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Help pick the worst books of the decade: Ian McEwan gets my vote

December 8, 2009

Ian McEwan

Over at the Guardian, for my money the best books website in the multiverse, Sam Jordison writes persuasively that it’s not enough for critics and readers to concoct lists of the best books of the rapidly closing decade. To get a true reflection of the era, we must “name and shame” the worst books, too.

The mind leaps to the challenge, aquiver with literary bloodlust. Or at least mine does. Without even trolling my files to look over reviews I’ve written during the wretched first 10 years of the new millennium, three books present themselves all but unbidden: Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante; Tim Willocks’ The Religion; and Ian McEwan’s masterpiece of all that’s wrong with serious fiction, Saturday.

What were the worst books you read since Bill Clinton left office?  Jordison wants your help, and so do I. A ground rule or two: Let’s set aside what Jordison calls the “soft targets,” the fish-in-a-barrel  books of bestselling scribes the likes of Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell or Mitch Albom (Yes, Mitch Albom: The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I rest my case).

“No, more intriguing by far are the over-rated books,” writes Jordison. “There’s nothing worse than being told something is wonderful only to discover it’s actually The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru.”

Tim Willocks

Let me help get the ball rolling. The following three books all have considerable strengths, alloyed with various degrees of vomitous awfulness: Overwriting (Willocks), self-flattery (Tosches), the rising bile of artistic inauthenticity (McEwan). Here’s what I had to say at the time:

“Tim Willocks’ The Religion, a sweeping epic romance set against the Turkish siege of Malta in 1565, a battle that determined the shapes of Christian Europe and the Islamic world for centuries to come, might be a candidate for best novel of the year—were it not, I regret to say, so very badly written.” That’s the lead from my 2007 review.

Alas, I cannot find a link to my 2002 review of Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante — which I named both the best and the worst novel of the year, but this excerpt will give you the idea: “Vile, disgusting, naively romantic, but also possessing an irresistible energy and inventiveness, it is one part big fat joke, one part genuine literary pop art. It’s a coprophilous masterpiece, which is another way of saying that seldom has such a load of crap been thrown together with such verve and gusto.”

My deepest disgust, however, is reserved for McEwan, if only for the undeniable scope of his talents. 2005’s Saturday, praised to the skies by most critics, is a skillfully wrought piffle about a neurosurgeon who runs afoul of a low-level gangster, climaxing with the gangster and a couple of henchmen invading his home during the holidays. The perfect family is saved when –this is

Nick Tosches

rich, indeed — the grown daughter beguiles the thug with a recitation of “Dover Beach.”

Right. Three goons out of a Guy Richie movie are going to be diverted from the pleasures of rape, robbery and murder by a naked 18-year-old girl declaiming poetry at them. Ugh.

“A falser note is hard to imagine,” I groused in my 2007 review. “But then this scene is not really about what happens when insane gangsters with a strong sense of resentment get the upper hand on a bunch of wealthy and attractive people. By having Perrowne and company handily escape certain death, McEwan flatters the affluent, college-educated sophisticates most likely to be his readers, hinting they, too, would elude danger from a disenfranchised and angry underclass with such ease and aplomb! In reality, most people threatened in this manner would die horrible, humiliating, undignified deaths.”

So Saturday gets my nod for the worst novel of the decade. Please, send me your nominations. Meanwhile, I’ll try to round out a full list of 10. Oh, yeah, how could I forget Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men? More to come.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    December 8, 2009 3:55 pm

    Is McEwan the one who wrote Atonement? If so, then I agree with you! I hate that guy. Ick. I couldn’t even finish that stupid book.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2009 4:31 pm

      He is indeed the one who wrote Atonement, which I have not read. I did read and review Amsterdam, which won the Man Booker Prize, and found it, while not as offensive as Saturday, but small beer indeed, and in its way a matter of authorial manipulation.

  2. rachel permalink
    December 8, 2009 3:59 pm

    The Kite Runner. (!)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2009 4:32 pm

      That’s a good one. For this list, I mean. Anyone else?

  3. rachel permalink
    December 8, 2009 4:22 pm

    Okay I was excited and I didn’t want anyone to beat me to that one. Because I read largely on recommendation I’m not disappointed all that often. But that means that I trust my sources and so when I am disappointed I am so very very disappointed. The book I was most recently extremely disappointed and annoyed with was published in 1937: “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Worst books from this decade…I’m going to have to think about that. How about Billy Collins? He’s pretty awful, but I never hated myself enough to read an entire book. If you give me a little bit of time, I’m sure I can come up with more for you.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 8, 2009 4:33 pm

    I was thinking more in terms of fiction and nonfiction, but if someone wants to offer up some poetry books, by all means, have at it. Give a few lines of justification, though, if you please.

    • rachel permalink
      December 8, 2009 4:37 pm

      He uses Holocaust imagry to pull your strings and manipulate you into feeling things he has not earned.

