Arts and Culture

4 Overrated Authors and 4 You Should Read Instead

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Recently it came to my attention that for a lot of people my age and younger, their literary knowledge basically begins and ends with Harry Potter.

Two tweets. First tweet " I feel like losing followers this morning... Part of JK Rowling's clout and accalim resides in the fact that a lot of adults stopped reading books for adults, and when they say she's a great writer, they're comparing her to like RL Stine and Ann M Martin." Second tweet. "Not quite. Rowling's real importance lies in the fact that she was the first writer to present a world in which class and wealth mattered, some characters were poor, some were rich, and being poor was a hardship, not just a cheery sentimental thing in the scenery."

Apparently they’ve never read Dickens. Or anything by any woman of color, or any Russian pre 1917.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of Harry Potter. I grew up with the books myself; the 5th, 6th, and 7th books came out as I turned 15, 16, and 17 respectively. I would get them within the first week of hitting stores, and would read them within a day. Leading up to the release of each new novel I would read the previous books so they would be fresh in my mind. But there are so many great authors out there, and I feel like there are some we’ve given enough time. Granted my expertise is more in film and television, but I’ve been known to read a book or two. So, I wrote this list of authors we’ve paid enough attention to and some I think deserve some time in the spotlight.

Overrated: J.K. Rowling

Rowling has come under heat for her recent, blatantly transphobic remarks. This isn’t about that honestly, as her transphobia never effected the Harry Potter series. This is about that Harry Potter, which was written for lonely nerds ages 11-17, and should be mostly read by lonely nerds ages 11-17. The plot holes in the series have been talked about over and over again. That’s not to say fans can’t revisit their favorite work, but c’mon now. It’s been 20 years of non-stop Harry Potter. It’s supposed to be a gateway drug, but unlike gateway drugs it rarely seemed to pull in people to the harder stuff.

You Could Try: S.E. Hinton

S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was only 15 years old, which is why I feel like it’s odd I haven’t seen her work connecting much with youth in this age of empowerment. And it’s not just that she wrote a novel at that age, it’s that it’s also so damn good. As a teenager Hinton had an understanding of human condition that many authors never achieve. Her empathetic take on the struggles of poverty likens that to Russian authors like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. 

Good One to Start With: Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish was always my personal favorite. Like all her books it’s about a poor teen in a midwestern town. The protagonist is aimless, living conditions are bleak, and none of the adults seem to have it figured out. I feel like this novel would resonate with a lot of teens right now.

Overrated H.P. Love Craft

H.P. Lovecraft introduced new anxieties and fears into the hearts and minds of million across the globe. While his writing didn’t become popular until after his death, in the last couple decades, it has become seminal on the reading lists of horror and sci-fi fans alike. His work often centers around the void, or the fear of terrible, incomprehensible things. Often they enter and torment people with intrusive thoughts and images, which probably mirror his own anxieties throughout his reclusive life. The problem is the extreme racism, which does effect his writing. 

You Could Try: Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Gogol was a writer in Russia in the early and mid 1800s. His work tends to be more surrealist than horror, but the themes and anxieties are similar. He wrote many short stories, novellas, and one novel Dead Souls. While never gaining popularity in his lifetime, his writings have been direct influences on acclaimed writers like Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Steinbeck. His stories combine fantasy, existentialism, surrealism, and criticisms on wealth disparity and bureaucracy. One thing I love about many 19th century Russian authors is their empathy for the lower classes. Gogol is no exception. One of the best examples of this is the short story “The Overcoat”. It tells the story of a poor man who is robbed of a recently purchased overcoat, and then asks for help from an upper-middle class person. The person denies to help, and the old man freezes to death in the Siberian winter. 

Good One to Start With: Diary of a Madman and Other Stories

Diary of a Madman is a 25 page short story that chronicles one man as he slowly loses his mind. He is a middle class worker that becomes fixated on the correspondence of the dogs of two upper-class women. The collection also includes The Nose (where a man loses his nose), The Overcoat, and the Portrait.

Overrated: David Foster Wallace

The bandana-clad Gen X bad boy author of the 90’s, David Foster Wallace gained popularity with his magnum opus Infinite Jest. As the child of two academics, Wallace devotes a large portion of his writing to how much more intelligent he is than you. His writing captured the mood of an entire generation, if that entire generation was an upper-middle class suburban white male. Infinite Jest lives up to its title as a 1,000 plus page meandering tale of sardonic responses and being mad at your parents.

