Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

What's your least favourite book?

When people ask this, they usually mean "what book usually considered great is your least favourite?" It would be pointless to discuss bad books no one has ever heard of.

I've made clear elsewhere that I consider James Joyce's Ulysses, often cited as the greatest book of the twentieth century, and Finnegans Wake both grossly overrated. Incredible achievements, tours de force if you will, but not for most people. Though his short stories are great.

I don't like Faulkner's writing, at least in his big novels like The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. I feel he makes the reader do all the work of trying to figure out what the heck he's talking about, rather than doing the writer's work of expressing himself. I don't mind novels considered "difficult" for implying layers of significance to unravel, but I do not appreciate difficulty in sorting out the grammar of each page-long sentence to figure out who's speaking, where we are and what is happening.

A similar remark can be made about the prize-winning and widely acclaimed The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. While this novel was being hailed a masterpiece in the media, I kept meeting real folks who were, like myself, struggling to get past the first few pages. I don't think I've met anyone who understood what was going on in the book until they saw the movie (which was actually pretty good).

And don't give me that malarkey about writers writing for themselves. Anyone can write any gibberish they like for their own entertainment, but when you publish (that is, make public), you are doing so to communicate with others. Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy—they wrote for their publics. There's no shame in that.

Sure, you can also aim to satisfy your own creative or emotional needs within that goal. And there can be real dangers in catering to public whims rather than challenging readers. But these are issues within the framework of publishing to communicate with readers and should not be raised above that overall purpose.

In the past century there has been an effort by critics and academics to separate and elevate "difficult" writing as a higher art form above mere popular writing. Which I reject. This is not to say a lot of popular writing isn't in fact trash. Some is good, some bad, some very bad and some great. But its potential greatness is not dependent on its level of incomprehensibility.

Sorry to go off on this tangent. It obviously irks me.

Oh yeah, I also dislike Atlas Shrugged. I suspect many lists of the most popular books of the twentieth century have Ayn Rand's two big works near the top due to mass voting by her Objectivist disciples—the kind of efforts that by Scientologists got L. Ron Hubbard's writings on some lists. But I do recognize Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have sold millions of copies and in fact were engagingly written. They kept me turning the pages. But I never believed any of them and afterwards I just felt taken in.

Return to FAQs | Next FAQ answer