Just Because It’s Popular Doesn’t Mean It’s Good: Overrated “Literature”

Believe it or not, I’m not actually all that picky about what I read. I read a lot, and much of what I read is total garbage. And I love it. Romance novels, bad science fiction, hell, bad science fiction romance novels – I’ll read just about anything. There are a number of books out there, though, that receive critical or popular acclaim, and I just don’t get it.


1. Pride and Prejudice: The recent resurgence in nostalgia and love for all things Jane Austen just perplexes me. Her stuff bores me to tears. Her characters are one-dimensional, and worse than that, they’re fucking boring. Elizabeth Bennet isn’t interesting, she isn’t complex, and her interactions with everyone are stilted and unnatural.

2. A Tale of Two Cities: I have nothing against Dickens. I just don’t get why this is so often held up as his best work. Honestly, Bleak House or even Great Expectations are so much more interesting to read. A Tale of Two Cities is both simple and mediocre, something that Dickens at his best should never be.

3. Catcher in the Rye: Everyone else, ever, has already covered why this book sucks. The annoying anti-hero protagonist. The godawful fucking prose. The total lack of plot. Holden Caulfield is annoying, obnoxious, and whiny, and yet somehow, I don’t relate to him at all. Way to go, Salinger.

4. Jane Eyre: I don’t hate the Brontës on principle. It’s actually pretty fashionable to be anti-Brontë. Jane Eyre, in particular, bothers me because while I can put aside viewing “classic” literature through a modern feminist and classist view, I find that even in its proper historical context, it’s still obnoxiously simple and irritating. I don’t object to Victorian lit completely, but so much of it is just so tedious.

5. Moby Dick: OH MY GOD MELVILLE YOU ARE SO FUCKING BORING PLEASE JUST SHUT UP ALREADY. Too many words to describe a whole lot of nothing happening.

Contemporary (or contemporary-ish)

1. Atlas Shrugged: Listen up, Randians: feel free to be self-absorbed centers of your own fucking universes, but just be honest about it. Don’t pretty it up as “objectivism.” Just call it what it is: Mommy’s Special Little Snowflake Syndrome. No one matters but you. Fine. Great. Oh, but what’s that? You have this absurdly long, overblown piece of total shit novel, trying desperately to be “allegory” and falling somewhere around “cow vomit,” and you’ve declared it your bible? Awesome. Do me a favor and carry it around with you everywhere, so literate, intelligent people know to stay at least fifty feet from you at all times, or else risk losing IQ points and the ability to think critically just from standing too close to you.

2. Eat, Pray, Love: Seriously, this self-congratulatory pile of shit is three hundred pages of the author getting off on what a fucking amazing person she is with her amazing journey and all the amazing things she brought to those funny foreign people. Here’s a clue: it’s easy to have an amazing trip around the world when you’re living off an advance for the very book you’re writing describing your amazing trip around the world. It’s like a circle jerk of authorial arrogance. Plus, Gilbert’s prose is so self-consciously “casual” and “spiritual” that it makes me want to jam a fucking fork in my eye.

3. The DaVinci Code: It’s crap. I feel like I shouldn’t even have to waste any more words on this. It’s total and complete crap, and people actually take it seriously, which is both terrifying and unsurprising.

4. The Secret: Speaking of people taking things seriously. I get that people want to believe in this. I understand the concept of the power of positive thinking, but this is just too far. The power of positive thinking in and of itself is not dangerous or damaging, but the level to which The Secret takes it is just scary. It’s not a simple positive concept, it’s a marketing juggernaut that has millions of people believing that they can cure their cancer and make a million dollars just by “putting it out into the universe.” That’s kind of counterintuitive and frankly, a little dangerous. I should note that “self-help” is not “literature,” but I’ve been so inundated with fawning love for this book that I felt it necessary to include it.

