Martin Amis compared Cervantes’ Don Quixote to ‘an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies’, while Kathryn Schulz, book critic for New York magazine, poured scorn on The Great Gatsby, describing it as ‘aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent’.
Cult contemporary bestsellers have also drawn contempt. In last year’s Spectator Books of the Year Thomas W. Hodgkinson recommended giving a wide berth to Paulo Coelho’s chart topper: ‘The Alchemist is surely the worst book I’ve read recently. The tale of a simple shepherd boy (ah, aren’t they all?) in search of enlightenment, it’s essentially a self-help book disguised as a novel. The fact it has achieved such phenomenal worldwide sales proves nothing except that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad.’
And it’s not just famous authors and literary critics who are in the business of slaughtering literary sacred cows. A recent post here on Culture House unleashed a tide of readers’ comments that put the boot into many so-called classics. The Catcher in the Rye was roundly denounced as the adolescent whinings of a spoilt brat, and readers were equally scathing about Moby-Dick and One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I lapped up Holden Caulfield’s angsty, narcissistic outpourings, perhaps because I was a depressed, self-obsessed 16-year-old when I read them. But I was beaten into submission by Moby-Dick’s 135 chapters of impenetrable Victorian prose, which I did battle with out of some misguided sense of obligation.
A quick poll among colleagues here at The Spectator has revealed that I am not alone in being left stone-cold by a literary ‘great’. Here is a selection of the books that have defeated us:
Don’t believe the hype.