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Canon Fodder 

Esteemed authors you just can't read

If we're honest with ourselves, we've all done it. It goes like this: A friend or colleague mentions a classic author, expresses their deep and abiding love for said member of the literary canon, and we stand there and take it all in -- thinking to ourselves that we'd rather get a paper cut from every page of Author X's oeuvre than to read one more sentence.

The CL staff, book lovers all, have toyed with this question for some time: "Who are critically acclaimed, "serious' writers that you absolutely can't stand to read?" For some, it's the desert-dry prose of Henry James, a narrative littered with random commas and semicolons scattered like so many rocks. Others (myself included) have a hard time with Thomas Pynchon (being reclusive still doesn't allow "ol TP time to create believable -- or even believably named -- characters). A Google search for "overrated" and "authors" turns up an awful lot of Alice Walker responses, which seems to mirror Walker's current standing in the canon -- sinking fast.

We posed the question to some local authors, English professors and noted bookhounds. As you might imagine, every answer was different. A few decided that it wasn't their place to criticize, and opted not to respond (there's a word for that, found in much of Henry Miller's work, and it begins with a P). Others jumped at the chance -- their answers are below. Common in all the responses was an irrepressible love of books. However, just as in romance, most people have to go through a variety of folks before finding their soul mate, right?

Don Mager, Johnson C. Smith University: "I have never been wild about Hemingway. His controlled "toughness' strikes me as a pose. Instead of something to admire, I find his "acclaimed' control to be irksome."

Ron Rash, poet and author of the novel One Foot in Eden: "Everything by F. Scott Fitzerald, except The Great Gatsby. I remember reading Tender is the Night in grad school. Reading that novel was like eating a pillow-sized bag of cotton balls -- a lot of air but little substance. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald wrote one truly great book, The Great Gatsby, and that is a rare feat for any writer."

Amy Rogers, Executive Editor, Novello Festival Press: "I've got a pretty strong stomach -- I read the entire Bridges of Madison County, for example. As a reviewer it's my job to choke down the bile and keep reading, no matter how nauseating the work."

Sandra Y. Govan, UNC-Charlotte: "As an English teacher, and someone who teaches American literature at that, what I'm about to say may constitute heresy, but I dislike intensely T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland.' To borrow from Langston Hughes, as I grew older, I kept expecting I would grow into it, learn to accept it as I finally learned to swallow cherry-flavored cough syrup without gagging. But it hasn't happened. I hated that poem in high school. I hated it in college. I hated it the first time in a graduate program and the second time as well. And now that I regularly teach a course in 20th century American literature, my hatred has only slightly abated. I know 'The Wasteland' is supposed to be the pinnacle of achievement in American modernist art. It is supposed to illustrate all the nuances, complexities, and idiosyncrasies of the modernist movement. But any literary text that works that hard at being difficult and inaccessible is being inaccessible for the sake of inaccessibility. It smacks of 'gotcha' arrogance, as if Eliot were thumbing his nose at us all, behaving like some 4th grade child screaming, 'You can't read me, you can't read me, ah ha.' "

Bruce G. Nims, USC-Lancaster: "Virginia Woolf's essays are lucid and convincing, but in her fiction I find myself drowning in a turgid, muddy river of self-consciousness, the overwritten mass of excess modifiers dragging me down like rocks in my pockets. When will this sentence ever end? When will this page ever end? When will something actually happen?"

John Grooms, Editor of Creative Loafing and incurable bookhound: "Henry James comes to mind, but in more contemporary writers, as much as I almost hate to admit it, I'd have to say Toni Morrison. I simply cannot read more than a few pages of her fiction without getting bogged down in what feels like murky literary syrup, and then just losing interest. I know, she won the Nobel Prize, but then so did Pearl Buck."

Christopher Davis, poet and professor, UNC-Charlotte: "Everyone loves The Da Vinci Code, but I hate it. It's seductive to think that the apparent chaos of the world and human motivation is actually hiding a huge system of inter-linked codes . . . this is another one of those always-commercially-successful efforts to dissuade us from a more emotionally centered, possibly tragic sense of existence."

The Worst Best-Selling Authors
1. Danielle Steel

2. Jan Karon

3. Tom Clancy

4. James Patterson

5. Michael Moore

6. Bill O'Reilly

7. Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

8. Robert Jordan

9. Patricia Cornwell

-- John Grooms

Genres of fiction we'd like to see
1. Sci-fry -- Cookbooks in outer space

2. CyberWesterns -- Cowboy robots fighting over bandwidth

3. Travel guide mysteries -- Solve a murder while you're learning all about your vacation destination

4. Apocalyptic Romance novels -- Love in the ruins

5. Historical self-help books -- Series of motivational books channeled from the likes of Julius Caesar or Elizabeth I

6. Noir Gardening -- Sowing, nurturing and growing poisonous herbs and plants

7. Religious fiction in which the "Rapture" finally happens, the fundamentalists are taken up to heaven and leave the rest of us in peace, never to suffer their sanctimonious B.S. again (working title, The Case of the Disappearing Fish Symbols).

-- John Grooms

Second Annual List of Authors I Thought Sucked When I Was Young But I Really Like Now
1. Ross McDonald

2. John O'Hara

3. Willa Cather

4. Barbara Tuchman

5. W. Somerset Maugham

-- John Grooms

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