      • rachel permalink
        December 8, 2009 4:39 pm

        Also: poetry should be judged just like everything else. It is not exempt.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 8, 2009 4:52 pm

    I feel on less sure footing when it comes to poetry, lacking the supreme confidence I have when it comes to judging fiction or nonfiction. But please, if any of my correspondence wish to flail away at the poets in the world, be my guest.

  6. Tommy permalink
    December 8, 2009 8:28 pm

    Mark Bauerlein “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)”

    Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein tries his best to convince readers that the youth of America is wasting away into idiocy. I picked up this book because the title infuriated me. I also needed a book published in 2008 to review for my English Composition class.

    The reason “The Dumbest Generation” belongs on my worst list stems from Bauerlein’s tone. He says his book was written to pose questions to young Americans, yet his tone is degrading. Most of his intended audience would close the book early in the first chapter. It seems to me that “The Dumbest Generation” was simply a book written for older generations. A 300 page long “Kids these days”.

    That being said, “The Kardashian Factor” namely none of the young adults in my class knowing what rights are established and protected in the Second Amendment while all of them knew who Heidi Klum was married to opened my eyes to how close to the truth Bauerlein may be.

    Was the book well researched? Yes. Is a discussion of the effects ( for better or for worse) of technology on literacy needed? Yes. Was this book helpful or even add anything to the discussion? No.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2009 10:46 pm

      Yeah, but could Bauerlein keep track of 700 friends on Facebook while watching The Hills, listening to Lady Ga-Ga, writing a polysci paper and playing Wizards of Warcraft? I think not. The younger generation has been declining into idiocy since at least 1637.

      Thanks for your contribution, Tommy. Good one.

  7. Tommy permalink
    December 8, 2009 9:39 pm

    Chauncey, I need to read your top three worst books. This desire arises not out of my normal masochistic nature. No, I need to read these books for their educational value. Just like the aspiring film maker in me enjoys watching horrible films to learn what not to do, the aspiring author would like to learn from others mistakes. This should help cut back on un-necessary mistakes.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 8, 2009 10:48 pm

    You may find that you enjoy — even like — them. I have many friends, otherwise of intelligence and taste, who seem to think McEwan invented fiction writing. They all LOVE Saturday. And they persist in loving Saturday even after writing my review in which I prove to a mathematical certainty that it, uh, isn’t very good. I’m baffled. But rest assured, I will not think less of you if you go other to the dumb kids side of the class.

  9. Connie permalink
    December 9, 2009 8:44 am

    As you well know, I disagree completely with you about McEwan. Not that Saturday is a flawless book; the twist with the gangsters, as you so astutely point out, comes out of nowhere and deflates the entire premise. However, up until then it’s perfectly fine.

    Amsterdam is the one that baffled me; how did that win the Booker?! But Atonement is terrific. Black Dogs, too. And the opening chapter of Enduring Love is one of the best things I’ve ever read (unfortunately the novel deteriorates eventually much like Saturday into a ridiculous crime tale, but that first chapter, oh my!).

    Still, flaws counted, Saturday is NOT the worst book of the past decade. I take it we’re automatically discarding drivel like The Lost Symbol – which is truly terrible – and anything by Mitch Albom, so I’m going to cast my vote for two books: John Irving’s Until I Find You, a pointless, self-indulgent novel that enraged me more with every page I read and pretty much ruined Irving for me forever, and Donna Tartt’s wretched To Kill a Mockingbird ripoff The Little Friend, a mystery that didn’t even have the grace to solve itself.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2009 11:20 am

      I argue that McEwan’s failures are the greater because of his talents. A book is a whole thing. If we judged on the basis of a great first chapter, then Across the River and Into the Trees would be one of Hemingway’s best. And even you concede that McEwan has two important novels that devolve into ill-handled crime nonsense. And I didn’t even have room to discuss how unrealistic the hero’s family is in Saturday — a neurosurgeon with a wife who’s a leading London lawyer and a son so gifted that Ginger Baker agrees to take up his musical education and a daughter on the cusp of a great career as a poet AND almost no family conflict? Please. Such families may exist (though I doubt it) but they are not the stuff of goof fiction. John Irving and Donna Tartt, I agree did not wreathe themselves in glory. I had my never again moment with Irving while reading The Cider House Rules.

  10. Connie permalink
    December 9, 2009 9:47 am

    Oh, I thought of a third: Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris. Even worse than Hannibal, which was pretty dreadful too.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 9, 2009 11:22 am

      Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. A good bad one, I mean. It betrays the very essence of Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs.

  11. Eudora from Miami permalink
    December 9, 2009 10:34 am

    Dear Ms. Ogle:

    I read you faithfully but seldom respond to your commentary. This time, however, I am outraged. I cannot fathom how you can characterize Ms. Tartt’s The Little Friend with such a lack of generosity. I suppose, like many people, you think that just because the plot never discloses who — if anyone — murdered the little boy, the book is a failure. In fact, how or why he died has no relevance at all. The Little Friend isn’t a common mystery. It’s a story about memory. I mean this in the kindest possible way: Please open your mind and your senses.