You Could Try: Kurt Vonnegut

This may seem like trading in one Hipster Card for another, but hear me out. Vonnegut’s writing moves past satire. What many would consider his best work, Slaughterhouse Five is the perfect example of how complex existentialisms and pontifications can be done quickly and efficiently. Vonnegut rarely would write a run-on sentence, but in a few words could say a phrase you’ll ponder the rest of your life like “If the accident will”. He mostly considered himself to be a sci-fi writer, and sci-fi elements do enter into most of his stories, but what really shines is the contrast between his droll wit and the often profound existential themes behind his writing. His books usually move at an even pace, giving you just enough to want to keep going.

Good One to Start With: Cat’s Cradle

I debated whether Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five would win out. And honestly, you could probably read both in the same day. Cat’s Cradle is about a newspaper journalist, three children of a dead scientist, and a fictional island nation that has been facing nothing but hardships since colonization. This one is more of a traditional novel than Slaughterhouse, which is why it won out. The twist reveal in the middle of the book made me laugh harder than the other book, but its ending is one of the more satisfying takes on “Well the human race is doomed I guess”.

Overrated: Fredrich Nietzsche 

I will admit, Nietzsche makes some good arguments. As industrialization and capitalism hit Europe, he asserted that it would soon take over our lives, to the point that we would feel guilt if we even took the time for general self reflection. He also came up with the time is a flat circle theory (Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence), which cosmologists are starting to think is possible. Pretty spot on. But at the same time I’m not a fan of some of his takes like  that his is the most genius of all genius, or that altruism doesn’t exist. His take on the Uber Mensch, or the man on the mountain, influenced Hitler’s take on creating the “Aryan” race origins. 

You Could Try: Albert Camus

If you don’t know much about Albert Camus, the dude was dope. Quick bullet point of his life.

  • Born and Raised in Algeria in 1913
  • Protested Segregation and Apartheid in Africa in the 30’s
  • Fought against the Nazi’s in the French Resistance 
  • Got famous partially for being handsome and cool
  • Is responsible for “One must imagine Sisyphus happy”
  • Wrote plays and novels that question the very meaning behind morality
  • Won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and turned it down
  • Died in a car crash in a convertible with a famous french actress at 44

Camus, along with Jean-Paul Sartre, are largely responsible for creating the philosophical arguments behind absurdism. Absurdism boils down to embracing the cold indifference of the universe by choosing a life of substance. 

Good One to Start With: The Stranger

The Stranger follows Meursault, who feels no empathy. He murders a man with a gun on a beach, then it goes through the trial and execution. This novella touches on absurdism, our relations to one another, and how we define morality. It’s also the subject of an awesome song by The Cure.

Honorable Mentions for Author’s/Books to Read

W.E.B. Dubois

Viktor Frankel

A Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Jean-Paul Sartre

Code Talker – Joseph Bruhac

Ralph Ellison

Zadie Smith – Swing Time

Notable Native People – Adrienne Keene

American Indian Stories – Zitkala

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Sonny Curtin

Sonny Curtin

Sonny Curtin is an absurdist, and not particularly tall. Their hair color changes frequently to avoid paternity suits.

Once Sonny watched a sea catch on fire. The reflections of the embers beamed off the Red Sea in the Saharan night, as they tried to remember a past long forgotten. They felt the heat from the flames as the wind swirled around them, thrusted up sand and seemed to reshape the dunes in front of their eyes. It was then that they knew. It was time to move on.

6 Comments

  1. Karen Miller
    January 14, 2022 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    Philip K. Dick is a great one to read as well as the ones mentioned above.

  2. Moi
    January 16, 2022 at 5:11 am — Reply

    I think, to be fair, that your title is a bit of a dodge. The real story is _your_ opinion about selected authors. I think that is a huge difference.

    Rowling? Never cared for her work. Don’t care for her politics. But her impact is obvious.

    Nietzsche? Yes, his work is the litter in every ‘thinking’ undergraduate’s bedroom (look under the Ernesto “Che” Guevara poster and next to The Doors Greatest Hits CD . . . in 1990!). But he was influential, for good and ill. That doesn’t make him overrated (I am still not understanding what that term means after reading your explanations of the authors listed).

