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Over and Underrated Classic Lit

July 20, 2011

The Huff Post presented an intriguing article this week( regarding the six novels they believed were highly overrated in the classic lit canon.   Here are three novels I believe are overrated, along with a bonus list of  three novels I feel don’t get enough love from critics…

Three Overrated Novels

1.)    Anything by Charles Dickens other than Great Expectations.

Dickens wrote for profit and for the masses.  That doesn’t make him less of an author.  Alas, his pedestrian structure and overwrought and simplistic characters do very little to hide the fact that he was basically a soap opera writer who loved to preach about the evils of Victorian city life while living safely within the means of his comfortable income.  Great Expectations is the exception among his works.  It alone has a protagonist whose motives and actions go against the usual type, and an ending that defies the conventional happy ending Dickens so loved.

2.)    Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Melville wants to be the American Thomas Hardy – spending chapters on just one key description of dubious beauty (a whale’s tail), but he lacks Hardy’s genius for imaginative narration.  Melville’s best work is the haunting novella Bartleby the Scrivener, a heartbreaking commentary about a man lost in the gears of a rising industrial society.

3.)    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I work around teenage angst every day – perhaps I’ve had my fill.  It’s an entertaining read, but really isn’t as profound as it wants to be.  Its genius may lie in being able to captivate generations of readers who imagine themselves to be just like Holden Caulfield.  It tries way too hard to make Holden’s antics meaningful.  If you finding yourself waxing nostalgic for this book, try reading it again.  You might be surprised at how poorly it ages.


Three Classic Novels That Need More Love

1.)    The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Trollope is everything that Dickens SHOULD be and more.  His characters are vibrant without being pure caricature, and he’s not afraid to rightfully skewer the gullible British gentry without mercy for their blindness to change and the evils of profit.  Trollope’s evil Augustus Melmotte wreaks havoc on London society types who are so morally and intellectually corrupt that they don’t see their impending doom until it is too late.

2.)    The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence is her acknowledged masterpiece, but this underrated work about the horrific social climber Undine Spragg is relevant even today.  Never stand in the way of a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to destroy everyone she loves to get it.  Wharton’s work is a scathing commentary about the dangers of social climbing and the equal folly of those who value reputation more than virtue. It’s engaging without being a sordid soap opera.

3.)    Persuasion by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice and Emma usually get all the love among Austen enthusiasts, but her last completed novel with an unusual spinster protagonist is perhaps her most intriguing.  Anne Elliot is not as vivacious and witty as Lizzie Bennett, but her level-headedness, loyalty and willingness to change are unique in an Austen heroine.  Anne once gave up her true love rather than face society’s ire, and spends much of the novel doing penance to win back the worthy heart of Captain Wentworth.  It’s a great love story that resonates with powerful themes about the meaning of family, self-worth and diligence.

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