Catch-22 and overrated novels

Lester Hunt thinks Catch-22 is the most overrated novel of the Twentieth Century, a stance I strongly disagree with (link originally via Marginal Revolution, which also asks what readers think the most overrated novel is).

The most pernicious aspect of Hunt’s post is that it misrepresents Catch-22: he writes, “But it consists of basically the same joke over and over again: military people are evil and stupid. They are also stupid and evil.” The joke is that military life—like much of life, especially in bureaucracies—is absurd, and made all the more so by its officiousness and self-importance and lack of awareness of its officiousness and self-importance. With this starting point, Hunt goes on to say that, “It’s a bad argument,” for Catch-22 to argue that military people are evil and stupid. But literature, even satire, is not necessarily written to make an argument: its point, if it has one, is to create art which exists for its own sake. Even so, and even if his initial point is correct, he’s dangerously close to making an argument like the one I attacked in The Prisoner of Convention, a post about Elmore Leonard: that you have to have the “good guys” in a traditional sense—white knight, armor, etc.—be more sympathetic than the “bad guys.” Novels should have the option of making one perceive a situation from other points of view, and one major point of a great deal of art, especially in writing, is that it is often difficult to tell who the bad guys are. (Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and always has been and always will be, right? So why did the former Secretary of Defense shake his hand? We’ve always been at war with Eurasia, right?) If art lacks this option it becomes propaganda.

Although I’d need to reread Catch-22 to cite textual elements for my criticism, I’d suggest Hunt start with some reading with regard to his fourth point, “[t]here is less than meets the eye[:]””Spindrift and the Sea: Structural Patterns and Unifying Elements in Catch 22” by Clinton Burhans, Jr., “It Was All Yossarian’s Fault” Power and Responsibility in Catch-22″ by Stephen Sniderman, both in the journal Twentieth Century Literature, and “War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22” by J. P. Stern in The English Journal. As far as books go, Critical essays on Joseph Heller by James Nagel is probably worth reading, and even big boy on the block Harold Bloom wrote in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

My own choice for most overrated novel depends on whether one is dealing with the question of whether a novel is overrated by critics of the general public. As The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list shows, the two have substantially different ideas about what constitutes greatness. I’m more concerned with what “The Board” thinks, because its choices are more likely to stand up over time, but my choice overlaps: Catcher in the Rye, a novel that manages to combine spectacularly boring writing with a whiny, indulgent brat. Its only redeeming quality is that high schools assign it—or least mine did—despite the swearing and such, thus potentially moving out of the curriculum books like Ethan Frome—though mine made us read it. Read might be too strong a word—mind assigned it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is also a decent choice, but I doubt most scholars and critics take it seriously anymore, so it does no harm on high school reading lists, and probably a fair bit of good: it’s simple in language but still has enough to sink one’s ill-developed intellectual teeth into, and the symbolism is readily understandable even by 13-year-olds. Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, still seems to have institutional support. I suspect that when the literature professors and teachers who came of age in the 60s retire, Catcher in the Rye will fade into a curio of its time. D.H. Lawrence I don’t love and can’t see aging well, but he is extremely important in terms of the novel’s history. On the Road is another vastly overrated novel, but I hesitate to call it the most overrated.

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