5. Twilight: I went back and forth on even including this. Mostly because no one but moronic tweens and their creepy horny-for-vampire moms would ever consider this steaming pile of complete excrement “literature.” The trouble is, this shit’s pervasive. It’s everywhere. And leaving aside the thinly-veiled Mormon allegory, the rampant misogyny, the glorification of stalking and abuse, and every other disturbing theme, besides all that, it’s just a crappy book. (I’m assuming they all are, but I wanted to slit my wrists after the first one, so that’s the only one I can definitively insult.) Stephenie Meyer needs a goddamned thesaurus. HOW ABOUT NEVER USING THE WORDS “ADONIS” OR “COLD” OR “STATUE” AGAIN, YOU HACK? Her protagonist is a boring empty shell without a personality, just perfect for all those barely-literate little girls to project themselves onto. And, yes, I get that vampires aren’t real, but there’s a pretty well-established set of rules in common vampire lore. Most notably: THEY DON’T SPARKLE IN SUNLIGHT. THEY BURST INTO FUCKING FLAMES. Good supernatural/paranormal YA fiction exists; in fact, there’s a lot of it out there. Why couldn’t any of the good ones have reached that level of insane popularity?

Sorry. I just really hate Twilight, from a literary standpoint, and from a “why does this exist?” standpoint. How about you, readers? What books do you find totally overrated? Anything that everyone else seems to love that you just can’t get into?

(A version of this post originally appeared at Nice Girls Don’t Swear)

83 replies on “Just Because It’s Popular Doesn’t Mean It’s Good: Overrated “Literature””

Perhaps because I come from the background of Awkward English “Err?” that so much of Jane Austen’s social satire depends on, I find parts of her work, especially in Pride and Prejudice, to read almost like sit-com scripts. I can just see them chewing the insides of their cheeks, trying not to look too darty-eyed while they figure out how to function. I love the one scene in P&P where Darcy walks in, basically does a lap around the room, and then RUNS THE HELL AWAY.

I notice most of your classics list– Austen, Brontes, Melville, Dickens– is either Romantic or Victorian, so it could be that that type of literature doesn’t speak to you.

I personally hate most of the early novels I’ve read. Journal of the Plague Year, for example, makes me incredibly bored just to think about. Pilgrim’s Progress is just…it’s… (observe me chewing on the inside of my cheek here, failing to function) In other news, I’m totally with you on Ayn Rand and A Tale of two Cities, although the latter does have evil knitting, which earns it a few bonus points back.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I had to drag myself through that with a pickaxe and spent so much energy just reading the next word that I was too mentally exhausted to digest any of it.

Stephen King’s horror/thriller’s. I find him so formulaic and predictable I really do not understand how he has gotten SO big. If I wanted to experience the same thing over and over with minor changes to setting and character, I would watch Nick Jr. with my toddler.

Zane…*eyeroll* I love a good romance novel, and I love a good urban novel…but if she uses the words “off the chain” or “da bomb” one…more…time…she just beats you over the head with the friggin colloquilaisms…and it sucks because, those are the only books that some of my friends will read…but the writing is just awful! Sure the saucy bits are extra saucy, but for what? A formulaic ass plot that starts with “I am a successful black woman” to, “all I needed was some random sex to complete my life, hooray!” just…no….

I am completely loving reading the comments here. Austenians, I hope you can someday forgive me.

One of the cool things about writing a piece like this is that, if nothing else, it proves that our readers love books, and feel passionate enough about them to defend them. I also really enjoy reading the perspectives of people who are more educated or better read than I am, or who have had more intensive interactions with some of these texts than I have.

The “contemporary” list was a bit of low-hanging fruit. I was really just fascinated (and perplexed) by the popularity of these novels. Most of them have little or no critical acclaim, for certain, but the adoration that such huge numbers of people seem to have for them made them stand out as texts that I wanted to take a closer look at.

Also, I’m a copyeditor. My writing isn’t that great (not fishing for compliments; that’s pretty much a direct quote from EVERY PROFESSOR I EVER HAD EVER and I don’t disagree), and I tend toward the rant-y side of things if left to my own devices, so I appreciate that you guys mostly took it easy on the quality of my writing and dove right into the meat of the piece. And that you so fiercely defended your favorite books and so skillfully tore down the many more that deserve it. (Anti-On the Road people, I feel you. Although I do love The Great Gatsby. What can I say? Everyone has faults.)

I kinda clenched to see Pride and Prejudice mentioned in the same breath as Twilight, cause that’s just not fair.

