The Worst Book I Ever Read
(Unbearable Books/Autonomedia, 2009)
A couple of years ago author and provocateur Ron Kolm began soliciting from his Unbearables crew contributions to an anthology containing essays about the worst books they had ever read. The result, aptly, is The Worst Book I Ever Read, recently out from the radical Brooklyn publisher Autonomedia. Kolm and his fellow editors have produced 416 pages of violence and mayhem committed against literary works and authors both familiar and obscure.
The Unbearables, for those who don’t know of them, are a loose confederation of poets and writers who came of age in 1980s and 90s New York. Infamous for their high-minded aesthetics and low, barroom manners, the group has sought to torment literary powers-that-be throughout its more than two decades of existence. The group is probably best known for organizing a boycott in 1995 of The New Yorker, protesting its flaccid, middle-of-the-road poetry. Their campaign eventually led “the most righteously un of the Unbearables,” the poet Sparrow, to be published in its august pages. The Worst Book I Ever Read is the Unbearables’ latest attempt at being royal pains.
Several responses to Kolm’s call took the form of pointed criticisms of classic works or books by modern masters. For example, the Bible receives a harsh rebuke in “Holy Shit! My Gripes with the Bible” by John G. Rodwan, Jr., who calls it “[a]n awful book ... a mishmash of so much balderdash that I can only think it is widely revered because it is hardly read.” One-time Unbearable and current Los Angeles Times books editor, David L. Ulin, flings his critical knives at modern lit’s most sacred cow. “Ulysses is without a doubt the worst important book I’ve ever read,” he says, “a mess of arrogant self-indulgence that refuses to hang together, that has more to do with the ego of its author than with the organic urgency of its plot.”
Thus concludes any pretense to civility in the book. The gloves come off, the language turns foul, and the true fun begins as the book’s contributors let loose unsparing invective against their targets. Probably the most over-the-top contributor is Alan Kaufman, who, despite universal opprobrium concerning the “C” word, damns “[f]ucking fat cunt Gertrude Stein,” for authoring The Making of the Americans, “an unreadable nightmare of brainwashing [and] grammatical abuse” lasting 925 pages.
Authors of dubious merit or unwarranted reputation receive withering abuse. “Joyce Carol Oates is more prolific than a brood sow,” declares Jessica Willis. “She’s always putting out something fat and new. But not new.” In a rant titled “Fuck You, David Sedaris,” Marvin J. Taylor denounces Sedaris’ shallowness, on exhibit in Me Talk Pretty One Day, which “at first appears naughty, but is not threatening, so the dull-minded listeners of NPR can feel self-satisfied that they are sufficiently hip and non-homophobic when they listen to the weaselly voice of Sedaris as he lisps his way through his turgid prose.”
A couple of contributors criticize their own work. José Padua is at first pleased when a poem of his is accepted in an anthology titled Mondo Barbie. Later, upon unwrapping his contributor’s copy, he is horrorstruck: “[T]hese pages are fucking pink. Oh my fucking god!” he exclaims. “[T]his might be the worst fucking book ever. And I’m in it.” [Italics in original] Kolm confesses the worst book he ever read, Grand Days, “was one I wrote myself. I’m not trying to be cute, or ironic, or anything. There were no real characters in my manuscript, and the prose was pretty crappy, a hodge-podge of Joycean nonsense.”
The books discussed in the anthology provoke strong reactions among contributors that tend to be highly idiosyncratic and personal in nature. Michael Lindgren expands the discussion to institutional reasons for why so many books are bad. Referring to Miss Misery, by Andy Greenwald, Lindgren asks:
Does no one have the patience or fortitude or just plain ambition to think up a set of characters and locale that betray the presence of an original idea? Must every shitty novel I pick up be a thinly veiled set of diary entries transferred to the page with barely the effort to change the names involved? Am I hopelessly old-fashioned to think books should sometimes have ... one of those, you know, “plot” thingies? What the fuck is wrong with novelists—not to mention publishers—today?”
All projects like The Worst Book I Ever Read are uneven in the material they present. Whereas many pieces in the anthology are deadly accurate—and full of wit and menace besides—included are several unsuccessful pieces, mostly toward the back of the book, that drop informed, quasi-objective assessment in favor of impressionistic, metafictional or poetic interpretations of their subjects. Preferable are the direct, full-frontal assaults that make up the bulk of the book, which are in keeping with the rowdy Unbearables ethos.
The Worst Book I Ever Read keeps the Unbearables’ flag defiantly raised amid institutional corruption, literary lameness and publishing torpor. With the addition of peers going down parallel paths of disaffection and younger authors awakening to corporate and consensus America’s drone, the book proudly extends the Unbearables brand.