A List of Disappointing, Annoying, Unmemorable Novels

Sarah of Sarah’s Books http://sarahbbc.wordpress.com/ writes “You are recommending too many must-reads. How is one to keep up?! This one sounds intriguing, but I am not sure that I could take all that undiluted happiness.”

Yes, this is a reviewer’s quandary. I try to read only books I think I’ll like, and so the majority of them are going to get positive reviews. But how many times can one reviewer use the words ‘wonderful’, ‘great’, ‘amazing’, ‘impressive’, ‘stunning’, etc, without losing all credibility with the audience and all self respect?

So here I’m putting down a list of novels in no particular order which I have found disappointing, annoying, or unmemorable. I want to prove to Sarah that I can be just as pernicious as the next person.

First, one disclaimer. A bit of indigestion, a sleepless night, a grueling day at work can make any novel seem like a useless trial. I’m not saying the books below are bad books. All I’m saying is that I reacted badly to them at the time.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson- Denis Johnson went slumming on this one, and it shows. One hundred lesser talented novelists than Denis Johnson could write this story in their sleep better than he did.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano – A group of South American young people hanging together for literature. Sounded promising, but they were still hanging after 143 pages, not saying anything interesting, so I quit. Others have said it gets better after that.

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – When Joyce Carol Oates is obsessed about something, she can make you feel as terrible about it as she does. I felt terrible for 474 pages.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens –  I hate cute kids in novels.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy –  I hate cute kids (“Papa!”) in novels.

Stanley and the Women by Kingsley Amis – I’ve read several pathetic novels by Amis in my futile quest for another “Lucky Jim”.

The Deportees by Roddy Doyle – His condescending attitude toward new immigrants of Ireland put me off Irish literature for a couple of years.

My Life as a Man by Phillip Roth –  This novel was on the top of my worst list until another, see below, replaced it.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Perhaps my worst all-time read.   Something about this book irritated me tremendously. It’s like Vonnegut was having a dispute with his publisher, and he intentionally wrote a lousy book to get even. Perhaps it was his line, “This is an asshole”, repeated an infinite number of times, each with an illustrative drawing.

Silas Marner by George Eliot – No one can be as cloying and sickeningly sentimental as George Eliot is in Silas Marner. The same is also true of her “Janet’s Repentance”.

Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, a play by Daniel Fo – I usually try to read Nobel literature prize winners, even when they are this bad.

The Wings of the Dove, The Sacred Fount, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl by Henry James – I haven’t been able to read past page 30 in any of Henry James’ later major novels without falling into a deadened stupor.

Do you have any novels you really disliked or detested?  Tell me about them with a comment.

16 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by whisperinggums on November 13, 2009 at 12:40 PM

    LOL Tony…I tend not to dislike much but:

    I have to admit that I could not get through The ambassadors when I tried it. I like other James novels but haven’t had much success with his later career ones.


    I have put aside – but I may like it next time I give it a go (!) – is Orhan Pamuk’s My name is red. I liked Snow and his non-fiction Istanbul but could not get into Red. Subject seemed interesting – even now I can’t quite explain it.

    There are others too over the years but this is a start. After all, it’s your post not mine!!


    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      Happy to hear I’m not the only one who had trouble with later Henry James. I still like TS Eliot’s quote, “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”
      “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk is one of my favorite reads for 2009, and I read “My Name is Red” several years ago, and reviewing my notes I see I gave it a good rating.
      Stay tuned, because I have a couple of blog entries concerning Australian writers coming up.


      • Posted by whisperinggums on November 13, 2009 at 11:24 PM

        Yes, I’m sure my My name is red problem was more to do with my mind at the time.

        I must say that I’ve liked eery Murakami I’ve read: Norwegian Wood, Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world, and After dark. I thought the latter was fascinating actually. I also recently read his sort-of memoir, What I talk about when I talk about running. It was interesting but a little disappointing – so much more prosaic than I expected. (Here is a link to my review if you or praymont are interested: http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/haruki-murakami-what-i-talk-about/)

        I will watch out for your next Aussie posts.


  2. I was annoyed and disappointed by Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I loved his Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Wonderland was annoying because of the continual shifting back and forth between two loosely connected stories. Also, I didn’t like Vonnegut’s Bluebeard.