To be honest, two of the books mentioned in this article are ones I’d consider favorites, and a couple of the contemporary ones, while not incredible and amazing, are in my opinion, good. So yeah, I bristled a little.

I have a hard time hating books in general, though. I’d agree with you that the Twilight books are horrid. I’ve tried to read the first two and I couldn’t get through them because they were so twee and simply written. That said, I’m just glad that Meyer is writing books that teenagers are reading. Same goes for J.K. Rowling or any other YA author. I just like to see people read.

I think books can be really dividing when you start talking about favorites. I’ve gotten into arguments with folks over things I think are great (The Great Gatsby) vs things THEY think are great (The Fountainhead), but I try to remember it’s just like music or art or anything else: different things speak to different people.

I’m going to get crucified for this one, but – The Hunger Games. It’s entertaining, but nowhere near the “GREATEST THING EVARRRRRR” as most LadyBlog commenters/ YA readers would have you believe. To me, it’s mostly predictable fluff with sentimentality and a small smattering of grittiness thrown in, even though I do like Katniss.

Most of the books cited on the list above, apart from the “classic” ones are really low-hanging fruit, which is why I’m more interested in the criticisms of books regarded as widely critically acclaimed and well-loved.

Wow…I have to say, I’ve never heard “fluff” and “sentimentality” as criticisms of the Hunger Games, and I’ve always thought the books had a LOT of grittiness (especially given that it is, nominally, YA literature.) I’d be curious to know where you get that from?

I’ll admit, I LOVE those books, but I have heard criticism of them that makes sense, even if it hasn’t struck home with me. But fluff and sentimentality are definitely new ones for me, so I actually really do want to know where you get that from, and I’m really not picking a fight. I read the first two books on vacation, and actually had to take breaks/slow down reading the second one because it was depressing me so much, so…

I’m glad you like Katniss though, she kicks ass. She was my pick for Middlemarch Madness, I almost cried when she was eliminated.

They’re gritty for YA literature, definitely. I just don’t think they’re great, and I felt a bit let down because I really WANTED to love these books, not end up scratching my head thinking “what’s the big deal?”.

I’m actually quite fond of dystopian YA literature (Malorie Blackman is one of my favourite authors) – and maybe fluff isn’t quite the right word to use here, but I did think the first book laid on the sentimentality a bit thick (it’s effective with Rue and Prim, not so much with Peeta – the whole ‘boy with the bread’ anecdote and his general niceness left me fairly cold, when the boy finally showed some bite it was because he was brainwashed). And the love triangle thankfully didn’t take up too much space, but the resolutions to everything just felt a little pat and lazy- Collins writes good suspense, not so much the wrapping-up of loose ends (very, very effective for the end of Catching Fire, a bit slapdash in Mockingjay).

I realise this is an unpopular opinion, but it’s one that I came to hold and express with great reluctance (don’t worry, I don’t think you’re picking a fight either). I didn’t really see Katniss going all “happy endings” after an experience like the Games like many people complain about, but my feelings about the series are still rather underwhelmed despite my desire to like them.

I agree with you. I really enjoyed the first book, I thought it was very well paced and did a great job of showing us the story, as well as building Katniss as a Big Damn Hero. I think the second two books pale dramatically in comparison, but my criticism is mostly with how Katniss goes from being a class A badass to a cypher who spends a remarkable amount of time worrying about which boy she likes while the world is ending around her. She goes through hell, several times over, and it doesn’t make the slightest change in her character until the very end, when she has babies and a husband. Things happen to Katniss and she reacts, she never initiates action on her own, which makes her a crappy protagonist.

I liked the story, I liked how Collins used some old sci-fi/dystopian themes without ripping off older works and I liked the supporting characters, most of whom were well developed. By the time Katniss had her 20th inner monologue on why she couldn’t love Peeta, however, I was kind of bored with her. YOU CAN SHOOT EXPLODING ARROWS AND LIVE IN A TREE, KATNISS. You deserve better than a recycled love story.

Huh. It always felt to me like people talking about the books made the love triangle out to be way bigger than it actually was. I felt like it was kind of a sidenote in the books – although both men involved were major characters, I felt like they were more important as characters/leaders/friends/etc. than as love interest, so I never felt like the romance parts were such a big deal.

