Literary Blog Hop: Books that are hyped as literary, but are they?

This weekend’s Literary Blog Hop, hosted by The Blue Bookcase, poses an interesting question: describe a book that was widely considered to be “literary” but in your opinion, was not.

I wonder if every book blogger has a book they “love to hate”?  I do, so the answer to this question came quickly: Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld.

My husband asked, upon hearing this question, how do you determine whether something is considered literary?  There are a lot of ways to answer that question, and we’ve discussed this before — including strong writing, meaningful messages, characters that resonate and teach us something, and new ways to look at important times and places in history.  But in the case of Prep, I have a pretty easy answer.  Prep was actually picked by the New York Times Book Review as the best novel of 2005.

They described the book as:

This calm and memorably incisive first novel, about a scholarship girl who heads east to attend an elite prep school, casts an unshakable spell and has plenty to say about class, sex and character.

I can actually remember shaking the paper in disgust when that pronouncement came out.

I understand that every year has its “It” books — say Freedom or The Passage — and those books aren’t going to appeal to everyone.  But I found Prep to be trite, annoying, and overwritten.  It’s the story about a teenage girl who goes to an elite boarding school, gets caught up in her poor self-esteem, and basically spends most of her time sleeping with a guy who (she knows) won’t actually date her.

I understand about self-esteem issues.  I understand about trying to figure yourself out in high school, navigating the perils of teen sexuality and dating, and dealing with issues of appearance, class, and academic competition.  I lived all those things, although not in a fancy prep school.  And yet I failed utterly to sympathize with the main character in this book. All of the characters felt stereotypical and the story trite and unimaginative.  I feel like there are so many more great books about the high school experience.  This book is no Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace.  There are those who considered this book the definitive novel about girls’ teenage experience in the 80s.  It was not that for me.

I read this book six years ago so I can’t describe it in more detail than that.  I finished it grudgingly, expecting it to get better and it did not; and the fact of its literary success just made me hate it more.

  10 comments for “Literary Blog Hop: Books that are hyped as literary, but are they?

  1. May 14, 2011 at 11:02 am

    I read Prep last year and I wouldn’t say it’s literary either, I think. I didn’t think it was badly written and I did like the story – mostly.

    • May 15, 2011 at 8:38 am

      Clearly a lot of people really liked it, so the book must have resonated with them. I really disliked the main character and the story. I think Sittenfeld got a lot of credit for being a first-time novelist too.

  2. May 14, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    While I have not read this book, your experience resonates with me. I am leery of books that are chosen, as this one was, as the “best ” of the year. Sometimes they are very good, but often they are not.

    • May 15, 2011 at 8:41 am

      Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I lost a lot of faith that year in the NYT’s picks, but that’s probably a good thing. Although I still find their Top 100 Notable Books to be a good resource.

  3. May 14, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    my reasoning had nothing to do with perceived merit, as my decision making process isn’t that sharp.

    • May 15, 2011 at 8:42 am

      Parrish — it’s not that I chose the book because of its literariness, it genuinely sounded like a book I’d enjoy. It just didn’t live up to any of the hype and I couldn’t understand what anyone (much less the NYT) saw in it.

  4. May 14, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Sounds like a major disappointment.

    I also have a book that I often go back to in order to use it as an example of something I hate in books. It was not the book I picked this week, however.

    • May 15, 2011 at 8:43 am

      Curious what your other book is and why you didn’t use it? Your pick was a good one though. Thanks for visiting!

      • May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am

        The “hated” book I tend to use is Vanity Fair, but I didn’t think it was fair to call it not literary. I just didn’t like it and I think Thakerey’s contemporaries were just so much better than he was. I think that just because you don’t like a book doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include it in a particular category or genre.

      • May 16, 2011 at 9:37 am

        I can see that! It would be hard to call Vanity Fair “not literary” even if you didn’t like it.

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