The Art of Evisceration + Most Overrated

Knives out

There’s a debut novel just out called Fake Accounts which is getting a lot of attention because it takes on the Internet as a subject itself. Parul Sehgal (the fabulous New York Times book critic) says in her review that “it is most thoroughly and exuberantly about the hunched, clammy, lightly paranoid, entirely demented feeling of being ‘very online’ — the relentlessness of performance required, the abdication of all inwardness, subtlety and good sense. Of sighing in full recognition of these charges and opening another tab.” It’s also getting a lot of attention because it’s by Lauren Oyler, a critic herself, notorious for her scathing takedowns of beloved contemporary writers no one else dares to criticize, including Roxane Gay, Sally Rooney, and Jia Tolentino. (They’re mostly linked in this profile of Oyler in The Cut.)

I have mixed feelings about the eviscerating review. I’ve written negative reviews but never one that eviscerated, which, I would recall, means to disembowel. I think it’s because I’ve been on the other side of the equation, having lived through the humbling experiences of (1) writing a book and (2) eventually getting it published ultimately keeps me from fully plunging in the dagger. Even wealthy and successful creatives are hurt as human beings by bad reviews, and generally don’t deserve outright meanness.

There’s something energizing about that kind of writing, I admit, which is why those restaurant reviews go viral. (“When you saw the burger described as ‘Guy’s Pat LaFrieda custom blend, all-natural Creekstone Farm Black Angus beef patty, LTOP (lettuce, tomato, onion + pickle), SMC (super-melty-cheese) and a slathering of Donkey Sauce on garlic-buttered brioche,’ did your mind touch the void for a minute?") My favorite evisceration is by Garrison Keillor (of whom I am NOT a fan) of French philosopher (and apparent blowhard) Bernard-Henri Levy’s book about America. It’s from 2006 and I still send it to people. That’s how good it is. You should read it. If you’re American, it will make you proud to be American. So, OK, disemboweling is allowed, but only on very exceptional occasions, and the “punching up” rule of comedy should apply. Keep the daggers sheathed for writers with print runs of less than 5,000.

That being said, I don’t want any writing about books to be consistently positive, unless the subject is truly a masterpiece. The rave review should be equally rare. I want to hear about what didn’t quite work, the inconsistent character, why the style didn’t fit the subject. Even if it’s a book I loved, I like a contrarian opinion as a springboard for discussion or a foundation to build my own argument as to why it worked.

So with this, I present a small list of most overrated novels. I’m sure there are others I feel this way about, but these are ones that have lingered in my mind over the years, I suspect because, like the ones I can’t get over, they’re each emblematic in their own way: there’s the debut by the well-connected under-30 media darling, the novel with the stellar opening that fizzles in the second half, the social issue novel with mechanical problems…

Putting together this little list also reminded me of “What the Swedes Read,” a feature that ran in The Believer magazine for a while, where Daniel Handler did a close reading of a book by a past Nobel Prize winner. (They’re archived here.) What struck me about some of the columns isn’t his insight into the Laureates we still read, but the ones I’d never heard of (Carl Spitteler anyone?) and the ones he found don’t hold up in the present day (like Anatole France). It’s a nice reminder that it’s OK not to believe the hype. Often times the anointed book is more about who is doing the anointing, or events outside the realm of literature.

Please note this isn’t a criticism of anyone who liked the books, but an exploration of why I personally didn’t feel the magic. I’d love to hear a spirited defense of any of these. I would also like to hear anyone else’s list of “most overrated,” so feel free to comment!

These are in chronological order by date of publication.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I don’t know how widely it’s read now, but this book was everywhere for a while. It won awards and was made into a 2005 film starring Elijah Wood. I think this one remains distinct in my mind because I read it when I was when I was first trying to keep up with contemporary fiction (after a lifelong education of reading heavily from the past), and I was disappointed. This was the first pick of my Brooklyn book club of women in their late 20s to early 30s (I think in 2005?) and it single-handedly drove us to only read books by women for years ever after.

