It would be audacious to offer a common link for so many works conceived in so many different environments over so many years, and yet offer it I do! I read a great deal of fiction in 2010 and watched with keen interest as some books succeeded and others failed. I sifted not only matter but motive, and during my Nightmare Summer of Homelessness, I became extra-sensitive to scams and phony sincerity, as street people must. And once I gained the provisional shelter of the crude lean-to where I currently live, I found those newly-sharpened instincts a great help when scanning the New Fiction shelves at the Boston Public Library. Authors will always give you their motivations for writing – “I guess I’m just a simple storyteller,” or “my characters demanded life,” or some such clap-trap, and no doubt there are tiny little germs in their books that actually interest them.

But this year an animus was as obvious as it was distasteful., Virtually every offender on this list was born of a calculating cynicism of such staggering self-absorption as to provoke homicidal rage. Not ‘what do I feel?’ but ‘what kind of deal?’ prompted these monstrosities, but the real irritant is the arrogance of ‘you’ll take what I give you, and you’ll have the reactions I dictate.’ Not one of these novels is sincere, but worse: each one of them, in their own way, mocks sincerity with a bland hatefulness that can only be achieved by authors who’ve already been paid.

So here they are, the worst of the very bad! As in Dante’s Inferno, we’ll arduously ascend to the very bottom (or something like that):

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine – Admitting up front that this wretched novel partially owes its place here on the list to the faults of others in no way lessens its own copious faults, nor does alluding to the book’s own Dark Predecessor. It’s true that Schine herself is not responsible for the embarrassing glut of Jane Austen pastiches choking the market these days, but she is responsible for all her own book’s hackneyed dialogue and coarsely-orchestrated feel-good moments. And she’s certainly guilty of hoping the same thing all the other Austen-defilers hope: that some of Jane’s wit and insight will automatically attach to any book that parodies or imitates her, even a book as bad as this one. Hoping doesn’t make it so, and that ought to be the final nail in the coffin of all such books, but we better not expect it. And there’s also the aforementioned Dark Predecessor: Schine’s The Love Letter was not only a viciously cynical, lazy, and horrible scrap of trash, but it also stands as yet untoppled as the Single Worst Novel Ever Written – only with no Internet back then for me to say it, just lots of ranting snail-mail letters to long-suffering friends. The enormous sin of that earlier book is a heavy burden to bear, but The Three Weissmanns of Westport commits plenty of sins of its own and dares its readers not to count them, and that would have earned it a spot on the list anyway.

9. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu – It’s a neat little irony that Mengestu’s thin, meager novel is mostly about the many and multi-layered lies African ex-pats tell almost compulsively, and this book is a very good example of how a work of fiction can also be a sustained lie. African ex-pat Jonas Wondemarium (that surname wouldn’t be significant, would it? geez) is the alleged center of this book’s many trite stories, but the real point here is the novel’s unspoken but deafening proclamation: “I, the author, am an African ex-pat! I am a cottage industry! No matter what garbage I serve up, you must call it ‘a searing examination of exile and community’ in the New York Times!’ If the author’s name were Daniel Miller, this novel would have been called an idiotic, farcical bit of laziness. But the book-world is enamored of the exotic and will venerate any old crap as long as it carried a rifle across the veldt when it was eight.

8. The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard – You know you’re in trouble when an author feels the need to pack not one but two cliched abstractions into the book’s very title, as if she just can’t wait to set about the task of boring her readers. Some ineffable logic dictated that this book couldn’t be called The Scent of Rain or The Scent of Lightning, and that same logic governs every page of this tired, lazily-written story about an old murder, a new trial, and a conflicted family forced to confront What Really Happened That Night. Every character here is a cardboard stock-type out of some tepid Bonanza re-run, except there’s no Hop Sing to make saucy insults on his way back to the kitchen.

7. Hester by Paula Reed – Nathaniel Hawthorne should count his blessings it’s Jane Austen getting all that pastiche attention and not himself, if this ridiculous ‘sequel’ to The Scarlet Letter is any indication of the bullet he dodged. Hester Prynne, telepath. You have been warned.

