolescent, post-adolescent, eternally adolescent and terminally silly.

Still, with 5 million copies of "The Fountainhead" in print after more than a half-century, how many of us can honestly claim never to have succumbed to its badness (aesthetic and moral)?

Alas, I was hunched over, breaking its fat spine, at almost 20, even with foreknowledge of its reputation - a memory which, no doubt, compels me to denounce the novel so emphatically now.

Clarinda Harriss

A professor of English at Towson University. She edits and directs the New Poets Series. Her most recent collection of poems, "License Renewal for the Blind," won the 1994 American Chapbook Award.

Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead."

Heady combo of terrible writing and terrible politics! Macho men, bad women with boobs! Bodice ripping! Corporate pirates and tormented yet muscular artists! Steamy gothic prose amid Gotham City architecture! Vintage pop psychology, retro pop philosophy! The "Me" generation generations in advance! Characters and dialog like none on Earth! What's not to love?

Willis Regier

Director of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Frank Norris' "The Octopus" (1901), a slithering clone of Zola's "La Bete Humaine," has more ink than brains.

A depiction of the struggle between California agriculture and a railroad monopoly, the novel is shredded by mixed motives.

Norris wanted to show how history is made by "forces rather than men," and writes a tragedy with an impressive list of human casualties. But he weakly concludes that truth will prevail, as if truth were pristine, and as if its prevailing justifies greed, treachery and death.

Judith Schlesinger

A practicing psychologist who holds a doctorate in psychology. She is a professor at Pace University and author of "Music and Madness," about the psychological and cultural impact of music.

I'd vote for anything by Joyce Carol Oates that features one of her lemming-like heroines - all those dreamy, drifting damsels who easily surrender what little will and self-worth they have to the nearest male abuser.

Swooning in the arms of brutality is not romantic, no matter how lush the prose - but it sure sells in The Age of the Victim.

Avril Haines

Owner of Adriana's Bookstore Cafe in Fells Point.

Generally I don't finish books that I think are badly written or uninteresting and as a result have had to resort to a book I was forced to read in high school.

"The Portrait of a Lady," by Henry James, was a struggle to get through. Although it may have been about a lady, it certainly was not about a woman.

I would not want to claim that "The Portrait of a Lady" is the worst American novel ever written, but it seems an appropriate choice on July 4, since Henry James actually renounced his citizenship in the United States and swore his allegiance to the British crown!

Arthur Hirsch

Features staff writer at The Sun.

"The Last of the Mohicans" by James Fenimore Cooper. The story alone would be merely tedious, but Cooper's language brings it to another level: unbearable.

Stalwart colonial scout Hawk-eye (a.k.a. Natty Bumppo, La Longue Carabine), and others tramp endlessly through the Adirondack foothills, their travels marked by violence and occasional comic relief, thanks to such lines as: "'That such would be your answer, I well knew!' exclaimed Cora, her cheeks flushing, and her dark eyes once more sparkling with the glow of the lingering but momentary emotions of a woman."

Published originally in 1826, the novel was a hit in its day and remains Cooper's best-known book, perhaps because of the catchy title, four movie adaptations and the kind of popular enthusiasm for clunky prose that has made millionaires of Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Robert Waller.

John Muncie

Arts and Entertainment editor at The Sun.

"The Scarlet Letter" begins with this sentence: "It is a little remarkable that - though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends - an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public."

To get to the end of "The Scarlet Letter" - a book supposedly about sex, lies and busted commandments - readers must endure a great number of similar brain-pummeling sentences. Why bother?

Ray Jenkins

Editorial Page editor for the Evening Sun until 1992. Before that he spent 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.

John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" enthralled the nation because it appeared on the cusp of the Great Depression, and the migrant Okie family, the Joads, so starkly exemplified the human toll of that national calamity.

But the novel was hopelessly flawed (the film was much better) by its parade of one-dimensional characters - all good or evil, with no messy moral subtleties to grapple with.

When I first read (50 years ago) Tom Joad's "I'll-be-thar" valedictory, I almost burst into tears; when I reread it last week, I burst into laughter.

James H. Bready

Regional book reviewer at The Sun. Before that, he worked as a reporter, editorial writer and book editor on the Evening Sun.

James A. Michener turned 90 this year; he endows good-works foundations with the proceeds from his many books; he is a nice man. One does not feel good, whamming him.