I do feel like one important thing to note is that while Katniss ends up with a husband and babies, I found the end of the books to be mostly sad (although maybe a little hopeful?) As in, I didn’t find the husband/babies end to be a happy ending, and I don’t think it was intended to be. I’m not sure what that actually means in terms of interpretations of the books or Katniss as a character, but I do think it’s important. I clearly need to think this over more.

I think I just convinced myself to re-read the series. When I have the emotional energy, which I’m not sure I do yet.

When I read the ending, it was sort of a realization – something I hadn’t thought of. Where does one go after surviving/suffering through such a life? They were used, beaten, worn out. Living quietly as a family in their own world seemed like the right fit. I think that once Katniss volunteered to be a Tribute, her life was never hers again and it never would be. So, those that controlled her life finally put her in a pasture where things were at least familiar before that day.

But yeah, the end was heart breaking. And I totally cried.

I wouldn’t put it with the literature that one associates with Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald but I would put it near To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn. Literature that one must read before graduating high school. (must as in OMG, you must – not Required like OMG Ethan Frome) See also – Harry Potter.

Oh, and that reminds me of one more overrated book. Tuck Everlasting. Gah.

Funnily enough, I don’t care for Hemingway, Faulkner, or Fitzgerald. LOVED To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter though.

And I cried my EYES out at the end of Mockingjay. And after I cried my eyes out while cuddling my favorite stuffed animal, I called my mommy – who is not only my mommy but had also already read the books. I am 25. Whatever issues the books may have, there are VERY few books that have dragged that strong of a response out of me.

I’m on Team Katniss all along, and frankly I agree that the love triangle was unnecessary, it’s not even as if there was any real question about how it’d end up. For her sake, I wished she’d had a less sad time of it, but for the story’s sake I guess it works to torture her. It still sucks, since she and a couple of the supporting characters were what drove me on to finish Catching Fire and proceed through Mockingjay.

Re: Collins’s similarities to other work, it’s astonishing how her arrangement of tropes turned out so very similar to Battle Royale, what with the dictatorial government, reality-TV element, kids going into an arena with survival kit to kill each other after a lottery picks them out, etc. They’re still different enough to be interesting in their own right, though.

I weep to see you placing Jane Eyre in the same category as the racist, sexist and generally irritating Twilight books. The Horror!

Jane Eyre is a feminist book. It’s all about a woman struggling against the confines of the Victorian world, and triumphing in the only way she could at the time (by unleashing the madwoman in the attic on her beloved). I’ve read it several times–the first on my own and then 87 times for various classes (woo, English major) and always find something new in there, depending on where I’m at in my life. I think it’s wonderfully dark and dreary, and it is always satisfying to me, to read. I always picture as I’m reading seeing this world through a rain-streaked windowpane. But that’s just me.

I agree that P&P might not be so deep. But Austen’s a master at the back-and-forth of dialogue, which is incredibly difficult to make both amusing and sensical.

Moby Dick is awesome. Full stop. Yes, there’s lots of whale nonsense in there. But if you can read past that, the prose is gorgeous, elegant, and the tale itself–the plot–offers desperation, hope–an entire commentary on the human condition. What’s not to like?

Maybe I just like moody books.

Also may I add a nomination for the Most Overrated Book of All Time?
On the Road. It’s too impossibly lame to describe.

OK I’m done now.

total agree on all three books. I love Jane Eyre. I think people often miss what a weirdo she is (in a good way!) and how awesomely queer her relationship with Rochester is- it’s very BDSM and it goes both ways in a playful way- Rochester is very feminine in parts of the novel in strange ways. Jane’s internal monologue on women’s need for physical exercise is fantastic- yes, mad creole woman in the attic is racist and sexist.

Moby Dick- awesome! Amazing queer novel/love story. So funny! So Snarky! Really scathing anti-capitalist, anti-colonial critics. I suggest downloading it on librivox if the prose is too much for you- the reader of the addition really brings Ishmael to life.

On the Road is hipsterboy poop. Which is a shame, because I do like the other beats. Howl, anyone? AWESOME! McCarthy’s “The Road” is my other nomination for crappy man-fantasy. Why in every post-apocalyptic novel must women be sexyslaves ala Mad Max? I just don’t buy that ALL women would by human nature be so helpless and trapped.