6. All That Follows by Jim Crace – The standard line here in condemning a putrid little squib like this from an internationally-regarded novelist like Crace would be to say “how are the mighty fallen” or “a rare misstep” – but that standard line would be wrong, since Crace has been egregiously over-estimated since the moment he first set pen to paper. No, the correct response when writing about this flaccid story of sad sack Leonard Lessing (not Moring but Lessing, get it?), a wannabe radical tyrannized by the women in his life, is “more of the same.” Crace has always thought it acceptable to waste the readers’ time (and money) with pointless, meandering digressions on any little subject that happens to be fascinating him at the moment he sat down to his computer. As a result, his stack of tellingly slender novels are as stinky and insubstantial as a rack of farts. This novel, like his previous two, doesn’t even bother to conclude – it just appears, offends, and vaguely dissipates.

5. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee – Also criminally overrated, Dee turns in a lazy, cliched novel about money-grubbing power couple Adam and Cynthia Morey (not Lessy but Morey, get it?) and their messed-up kids and their glamorous lifestyle and their maniacal greed and Adam’s risky investment practices and the inevitable etc. etc. Not one sentence of this novel is energetic; not one paragraph was profitably revised, not one ounce of heart is present throughout this whole exercise of socially-relevant ‘topical’ fiction reduced to the mindless driving of cap-and-piston.

4. The Instructions by Adam Levin – Take a young author who hasn’t stopped writing shit since he was 12 years old, include every single uncrafted bit of journal-keeping about every single subject that has ever passed through that author’s head, create a crassly-manipulative shred of a plot starring not only a disillusioned young boy but a Jewish disillusioned young boy, take the resultant 1000-page disgustingly self-indulgent manuscript to a publisher who encourages such blockhead prolixity instead of scorning it, and you have The Instructions by first (and very much hopefully last) time author Adam Levin, here channeling David Foster Wallace and producing a book very nearly as awful as all those by his Dark Master.

3. The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody – Much like the tripartite godhead, the three books that comprise our Dark Trinity of the Worst Novels of 2010 are really one novel, and yet three separate faces of cynicism. And as with most expressions of cynicism, the core quality is contempt for the audience. This kind of evil, uninformed cynicism has achieved the state of considering the reading public to be contemptible stooges, sheep who’ll nibble on any rotten lettuce presented to them. how these three authors must have chuckled at their monuments of mockery were bought and talked about! How they must have smirked at a press so willing to play their game! And in some ways – although not the most important ones – Rick Moody’s opus of obscurity is the worst of the three, an act of open hostility against his readers. His hack writer protagonist Montese Crandall is introduced, mocked as an ineffectual C-lister, and then handed the book, as if Moody were saying “Let’s both of us – me and you readers – sit back and marvel at how bad this all is.” But what he’s really saying is, “These totally unconnected things – Mexican wrestling, baseball cards, etc. – momentarily interested me, and this was the first idea I had of how to string them all together; I didn’t try any harder because I’ve already cashed my check.” Moody has famously been called the worst writer of his generation; he provides ample evidence for this in The Four Fingers of Death.

