December 16, 2011

The Most Overrated Books of 2011


We don’t often report about newspapers adding new book columns — er, check that: we’ve never reported on a newspaper adding a new book column — but one of the country’s biggest papers, the New York Daily News, has added a new book blog, Page Views, and so far it’s been good enough to generate a lot of chatter from a pretty jaded publishing publishing industry. A New York Observer notice by Emily Witt quotes deputy op-ed editor Alexander Nazaryan, who’s in charge, explaining that, “You may not think of the tabloid as a particularly literary format, but we are going to challenge your assumptions of what constitutes literary/cultural reporting in this town.” What’s that mean? “We will post old Daily News photographs of Truman Capote, all-but-naked, and Norman Mailer, just sprung from jail. We will praise; we will offend.” (He wasn’t kidding about the Capote photos, either, as the photo above attests.)

To wit, here’s a year-end list to warm the bah-humbug hearts of those of us who hate year-end best of lists: Nazaryan’s list of the Most Overrated Books of 2011. Now, try finding a list like that in some other major media outlet.

As if simply having such a list in itself doesn’t prove a not-part-of-the-lit-mafia perspective, check out some of the books on the list and why:

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson – Too soon, and too full of trifling detail that has no business in what many have called the year’s best biography – if not the year’s best book. … But the legacy of Jobs is far more complex, and it is far from decided. From the treatment of Chinese workers at the Foxconn plant where Apple products are made to Jobs’ unapologetic theft of ideas (from the legendary Xerox PARC; from his own brilliant Apple designer Jonathan Ive), there is much in his past that deserves a better sifting-through than it gets here. Commercial considerations hastened this book into publication, when it should have been left to mature like new wine.

You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik – The Daily Beast called it brilliant, naming it one of the fall’s best debuts, while the Christian Science Monitor compared Maksik to Martin Amis. As a former teacher myself, I came into this novel with exceedingly high hopes, imagining a sort of Lolita in the classroom: its main character teaches at an English-language school in Paris, where he has an affair with one of his female charges. Instead, I got a monotone, overly-ruminative narrative with too many Camus references. … It does not help that – according to a damning Jezebel report – Maksik really did have an affair with one of his students, which makes this novel less a Nabokovian exercise in imagination’s darkest recesses than the creepy musings of a real-life Humbert Humbert.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum – Centrist liberal policy, gussied up as a bold plan for the renewal of America. Full of irritating pronouncements like “The secret of our success is too secret,” all of it meant to get us to the “radical center,” which – the authors seem to suggest – was last occupied by Jimmy Carter. And, boy, did that work out well for us, did it not?

Other emperors accused of being naked: That Is All by John Hodgman and The Submission by Amy Waldman. Amongst the publishing elite, thems’ no doubt fighting words. We hope.

Meanwhile, join in the spirit — what other books would you put on the list?



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.