In 1975, he and his wife moved to Deep Water Creek on the Shore. In 1978, out came "Chesapeake," 865 pages (1,083 in paperback) which he called "a novel." A better term would be, area studies. Once Michener finally stopped researching endless details, he must have written faster than many people read. His fictional Marylanders do not make up in height or width what they lack in depth and distinctiveness.

"Chesapeake," wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, "feels like eating your way through a boxcar of Rice Krispies with a teaspoon." For his Evening Sun review, Edgar L. Jones fashioned a crusher of a last sentence: "Others may like it."

If you live in Hawaii or Poland or Texas or the South Pacific, grimly sticking with "Chesapeake" may make you think you know the Bay. Those who live closer to it should open other, better books.

David Kusnet

Chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties" and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

Allen Drury's 1959 potboiler, "Advise and Consent," is a tendentious tract about a nominee for secretary of state who is exposed as a secret ex-communist and an unashamed advocate of appeasing the Soviet Union. Recalling Sen. Joseph McCarthy's 1952 speech in which he referred to "Alger, I mean Adlai," this novel suggests an establishment liberal politician such as Adlai Stevenson, who seems to be the model for the eloquent and elitist nominee, could actually be a Soviet agent, as Alger Hiss was presumed to be.

A good read with cardboard characters, "Advise and Consent," set the tone for scores of other political novels that really aren't novels at all, just thinly disguised attacks on political figures.

Stanley Romanstein

Director of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"The Bridges of Madison County" gets my vote as the worst famous American novel of recent vintage.

I think it to be vastly popular and truly bad because it panders to the reading public's desire for simplicity in an increasingly complex world and it feeds the mistaken notion that there is, for each person, a true "love of your life." The black and white world of Madison County is a false place in which people indulge themselves without consequence. Ugh!

Victoria Brownworth

A contributing editor to LBR and Curve magazine. She writes for Ms., the Nation, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other national publications. Her most recent book is "Out for More Blood: Tales of Malice and Retaliation By Women."

The absolute worst popular American novel has to be Robert James Waller's vacuous and smarmy tale, "The Bridges of Madison County."

This wretched bestseller ranks as the most manipulative novel since Erich Segal's "Love Story," a runner-up in this category. Appealing to the basest emotions in everyone, the book promotes a cloying, sentimental faux-philosophy that true romance is predicated on rampant irresponsibility and "real" love means never having to say you're sorry. (In what self-absorbed ++ universe?)

"The Bridges of Madison County" reduces heterosexual love to a cartoon caveman culture in which real men plunder the lowlands with manly gusto and real women heave bosomy sighs while demanding to be struck harder with the club of the mysterious stranger.

This, by the way, was the novel that prompted Oprah to launch her TV book club, proving even smart folks like bad books - at least in America.

Ben Neihart

Baltimore-based author of "Hey Joe" and many short stories. His work was recently included in an anthology of love stories published in the New Yorker. He is at work on a second novel.

No contest: "Border Music" by Robert James Waller is so thoroughly, frighteningly bad, it's unforgettable.

Its fake down-home dialogue, cutesy nicknames ("Dancin' Lady" my favorite) and ignorant anti-evocations of great American cities such as New Orleans are classics of trash books, and demand to be read aloud.

Worst of all is an erotic reverie in which a woman is desired because "she would taste and smell of Africa and chains and long marches to misery ships that sailed for de land of cotton..."

Jeff Danziger

A syndicated cartoonist. He has written one novel, "Rising Like ,, the Tucson," and is a widely published critic.

My candidate is "Angela's Ashes," which combines insufferable stage Irish with insufferable present tense in a memoir. Mr. McCourt is cute in his way, but his book is a performance and a cover, not a true remembrance.

If that weren't enough, my mother, who despises the Irish, being one herself, loved every word of it.

Joan Mellen

Author of 13 books, including a novel, "Natural Tendencies," three biographies and several works of criticism. She teaches creative writing at Temple University.

"The Crossing" by Cormac McCarthy has garnered quite a following, but it's all witch-doctorism and mumbo jumbo.

Laconic, latter-day cowboys drift in search of a story that never happens. The "profound" truth at the heart of this book is that death is the meaning of life, comfort perhaps to those without recourse to any set of convictions and hence ready to grasp at McCarthy's New Age straw.

Pity the Generation X-ers lapping up this pseudo-anthropology and mistaking hocus pocus for meaning!

! Pub Date: 6/29/97

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