Puget Sound English Department

March 12, 2010

America’s 40 Worst (?) Books

Filed under: Literature,Publishing — ATH @ 2:29 pm
Tags: , ,

American Book Review’s current issue includes a list of America’s 40 worst books–a list sure to generate outrage among the literati. I’m not sure too many voices will rise in opposition to Regina Weinrich’s nomination of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (1945), a bizarre collaborative effort by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. And fans of Dildo Cay (Nelson Hayes, 1940) are perhaps few and far between (nominator Jonathan Eburne of Penn State calls it a “salt plantation melodrama” that is “bad in ways that surpass its title”). But nominees like Melville’s Pierre, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will probably ruffle a few feathers, as will the explicit idiosyncrasies of their nominations. (The LA Times weighs in on the list here.) This “list” is not, in fact, a list per se; instead, it’s a series of mini-essays in which authors and scholars contemplate and attempt to delineate a particular category of “badness”–from “books that somebody misguidedly thinks are good” to books with bad endings, or books that fail to live up to the success of the author’s previous work, or what Robyn Warhol-Down describes as “The Novel That Doesn’t Know” (NDK), “a work of realistic fiction that makes foolish mistakes in its representation of the material world.”

The pleasure of this particular list lies not only in its validation of one’s own literary prejudices (it’s hard to disagree with Davis Schneiderman’s snide aside about Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret), but in its whimsical approach to significant interpretive questions about literary quality, aesthetic value, and political interest, and how they interact in our discussions of what constitutes good–or bad–literary art.

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