    With all good wishes for a great holiday season.

    Eudora in Miami

  12. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 9, 2009 11:24 am

    Connie, I’ll leave you to reply this Eudora in Miami, but since I’ve already agreed with you, let me say that I wrote about The Little Friend favorably when it came out, but in retrospect it was a tremendous come down from The Secret History, which is among the more startling first novels I’ve read.

  13. Connie permalink
    December 9, 2009 12:05 pm

    That’s part of my problem with the Tartt; The Secret History was really a pleasure, and like all its fans I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of The Little Friend. Which turned out to be so bad that I was reading it stuck on a plane from Rome to Fort Lauderdale and I STILL had to put it down because it was so bad.

    As for Eudora, well! I will just say that any book that opens with a murder had damned well better tell you who committed it (and preferably why) by the novel’s end. Otherwise it’s all just a cheat; could Tartt not come up with a plausible explanation? Or maybe it’s just postmodern trickery. Either way, completely unsatisfying. And that’s not even taking into consideration how ridiculous the scene was where the kids steal the rattlesnakes. That’s when it lost me for good.

    And you’re right about Harris betraying himself with Hannibal/Hannibal Rising. Red Dragon is the most terrifying book I’ve ever read; Silence of the Lambs is even better. And, what, we get overly florid prose instead of his understated writing in Hannibal and – worse! – an explanation of why Hannibal is so evil in HRising? Good Lord. Let us just enjoy our monsters.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:42 am

      I could not agree more about Harris. Still, I stand by my condemnation of McEwan. Saturday is fine until the twist with the gangsters? That’s like saying the souffle was fine until it fell, or my checks were good until the bank stamped them “NSF.”

  14. Connie permalink
    December 9, 2009 3:27 pm

    A couple of people have voted on this over on my FB page

    One says: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.

    Another votes for A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which I have to admit is a pretty good one, and does fall under the category of fiction!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:44 am

      Um…all respect to your friends, but Cold Mountain came out in 1997, so it couldn’t be one of the worst books of THIS decade. Besides, it’s better than Saturday.

  15. Neely permalink
    December 9, 2009 6:10 pm

    “A Mercy,” Toni Morrison. Unreadable. Unbearable. Laugh-out-loud awful.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:46 am

      Toni Morrison can be a wee bit over the top, which is why I’ve seldom read her after an early experience with Song of Solomon. Too much symbology, as Robert Langdon might say, for my taste.

  16. diana permalink
    December 9, 2009 6:36 pm

    Sorry but…Life of Pi.
    There. I said it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:47 am

      Life of Pi does seem to divide people pretty evenly into love-it/hate-it camps.

  17. evan james roskos permalink
    December 9, 2009 10:34 pm

    Chauncey, Considering the state of publishing and the difficulty authors have selling books, does it help to create “worst books” lists? Why not celebrate the good ones and do something more satisfying with the ones you dislike: forget them? while writers like McEwan aren’t hurting for sales, it seems disingenuous for book lovers to decry the future of publishing and then rip books (especially ones from a few years ago that most people probably haven’t thought about since then.)

    I suspect that people who read enough to appreciate a list like this aren’t going to buy fewer books; but then the question becomes, what is the point of a “bad books” list?

    I’m not trying to be a killjoy, but since it’s really difficult for new authors to break in to publishing, I get a little disheartened when so called bad books get webspace just for being bad.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 3:50 am

      The problem, Evan, isn’t good or bad reviews or chat, but the decline in discussion of books in general. Anything that gets people thinking and talking about books, which I think this subject has, is a very good thing. Besides, would you argue that we should never mock bad films because it’s so hard for a screenwriter or director to break into the movie business? As a professional critic and literary journalist, I believe with all my heart that identifying and mocking bad books IS a celebration of literature.

  18. Connie permalink
    December 10, 2009 1:41 pm

    Oops. I liked Life of Pi! The Kite Runner, though, I was not so fond of…I still don’t understand why people loved it the way it did. The coincidences alone gave me a migraine.

    BTW I’m OK with discussing bad books once in awhile. Welcome change from just arguing about the best. And it’s cathartic. I can never say enough bad things about The Little Friend.

  19. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 12, 2009 3:51 am

    We have so much in common, Connie, because that’s exactly the way I feel about…Saturday.

  20. October 2, 2011 7:54 pm

    Anything by Nicholas Sparks gets my vote. I’ve tried…oh god I’ve tried!…To plow through his sryupy pablum, all the while tearing my hair out that a reading public has made the guy a millionaire….It defies comprehension. Also, I reserve a good load of vomit for The Shack which I found to be an over the top attempt to justify the really horrible awful trials that some unfortunate people suffer in their lives. The book offered no comfort. It was absurd.

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