2. The Passage by Justin Cronin – The cynicism informing this hackneyed, overwritten pile of poop is naked opportunism trying its damndest to disguise itself in New Yorker affectations. Cronin’s overlong post-apocalyptic story of lab-spawned ‘viral’ vampires and the people who fight and flee them has been ecstatically praised by both the publishing industry and the critics (most embarrassingly Dan Chaon). Its publication made Cronin a multi-millionaire, launched a thousand book-group discussions, and ensured Dakota Fanning a future Oscar – and all he had to do to achieve all this was sell his literary soul on the open market and then lie his face off about it in a million fawning interviews. A post-apocalyptic monster was indeed born out of a laboratory here – the lab was the 1980s, the Apocalypse happened this summer, and now, for the next forty years, It walks among us.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – The cynicism of our Worst Novel of 2010 is the God the Father of such evil, The Great Author. Franzen’s oily, unsmiling acceptance of this horrific honorific is not the least of his many sins, and his arrogance is by far the worst part of Freedom, a big fat speeding ticket of a novel that’s as long as it is bland, as strident as it is dull, and as stilted as it is silly. The plot of this mess (allegedly a satire on new-yuppie over-achievers but really a cringing apologia for them, issued by one of their own) hardly matters; what matters is the wing-back chair, the leather elbow-patches, the straight-faced evocation of ‘semiotics’ and ‘subtexts,’ the swampy, impenetrable dullness of the thing. Franzen’s kind of cynicism is the worst of them all, the presumption of entree into the literary pantheon. On his worst day, Raymond Chandler could write the pants off this pompous clown, but half a million pretentious book-buyers can’t be wrong.

  • Opinioness of the World

    Great article as always, Steve! After the Franzenfreude debacle of 2010, I have to admit that a part of me is delighted that the frenzied hoopla surrounding Franzen’s “Freedom” added up to nothing more than bombastic blathering. Maybe the NY Times will finally stop fueling the Franzen fire. But I won’t hold my breath.

  • JC

    I count my blessings that, because of you, I don’t have to read the kind of books that “appear, offend, and vaguely dissipate.” Thanks for being a wonderful gatekeeper and guide in 2010!

  • PatD

    Finally! A list on which Franzen belongs.

  • Sam

    Isn’t there some way to have these definitive worst-of lists come at the beginning of the year? How’s Stevereads on time-travel? All unsuspecting, and without the needed oversight, I read four of these books.

  • Kat Warren

    I couldn’t read Crace’s “All that Follows” but I disagree vehemently that Crace’s fiction is over-rated. “The Pesthouse,” “A Gift of Stones,” and “Being Dead” are superb novels and terrific reads (the two don’t always go together).

  • ann

    Franzen does have that ability to string words together and interest reader in living and searching for truth. Is it a midwest thing?

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  • Elizabeth

    The trouble with having a Google news alert about Jonathan Franzen is that it includes links to crap like this. Steve, why do you read? You obviously don’t enjoy it.

  • Steve Donoghue

    Hee – yes sirree, if there’s one thing conveyed loud and clear by Stevereads all these years, it’s that: I obviously don’t enjoy reading! Glad somebody’s finally noticed!

  • Steve Donoghue

    Also, Kat: ‘superb novel’ and ‘terrific read’ DO, in fact, always go together! It’s only postmodern brainwashing that’s convinced the last forty years of readers otherwise, and you can certainly see why so many modern writers would work so hard to convince readers, can’t you? Because writing a ‘terrific read’ is really, really HARD – most of them simply won’t sit down and make themselves do the work, especially if there’s a good chance they’ll fall flat on their faces. Trust me: if you’re reading a novel and not ENJOYING the reading, you’re reading a bad novel!

  • Steve Donoghue

    Sorry, Sam: no time travel! Wouldn’t do any good in the long run anyway, since I – and any good reader – change my opinions of books as I think on them over time, re-read them, review them under several competing pen-names, etc. No, the most I can offer you are our usual literary bitching sessions in your palatial apartment – sorry!

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  • Amy

    Oh this was fun! You were so right on with Mengestu’s book. I was a little more vague in my review, but I agree. Thank goodness someone else doesn’t like The Instructions. What a waste of $25 bucks! I didn’t understand and I really really tried so I could make some pithy remark in the Rumpus Book Club email. I’m just not one of the cool kids….

    Great blog!

  • Rohan

    Oh dear–I remember enjoying The Love Letter! I’ll have to reread it and see if I have any defense.

  • Nadie

    I find the concept behind Hester offensive. Why ruin Hawthorne like that? I don’t mean to say that a novel exploring the aftermath of the events in The Scarlet Letter couldn’t be done well, but Hester Prynne: Telepath?

