Well, I had to jog some painful memories, but I came up with ten of the most harmful novels of the 20th century, plus a few that are good but dangerous.
The harmful novels are often well-written, but their effects have generally been disastrous: they inspired younger writers to imitate them, they created awful new genres that debased readers’ tastes, or they promoted literary or social values that we could very much do without.
Their harmful effects tended to be immediate, and then to fade out as other bad novels emerged. My list is both entirely subjective (I am a scarred victim of several of them) and in no particular order.
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. This at least has the virtue of being so widely read and discussed that we don’t really need to read it ourselves. I tried a couple of times and bogged down badly. Others apparently found Rand’s novel a political blueprint; they are numerous enough to form hazards to navigation on the Internet, not to mention in the Bush administration.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. Mark Twain made the American vernacular a literary language; Salinger tried to do the same for the American adolescent whine. We who read Catcher as teenagers in the 1950s and 60s at once considered ourselves free to babble on paper as we did over coffee and cigarettes. It was certainly easier than learning how to write a straightforward sentence expressing something more than teen angst.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. As a kid I knew a few veterans of the International Brigades who’d actually fought in Spain instead of reporting on it, as Hemingway had. They called this novel “For Whom the Bull Throws.” But Hemingway’s style was fatally imitable, and I dropped my plagiarism of Salinger to plagiarize Hemingway instead. Politically, Hemingway didn’t know what he was talking about, but it sounded cool to spend your days blowing up fascists and your nights cuddling in a sleeping bag with a Spanish babe.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Hemingway’s greatest influence was on hardboiled detective writers like Dashiell Hammett, who actually did some good work. Then Chandler came along with his poached detective Philip Marlow, who took so many conks on the head that he wrote entirely too well, stacking up bizarre metaphors like so many poker chips in a high-stakes game of roulette in some lost casino of the soul. So to speak. Not until Elmore Leonard would crime fiction finally free itself of the creative-writing workshops.
Love Story, by Erich Segal. This one took me only 45 minutes to read, and half a second to fling across the room. Its sentimentality addled the wits of a whole generation in the early 1970s.
USA, by John Dos Passos. In the 1920s, Dos Passos was an interestingly experimental writer, breaking up his narrative with “newsreels” and sidebars about current events and celebrities. I thought he was tough and gritty, but when I revisited this endless trilogy a few years ago, I found the narrative unreadable no matter how it was broken up. Dos Passos eventually migrated from the Marxist left to the Buckley right, without improving as a writer.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac. Circa 1957, my friends and I at Santa Monica High were knocked silly by On the Road and the other novels that gushed from Kerouac’s typewriter. Once again, we learned that babble is good, and we ignored Truman Capote’s dismissal: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” I didn’t really recover until 1965, when I wrote my first novel. I was in the army, and the discipline must have made a difference: the novel was bad, but bad on its own terms and not on Kerouac’s.
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. This hand-embroidered depiction of rape and slaughter is all too typical of current “literature.” The more metaphors and similes you can throw in, the more the critics praise you. The effect is like a nice firm dog turd garnished with whipped cream and a cherry on top, and served on a fine porcelain plate with a silver spoon.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. Well, we know all British writers hated the boys’ schools their parents consigned them to. Nasty schoolboys are still a dismal metaphor for civilization, even if it’s clangingly obvious to an audience genuinely scared of nuclear war. Sucks to your pretensions, Willy.
Good But Dangerous
The good but dangerous books are a different matter. They have a powerful effect on us, but only gross incompetents will be dumb enough to try to imitate them.
Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre launched countless romance novels and family sagas, but the Brontës were at an extreme of talent; their successors have regressed to the mean, and then some. The same is true of The Lord of the Rings, which has spawned half a century’s worth of tedious fantasy epics.
Some novels are good but dangerous because they leave us dumbfounded. After Ulysses, what more can we say about the mythic echoes in modern life? Even Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t come up with a novel that could match The Great Gatsby, so how could we? I re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude every few years. Every time I find that the Maestro has broken still more of the rules we ordinary mortals must obey if we want to tell a story.
The bad novels give us at least this consolation: If those nincompoops could break into print, and even sell millions of copies, then we nincompoops ought to be able to do at least as well.