The worst American novel ever

June 29, 1997

As the United States approaches its 221st birthday, what is the absolutely worst famous American novel, and in no more than three sentences why is it both vastly popular and truly bad?

Rebecca Pepper Sinkler

Editor of the New York Times book review from 1987 to 1995 and before that, deputy book editor at the Times and book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

No wonder J.D.Salinger went into seclusion. He must have realized that he had made a hero of one of the worst twits in the history of literature. Holden Caulfield's incorrigible piety is mawkish Victorian sentiment at its most embarrassing. Compared to him, Pollyanna is a serial killer. Teachers who assign "The Catcher in the Rye" to adolescents ought to be hanged for corrupting the tastes of minors, a far greater offense than merely messing with their morals.

John Waters

Writer and director of many films, beginning with the classic "Pink Flamingos."

As a child I always hated "The Old Man and The Sea." I resented having to read about a boring man, a stupid fish and a crummy boat and secretly wished all three would sink.

I suppose regular children liked the book because of the struggle but it made me stop reading for pleasure until I was 12 years old and discovered Tennessee Williams on my own.

Carla Hayden

Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Rather than invoke the wrath of thousands of readers by choosing "The Bridges of Madison County," I'll opt for "Love Story."

Was more saccharin, adolescent, condescending drivel ever written? Nonetheless, like Waller's book, Erich Segal's apparently struck a responsive chord among the hopelessly sentimental.

Selecting "Love Story" as my candidate for the absolutely worst famous American novel means never having to say I'm sorry.

Laura Lippman

Author of "Baltimore Blues" and feature reporter at The Sun. She is a widely published critic and journalist.

"The Color Purple," by Alice Walker. On first reading, only the stoniest of hearts could resist this Pulitzer-Prize winning book. On subsequent readings, the story of Celie is mawkish and not terribly original (Letters to God? Paging Judy Blume).

But its worse crime is diverting a truly talented novelist into the full-time persona business, which has weakened her post-"Purple" work.

William K. Marimow

Managing editor of The Sun. He is a widely published critic and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.

I nominate "Chimera," John Barth's 1972 novel, as the worst famous American novel - or, at least, the worst novel by a famous American writer. When I was given the book to review for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I was thrilled: Barth's novels "The Floating Opera" and "End of the Road" were among my favorites.

But I found the first 200 to 300 pages of "Chimera" impenetrably dense. Slogging onward, I realized I simply could not understand the book. If most readers cannot understand a novel, then - in my opinion - it is a failure.

Terry Teachout

Music critic of Commentary. He writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. He is writing a biography of H. L. Mencken.

I hardly know where to start slashing, so allow me to bend the rules and nominate Norman Mailer for a Lifetime Achievement Award. In a recent interview, Mailer called himself one of the top five novelists in America - a good-news-bad-news joke if ever I heard one.

Surely no other ostensibly major American writer has produced so many pompous, pretentious novels over so long a span of time, from the now-unreadable "The Naked and the Dead" (that one fooled a lot of people) to his latest effort, "The Gospel According to the Son," in which the author of "Advertisements for Myself" impersonates Jesus Christ, an undertaking which reminds me of the shortest concert review ever written: "Last night at Carnegie Hall, Mr. X played Beethoven. Beethoven lost."

Dorothea Straus

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species" and "Under the Canopy." She is a widely published critic.

Ernest Hemingway will be remembered for his style that shook the seemingly impregnable mode of the 19th century novel.

But when I reread "A Farewell to Arms" recently, I experienced all the scorn and disillusion that might be engendered by a meeting with an old lover out of my youth.

Michael Shelden

Author of three biographies. He is a widely published critic in national and British publications.

Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" is a cartoon epic for people who think the Civil War was one long fashion show. Its gassy narrative and hilariously bad dialogue should have doomed the book to suffer the dusty obscurity that awaits most potboilers, but I suspect that its survival is largely the result of Mitchell's keen eye for Southern Belle clothing and accessories.

Even when she is pregnant, Scarlett worries about wearing a "poorly fitting dress which accentuated rather than hid her figure."

Stephen Proctor

Assistant managing editor for features at The Sun

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