If I recall correctly, the consensus was that the young maleness of the author was cringily apparent in awkward jokes about 69 and repeated use of the word “bitch” by an ESL speaker to refer to his dog. (Foer wrote the book in college and he was 25 when it was published. Joyce Carol Oates was his thesis advisor…) The narrative alternates between the present day and a Eastern European shtetl in the past, and we also found the shtetl parts to be unbearable and tedious. I was personally bothered by the letters written by the non-native English speaker, which felt inauthentic on a language level. His next book featured a genius-child narrator whose parents die in 9/11, which Harry Siegel took down in the now-defunct, ever-punching-up contrarian New York Press, available here.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (2006)

Another one from the aughts. This book had rave reviews and, before I read it, my sense was that it would be an ironic, smart take on post-Soviet corruption via social satire. This novel fits my theory that our culture only requires the beginning of things to be good. If anything begins well, all is forgiven by the end (or maybe people don’t finish things?). But endings are so important! The first half is exhilarating, funny, promising, but it completely falls apart. I read it long ago, but I remember being annoyed at the author inserting himself into the book, the endless pages devoted to sexually explicit unfunny rap lyrics and the plot disintegrating into shreds.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

This novel was on the National Book Award long list, on many best-of-the-year lists, and also sold really well. I might have like this book more if it hadn’t been sold as a literary masterpiece. It is high camp spiked with allusions to Ancient Greek drama and overwrought language to elevate it (which is maybe what gave it the “literary” designation). The main characters are super-rich, brilliant, beautiful, successful, have tragic upbringings and a wild sex life. It features not one but two private detectives, a stolen painting, a secret abortion, a secret baby. That’s what I remember. I don’t know, man.

There’s been a years-long debate now about what “literary fiction” is, exactly. It’s more complicated than this, but from what I gather, some (like Jennifer Weiner) claim it’s a gatekeeping term (wielded by people like Jonathan Franzen) to denigrate and ghettoize books women like to read. Some say it refers to Literature versus genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, romance, etc.) Some snobby people claim that it has become a genre with its own conventions and does not actually refer to real Literature. (A mid-list novelist said this to me about Zadie Smith, of all people, that she didn’t write literature but books “in the genre of literary fiction.”) When I refer to contemporary literary fiction, I guess I mean work that aims to push beyond established tropes, and I don’t think this book does this, despite the carefully crafted sentences.

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)

Overrated is not the right word for my questions about this book. I think Whitehead is a tremendous, powerful writer, and if this novel is bringing more attention to the history and horrors of slavery in America, may its successful journey continue. (From Wikipedia: “The Underground Railroad was a critical and commercial success, hitting the bestseller lists and winning several notable prizes. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction… and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.”)

My critique is more about its success as a piece of historical fiction. Whitehead is passionate and eloquent on his subject, which is so explicitly slavery in a historical context, rather than the fictional characters he creates. His interest is in the way attitudes towards slavery and treatment of slaves and varied by state, based on the laws, economy and historic moment. I think his exploration of this history would have worked better in non-fiction form. When I looked at it as a work of historical fiction, I found that the main character has a too-contemporary attitude and an ability to synthesize that is beyond her moment in time (i.e. the second half of the 19th century). Uneducated and illiterate (until she teaches herself to read), she’s relentlessly atheist, and is able to extrapolate appropriate, 21st-century views on complex issues like the need for solidarity with native peoples, the reproductive rights of mentally ill slaves, and the horrors of the middle passage. While I took in the points, I wasn’t convinced it was the character who thought them. Similarly, manifesting the underground railroad as a physical reality rather than a metaphorical concept casts doubt on any real details he includes and obscures the real history of the underground railroad.

Am I wrong about these books? Tell me why!

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Bonus disembowelings I’ve enjoyed, of books that deserved them:

Myriam Gurba on American Dirt

James Wood on Paul Auster