    David Foster Wallace? Tortured, and a seemingly depressed jerk. But think about your own criticism of his work: “His writing captured the mood of an entire generation, if that entire generation was an upper-middle class suburban white male.” So he gets a strike for having a POV, even if it is a fairly limited one? And you ascribe to him your POV in making that criticism, which is illuminating (if unintentional).

    Notice I didn’t respond to your alternative writers. Reason? They are interesting too. So why does it have to be either/or? Can’t it be _both_, or, if you like X, you might find Y engaging? I mean, Frankel is a great read. But so is Fromm. So why divide when you can simply extend a reader’s range?

    And, respectfully, you aren’t really doing a lot of heavy digging with your choices (overrated or otherwise). Moreover, you run the risk of sounding a bit, well, tone-deaf (and I say that as a person who finds your choices interesting). You name check Sartre, but don’t really dig into how that impacts your previous choice of Camus, even as it also implicates Heidegger. Perhaps that would create some sort of existential crisis that impact both Being and Time. Or perhaps it was an editing choice. Who’s to know, right?

    I know, I know. I am being a bit picky. But you give a gloss on a lot of ideas, all the while talking about some important thinkers as ‘overrated’ and others being ‘less’ (!?!?) rated, even as they are patently not. So, again, why not extend beyond the list as I suggested, pointing to interesting others and not creating hedgerows where none are needed, required, or even implied?

    Good read though. Really.

  3. Adriane
    January 16, 2022 at 6:37 am — Reply

    Ursula K Le Guin ‘s Earthsea books are amazing if you’re looking for a better take on fantasy, although she is maybe better known for her sci-fi, such as The Left Hand of Darkness. She breaks my heart every time and I can’t get enough.
    For something recent that’s accessible for adults who might be reluctant readers (novellas with direct, contemporary language), The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is truly wonderful.

  4. Owen
    January 20, 2022 at 12:37 pm — Reply

    Love Phillip K Dick as mentioned above. Agree about Rowling, Hinton. Totally disagree about Lovecraft although I don’t think he’s high literature and never claimed to be the racist charge is very tired and hardly appears at all. For pure horror he was great. I need to read Gogol. Agree about Wallace (pretentious) and Vonnegut, Nietsche and Camus. In your honorable mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez is good, and Ralph Ellison. Also recommend Richard Wright, especially Native Son and The Outsider. Your readers would probably appreciate Pleasant Hell by John Dolan, a brutally hilarious send up of the Bay Area suburbs from the point of view of a hopeless nerd (and a barely disguised autobiography)

  5. Perry
    January 20, 2022 at 8:45 pm — Reply

    Thank you for acknowledging the pretentious, overbearing, and frankly unreadable writing of Wallace. I have attempted to read his work on several occasions to no avail. For me its akin to having random numbers on the pages instead of words. Yet I found myself revisiting the scene of the crime again and again. I wanted to experience the joy everyone else seemed to be enthralled with but I never did. I wondered if perhaps I was not as intelligent or astute as I and others thought. Maybe I was missing something, or my expectations were so high they could never be equaled? And then it hit me like an uppercut from Mike Tyson at his peak, the writing blows. It’s just awful and overrated, a prize to be lauded by those who want to feel superior and are convinced you will never understand.

  6. Moi
    February 5, 2022 at 4:41 am — Reply

    Perry, calm down. His writing is not to your liking. That’s fine. But why slag on writers you don’t like? There is room enough for everybody in this big tent, on this small marble.

    This site traffics in inclusion. It aims to highlight all manner of highs and lows. It occasionally shines a harsh light on some ill-thought-out miscreant. But bagging on authors? Published ones? Perry, you must find Pynchon too dense for words! “A screaming comes across the sky.” Oh heavens, what does that mean?!?!

    I guess I just found this post to be a cheat-sheet throwaway. Oh wait. Am I doing it too? No, actually, I am not. I gave the writer credit for what was created, even as I critiqued it. So, too, others. And that is my basic point. Admit you don’t like something. But also give credit to those who toil away to produce something, anything, that speaks to them and also to others.

    I’m done dabbling, Perry. But both you and Curtin are entitled to your opinions. Thing is, so am I . And I find affectation to be cloying. It suggests an attitude of exclusion, all while being in the ‘know’. And that doesn’t move the things forward.

    By the way, I find Poe to be overrated. Zing!

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