I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments as well. Books are incredibly subjective; I guess that is why some of the most intense arguments I have ever been privy to are in my classics book club discussions. While studying Literature, my class got into a discussion about what makes a good critic and we came to the conclusion that you have to judge a book’s value by what you surmise is the intent of the author and whether they have been successful in meeting that intent. By using this standard I find A Tale of Two Cities, Catcher in the Rye and Jane Eyre very successful; however, that doesn’t mean they are enjoyable or relatable to everyone. I think I am quite easy to please, if the story catches me in the first few chapters and holds me, and perhaps tells me about a different time or culture, then I am happy.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Hate. Lots and lots of hate. I LOVE to read and love to read new things but I was forced to read this book at the end of my senior year in high school and then AGAIN at the beginning of my freshman year in college. I think there is a lot of value in re-reading a book and sometimes it takes a second chance for a book to really connect with a reader. Not true for this book. I think I could read it a hundred times and not understand why it matters. I will also throw in it’s “partner book” Heart of Darkness which I could barely get through.

I was a little crushed to see Jane Austen on the list BUT to each her own. I am totally in love and obsessed with the Harry Potter series and I know plenty of people who would use those pages as toilet paper.

I am so glad to see Twilight on this list. Honestly, as an aspiring writer it actually hurts my soul that something like this got published. Not only was the writing something I would expect a 10th grader to produce but the editing was POOR. As a future English teacher I resisted the urge to whip out my red pen. I totally agree with you on the rules of vampires-even though it’s fantasy you have to follow the rules! Not only do they NOT sparkle but they are dead. As in no blood running through their veins. As in no semen. As in no erection. So…yeah…maybe want to rethink that whole pregnant by vampire thing…

Things Fall Apart is hard to get, I think, from an American perspective. It is a hilarious and spot-on takedown of greedy African politicians, who dominate Nigeria and much of the rest of the continent and having lived here, I really like it.
It is //not// however, a partner to Heart of Darkness. Those books couldn’t be further apart in my view.

Grapes of Wrath was one of those books that only sheer stubbornness got me through. I trudged angrily through every boring paragraph and every boring page. I was even told ahead of time that it would be like this. I was told about the turtle. I read anyway.

The thing that bugs me the most about many of these is that I think other books by the same authors are amazing, but don’t get the credit. Gatsby is a bit of a yawn but I adore Tender is the Night. Catcher in the Rye is eye-rolling but I never get tired of Franny and Zooey. Tale of Two Cities is painful and Great Expectations is amazing (though I think that one gets due credit on most lists).

I’m undecided about Austen- I get what she was going for; I just don’t understand the adoration. I can never remember which sisters belong to P&P and S&S, and then I realize I don’t really care. I thought I’d like Persuasion but never finished it.

And I’ll take Rebecca over Jane Eyre any day. And yes, I realize that isn’t a fair comparison, but I don’t care. Its my bookshelf.

The Lord of the Rings series. One word: EDIT.

Seriously, I cannot get through them. They’re painful. I’ve never come across a book I’ve hated quite so much. I’ve been trying, because I made a deal with a friend, but uggggh.

I think LOTR and Emma (weird, because I like most of Austen) are the only two books (of the novel sort) I’ve ever failed to finish. I generally pick up books and plow right through, but those, no chance.

Oh, you kill me. I know too many people who have had their minds posioned by Ayn Rand. “Mommy’s Special Snowflake Syndrome” sums it up beautifully.
I never really got The Great Gatsby. I liked the book when I read it, but I never really understood why it was supposed to be this super-special American masterpiece. And I completely gave up on Pride and Prejudice when I tried to read it. One hundred pages in, and still no sign of plot or character development? I’m out. One day I will give Austen another chance. Eventually.

I’m a giddy Austen fangirl, but I do recommend trying again some day. Most people I know who love Austen – myself included – weren’t big on her when they first read the books. She grows on you. And for what it’s worth, her character development is very subtle and realistic – it definitely happens, but not in such a way as to be noticeable a hundred pages in. I promise you it’s there by the end though.

Leave a Reply