    • Hi Praymont,
      I notice that you kept reading Haruki Murakami even after you were disappointed by one of his books. I think Haruki Murakami is so strong a writer that one would keep reading him even if he has a misfire.
      I’ve read several books by Murakami. “Norwegian Wood” and “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” were outstanding’; “After Dark” not so much. He still is on my must-read list, and I understand “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is a modern classic.


  3. Ouch! I am feeling a trifle guilty, because I do enjoy your positive reviews, despite my whinging about not being able to read all the fantastic books listed.

    Having said that, although I hate to write a negative review, I do get a certain schadenfreude from reading other people’s. I must be a bad, bad person because your negative post has really cheered me up!

    Perversely, I now want to read that Joyce Carol Oates…


    • Sarah,
      No reason to feel guilty; I was already thinking about all the nauseatingly positive reviews I’d recently written, and your comment helped me to clear the books. Your comment was an immediate inspiration for me, and within a half hour of reading it, I was already putting this list together in my mind. The main concern I had was how you would react to my inclusion of “The Road” on the list.
      That one bad experience I had with “We Were the Mulvaneys” did not at all stop me from reading more Joyce Carol Oates. For example, “Middlemarch” is in the running for my all-time favorite novel, yet I included George Eliot on my list.


  4. I had to let ‘The Road’ pass, because your comment about nauseating children was very funny. I’m more inclined to take umbrage over Oliver Twist. Fagin and Sykes more than make up for the kiddie contingent.

    Don’t think I finished Silas Marner… but I love Middlemarch.


  5. I like the idea for the post and am happy to see it was Sarah that goaded you into it. (Just kidding, Sarah.)

    While I mentioned several Vonnegut novels as funniest as suggestions for that list, he has written some awful (to me) books. Timequake and Breakfast of Champions were both difficult for me to finish. I did, but…

    The Road was a disappointment, but primarily because of the very, very high expectations I had for it. One Hundred Years of Solititude was disappointing for much the same reason, but it was annoying just because of choices the author made.

    I thought (and still think) that White Teeth was very overrated.

    Cold Mountain fell apart.

    But, the bottom spot in my list goes to:

    Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is certainly not the worst book I have read. Only the most painful. It explores the incredibly tedious existence of a person whose primary thought is always about getting the next drink. Roughly four hundred pages of craving, no matter how beautifully expressed, was just too much. I chose it from the Modern Library list of 100 best novels of the century. I cannot in good conscience recommend it to anyone else, its objective merits be damned.


    • Hi Kerry,
      You picked some formidable novels for your short list. As they say, “You can’t argue taste”, as I liked “Cold Mountain” a lot and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Under the Volcano” are two more of my many favorites. Since I read those two novels many years ago, I would have to re-read them to do a meaningful review of them now. I’ve been considering which, if any, novels to re-read so I could discuss them on my blog. I admire your strong opinions.


      • Oooh, sorry I picked a bunch of your favorites. I do not deny that One Hundred Years and Under the Volcano are very good books from an objective, literary perspective. If that helps…..

        They are much loved, so I am prepared to accept that the failing is mine. But Under the Volcano was, without close peer, my biggest failing. I have never been so grimly pleased to finish a book.


  6. So, I take it you won’t be going to see The Road when it comes to your nearest cinema, then? 😉

    Actually, this post has just confirmed a lot of my worst fears: I’ve never read any Henry James because I’m too scared to. And ditto for Robert Bolano.

    The most disappointing book I’ve read in recent years was Roth’s The Plot Against America. It was my first Roth and probably my last.


    • Posted by whisperinggums on November 18, 2009 at 11:33 AM

      You haven’t read James, kimbofo? You didn’t like The plot against America? I do like some James – Portrait of a lady is well worth a read. So is Princess Cassamassima. He had a long career and I think got more obscure as he tried to reach more deeply into psychology as he wore on – but the early one are good. It’s there that you see the similarity between him and Edith Wharton I think. And, what didn’t you like about Plot? It’s my only Roth to date and I liked it. I thought it was intriguing.


  7. Hi Kimbofo,
    My family has a way of always picking to see the movies I least want to see, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if I wound up seeing “The Road”. Who knows, they make so many bad movies out of good books, maybe for once they’ll do the opposite. I listened to “The Road” while driving to and from work, and every time that little boy said “Papa!”, the wheels on the car stopped turning. I got a little sick of that after a while. .


  8. Damn, that sound’s so easy if you think about it.


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