    Make her a vampire hunter while you’re at it. Gah.

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  • Supreme Neck Protector

    I likedFreedom a lot, and though I can perfectly well understand why someone wouldn’t (I find his work does come across as arch and self-satisfied), I’m at something of a loss as to why it inspires as much venom as it does. Franzen’s public persona is dour and smug and I can see why that rankles a lot of folks to no end. But that has no bearing on the quality of the novel he’s written.

    Are people angry because they’d rather see these privileged characters spit upon than sympathized with? I think Franzen has too much affection for them to take them to task as viciously as an alleged ‘satirist’ is supposed to, but I don’t see this book as particularly satirical or subversive at all — it’s social realism as far as I can tell, with some minor critiques of many of its characters’ actions but an overriding sympathy for most of them. And I don’t see a reason why anyone should be mad at Franzen merely because he chooses to ultimately forgive most of these characters, rather than hang them out to dry.

    Has Franzen ever insinuated he wasn’t one of these people? Were there reviewers who implied it was a send-up? That’s not the book I read.

    And for what it’s worth, the reason I appreciated the novel as much as I did is that the inner lives Franzen gave these characters were almost always consistent with real, true-to-life human feelings. Lines of dialogue, characters’ behaviours, reactions, decisions, recalled the world I feel we live in, and so did his evocation of the surrounding sociopolitical milieu. I thought those were traditionally considered virtues in a novel? What’s bland and stilted about that?

  • Patrick

    Do you mean to say that you read 10 books that you absolutely hated? If I don’t like a book, I put it down after I’ve had my fill. Chances are there are some really great books you would love that are riding the pine because of the books above. I’d encourage you to seek those.

  • Danny

    Of course he didn’t read 10 books he hated, he just look at what was being popular – for good reason – and jumped on the bandwagon of haters. It’s much more pretenious, and therefore winning kool internet brownie points, to hate Franzen and co these days than to be a fan of quailty modern literature.

  • Steve Donoghue

    Hee. Danny joins Elizabeth on the roster of people who’ve made great observations about Stevereads! Yes indeed, not only do I hate reading, but at Stevereads I’m ALL ABOUT jumping on bandwagons! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a 1924 natural history of bats to blog about …

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  • MS

    Moody and Levin are two of my least favorite authors, both overindulgent, both rambling craftsmen, both smugly certain that their books contain meaning. Personally, I enjoyed Freedom. I loved the cogent prose style, the lack of sentimentality. I will say that the ending felt both rushed and didactic, making it a decisively less pleasurable read than The Corrections is. In this assessment of Franzen, however, I sense some reactionary contrariness. Freedom and its author are both very popular and have both received endless accolades from the mainstream literary press. I get the sense that if this book was any less popular it would not have made this list, that a bulk of the ire here is directed less at Franzen and more at the greatness critics have heaped upon him in reception to the book. I don’t hear Franzen ever referring to himself or to his work as “great.” In fact, Franzen, as evidenced by some of the lovely introductions he has written for other writers’ books, seems to suffer more from “Nirvana Syndrome.” If anything, Franzen spends more time promoting what he believes is great literature outside his catalog, much like Nirvana spent more time promoting other Seattle bands than, well, Nirvana.

    The Instructions, too, was also a bit of a sensation, but sensation does not necessarily sour my perception of a book. More often than not, I like to see what the ruckus is all about. In Franzen’s case, I walked away satisfied–in some instances very impressed–while Levin left me hollow. There is also something inherently pompous and pretentious about writing a thousand-plus page book with such papery, insubstantial material. Really, Levin? Was all this gibberish necessary? Does all of that flab really contribute to the story or is there a subconscious expectation that length is, in itself, impressive or deep, that it will be praised anyway? The David Foster Wallace and Philip Roth comparisons are also lazy. “Well, he’s writing about a Jewish boy who is obsessed with Roth, and the book also happens to be very long like Infinite Jest. Gentlemen, we have a blurb.” But that’s just my take.

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