Overrated & Underrated Stories

Muddles & Puzzles

Worldbuilding workshop from N.K. Jemisin

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
I came across a thread on Quora this morning, which set me thinking about which stories are overrated and underrated.

Who are the most overrated authors, and why? - Quora

I’ve previously mentioned which stories I like, which tend to be ‘small stories’.

As for overrated stories and authors, I’ve never been able to take to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. At a time when we’re more aware of how we’ve endangered the planet, I’m amazed that a story about whale hunting is still revered. I don’t have the life left to waste on reading Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce which is an experiment in search of a plot. I’m not that keen on stream of consciousness novels, the technique that Virginia Woolf used for To The Lighthouse, which I re-read as part of my preparation for writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel, which features two corpses found near Godrevy Lighthouse. Woolf described her book as a “psychological poem”. Reading about banal characters in tedious situations who never get anything done certainly did my head in—is that psychological?

Years ago, I read many of James Patterson’s Alex Cross series and some of his many, many other series and stand-alones. It soon felt like opening one can of beans after another. It isn’t writing, it’s manufacturing! Using hired gun writers to do the hard work as collaborations doesn’t shift the blame for childish prose.

I don’t read many Romances, but I tried to complete Me Before You by Jojo Moyes attempting to understand why it was so successful as book and as a Hollywood film. Its premise, of a quadriplegic seeking suicide as the ideal solution to his predicament, is repugnant. It says much about the author’s laziness and lack of empathy, that she never even met a quadriplegic before writing her tear-jerking trash. I see that the author is currently accused of plagiarism...I’m not surprised.

Jojo Moyes Has Been Accused Of Publishing A Novel With “Alarming Similarities” To Another Author’s Book

You know that feeling you have about a book where you think, “I don’t think I’d like this,” but then you try it and find out you were right, mentally kicking yourself for weakening? Maybe I’ve had that experience too many times. Occasionally, I read a book that provides a pleasant surprise, as with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which was a breakout debut in 2017. I wish it happened more often.

Which books do you think are overrated and underrated?

I'm just starting The Man in the Red Coat, a first biography by Julian Barnes, but finding it hard going. I bought it after reading stellar reviews [note to self: stop doing this] but it's a very strange sort of biography. I thought they were supposed to concentrate on the life (and times, maybe) of the subject and progress roughly chronologically, but it appears JB is setting out here to be ground-breaking and literary.

All I can say is, I do not agree with the reviewers. I think this is extremely self-indulgent, and if I had had the opportunity to flick through a physical book -- I bought the Kindle version -- I probably would not have bought it.
Not a book, but Fleabag - seriously what is all the fuss about? I got the sunday paper today and by page 8 I'd already seen two spurious photographs of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
I'm going to say Lord of the Rings. That was a hard slog and I only got through it by listening (25 years after I tried reading). Wonderful writing, wonderful characters, amazing world building. I totally understand and appreciate why it's loved. But, for me, it dawdled and went off into meaningless tangents (which I know was part of the worldbuilding, but he'd already done a stellar job, tangents were indulgent for me). Although I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy it, I did. But there were parts that were a slog.

I was committed to it though, for years I owned a beautiful hardcover of all 3 in the trilogy; rice paper too. But after 15 months in hospital and a couple of moves without me, with everyone pitching in to help, it's no longer with my books :(
I've also put on one side The Secret Barrister, Stories of the Law and How It's Broken. This is "the award-winning No. 1 bestseller". "Terrifying... hilarious... eye-opening", according to The Observer (But note those... that indicate omissions. They may be significant here.)

I'm reading it as part of my ongoing UK market survey into what's selling. I'm not legally qualified and know only one young barrister distantly and a few solicitors, so I'm not 'in' this industry.
Those things said, I am at p142 and I have found only one amusing item, right at the very start (good thinking, author). Significantly, this book is NOT terrifying... hilarious... or eye-opening.

What it is, is a committed account, a polemic even, of the UK provincial courts system, with illustrative scenes. As that, it's probably quite interesting and I will finish it one day, on a train or a plane.

I nominate the person who selected -- and they are selective -- the quotes on the book's covers (Excellent, D Tel; Gripping, Guardian; A sensation, Sunday Times) for a prize. Worthy of Don Quixote, E G Logan.
I recently read John Green's Fault in our Stars after avoiding it for a long time because it's not the kind of book I tend to enjoy. While I can understand why it became so popular, the characters rang false to me--every last character in the book was terribly witty at all times (while going through serious shit that would make anyone I know turn into a blubbering mess, at least some of the time). It made for great dialogue, but people simply aren't like that.

And I have to admit I've read The Great Gatsby three times and have yet to see what people see in it. It does nothing for me.

On the other hand, when I first read one of Lee Murray's books, it was purely out of a sense that I ought to because she's an important player in NZ speculative fiction, and she'd been so helpful to me as I was starting to take my writing seriously. I'm generally not drawn to horror or thrillers, and her books are both in spades. But I absolutely loved the first one and have gone on to read the others. I've been completely drawn into her characters and her wild and crazy plots. I think her books deserve a much wider audience.

The truth is, there are a whole lot of good, solid books out there that don't get the recognition they deserve. And, of course, we all react differently to stories, and sometimes it's hard to predict, even for yourself, whether a story will resonate with you. About a year and a half ago, my daughter got totally engrossed in a book, and when I asked her about it, she said it was because the main character was so much like her. Intrigued, I read the book myself, and was surprised she thought the main character (a sports-mad teenage boy who really wanted a girlfriend) was anything like her. But in the book, the boy loses his girlfriend and breaks his hand in his mad obsession with sport. He's forced by his injury and his romantic failure to reassess what he values. It was this my daughter was responding to--she had recently been forced into bed rest for anorexia, and she felt her rock-climbing days were over forever (because she thought she'd never be able to climb as well as when she was super small and skinny, and climbing for hours every day). If she hadn't been at that point in her own life, I doubt the book would have interested her at all. Every story holds truths, and if we are primed to hear those truths, it resonates with us. So I don't dismiss books I don't personally like--they'll be just the right story for someone else.
All I can say is, I do not agree with the reviewers. I think this is extremely self-indulgent, and if I had had the opportunity to flick through a physical book -- I bought the Kindle version -- I probably would not have bought it.

I've now finished the book, and it does get better. By midway through, after I stopped being mildly cross about what it wasn't, I was enjoying it.

However, it's not true to say that it is a biography of one person, The Man in the Red Coat (painted by Whistler). It's more of a grand theatrical sweep of the lives of the artists, writers and minor nobility in Paris -- in France, in fact -- during the Belle Epoque. It darts about madly from 1870 to 1920, and beside the "main subject" (according to Barnes) of the biography, it goes off on substantial tangents on such people as Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Whistler.
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Muddles & Puzzles

Worldbuilding workshop from N.K. Jemisin