Ungot greats

This Blowhards’ thread asks: What great writers, musicians and artists do you just not get? You have to accept their greatness, but find it doesn’t work for you. My number one entry is common to others: Henry James. He just doesn’t do it for me. And I think all his characters should get jobs.

About Joanne


  1. James Joyce. I got to page two of Portrait of the Artist, opened my apartment window, and flung the damn book and it’s stupid frigging “moo cow” right out into the snow.

    A friend of mine actually took a copy of Moby Dick into the woods and blew it apart with a shotgun. I probably would have done that with Ulysses, except that I didn’t have a shotgun handy at the time…

  2. agreed. always bothered me.

  3. Eric Clapton. I know he’s “great”; I can hear his technical mastery and his signature “slowhand” style and appreciate, intellectually, his contributions to the evolution of rock and roll. But his guitar playing hasn’t been aurally interesting to me since Blind Faith. He just puts me to sleep.

  4. J.D. Salinger, I thought Holden Caufield was a whiny, prick who needed a smack on the side of the head. And I thought this when I was 17 and had to read it in High School, because my teacher at the time thought it was the greatest book. Probably because it was banned when he was in school.

  5. Faulkner. We read “The Sound & the Fury” in high school, and as I read it, I thought, man if I handed in anything like this, I’d get it back covered in red ink. I eventually came to respect it, but I never did like it.

    And, um, most opera. And yes, I’ve listened to some, I am resolved to keep trying and expand my horizons.

  6. Henry James: I love “Portrait of a Lady” because it’s subtle; you have to piece together what’s really happening in about the last half of the book, from what Isabel says and does and what people say about her. And I like the short stories, especially “Daisy Miller.” However, “The Golden Bowl” remains a closed door to me. I guess it’s too subtle. All the arch conversations between minor characters – I find myself yelling “What are you saying! Just spit it out! When do we get back to the story! Forget it!”

  7. Bruce Lagasse says:

    I’ll add my opinion to those who detest James Joyce. Evidently, Joyce knew a great many deservedly obscure things and he kept trying to incorporate them into his novels. After two or three pages of Finnegan’s Wake, my impression was that Joyce used a random-number generator to come up with his word choice, syntax, and sentence structure.

  8. Mike Rentner says:

    Herman Melville. My family is from Nantucket so I’m supposed to be a fan I guess, but pretty much all those 19th century windbag authors don’t do anything for me, especially Melville and Moby Dick. I mean, what is so clever about such strained allegory and biblical allusions? And it’s SOOOO long.

  9. For the people who don’t get Moby Dick: neither do I. However, Melville’s novella Billy Budd is significantly shoter, a thousand times more accesible, and about a million times more enjoyable. Go check a copy out from the library (usually in a collection with other short stories, etc) and give it a try.

  10. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer. After the thousandth racial/ethnic/anti-semitic epithet – and that was on page two- I threw the book against my bedroom wall and vowed never to mistake verbal pyrotechnics for great literature.

  11. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Kipling and Clancy and Niven and Heinlein. Oh, and Coulter.

  12. Kipling?


    Say it isn’t so.

    (Well, maybe Heinlein’s later stuff.)

  13. I can’t stand Henry James either. Bleh.

    Give me Dickens!

  14. I don’t get Gerard Manley Hopkins.

  15. PJ/Maryland says:

    Billy Budd is in the public domain, and so can be found online (here, for instance). It’s a short story, but it’s by Melville, so it’s not, y’know, short.

    I always found Philip Dick very hard to read. But he must be a great writer, since Bruce and Arnold and Tom star in his movies…

    And how about Shakepeare? I mean, he just wrote plays stringing together all these quotes… [ducking & running…]

  16. Cousin Dave says:

    Jackson Pollack. Abstract art is one thing (there’s a lot of Cubism that I actually quite like), but hanging up one’s dropcloth and proclaiming it art…

    (P.S.: Ms. Frizzle: before you give up on Faulkner, give The Reivers a try…)

  17. OK, I just don’t get Billy Joel. I mean, he can’t sing, (mostly) can’t write, and can’t play the piano. Every “melody” is based on relentless pound, pound, pound on the same key on the piano.

    “Just the Way You Are” and “She’s Only a Woman” are pretty nice ballads. Everything else??? Am I the only one that doesn’t get it?

  18. Ken Summers says:

    Personally, I don’t get any of them, which is why I generally stick to non-fiction. However, I recall a description I once read about Finnegan’s Wake which went something like this:

    “…containing many allusions and obscure puns which have not yet been deciphered…”

    And I thought…if they haven’t been deciphered, how do you know?

  19. Joyce and Faulkner I get just fine, but I will never understand the appeal of these:
    Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
    Keroac’s On the Road.
    jazz music, also anything Floyd and Zeppelin.
    Any of Steinbeck’s “big” novels, esp Grapes of Wrath.

  20. Sean Kinsell says:

    Walt Whitman. I live in hope that someone will eventually explain to me why we all love Walt Whitman so much.

  21. jeff wright says:

    Angelou, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Joyce, Miller, Morrison, Pynchon, Roth, Rushdie, Updike, Warhol, Woolf, rap and progressive jazz.

  22. Bill Leonard says:

    You don’t like jazz, Karen? Ah, well. Different horses, different courses…I love jazz, its antecedants and some of its spinoffs; I have no use for virtually all other contemporary popular music, mostly because there is nothing there to “get.” Rap, another category, is not music; then again, it’s not literature, either. But it sells; I guess there are millions who enjoy and identify with social pathologies.

    As to literature: no, I don’t “get” most of the modern (since about 1950) stuff, mostly because I don’t see the literary merit in something just because it’s obscure (many authors) or an exercise in naval-gazing (the work of the strange, reclusive and self-absorbed J.D. Salinger.) As to the obscurity aspect: a number of years ago, New West magazine took Spectator Bird, a National Book Award winner, and, about 5 years after its original publication, retyped the book in manuscript form and sent it out to a variety of publishers. No one, including the original publisher, would touch it. All rejected it as obscure and meaningless. Of course, that was my thought, too.

  23. Bill, but I read somewhere about the same thing being done with “The Yearling” and no publisher wanted it either. Except for one publisher in Florida, who answered that they loved it, and they’d loved it the first time they read it, too.
    : )

  24. You’re all philistines. :).

  25. greeneyeshade says:

    i tried ‘the brothers karamazov’ twice and never got past the 1st description of saintly father zosima. does anyone remember *any*thing about that book except the line ‘if there is no god, anything is permitted,’ and the grand inquisitor scene?
    laura: when i finally, but better late than never, got around to reading ‘portrait of a lady,’ the introduction to my edition quoted edith wharton’s autobiography: she said she asked james why he’d left the ‘golden bowl’ characters in a vacuum, with no social details, economic aspects etc. _ i haven’t got the exact words in front of me _ and, she wrote, he gave her a tragicomic look and replied, ‘my dear _ i didn’t know i had!’

  26. That’s delicious.

  27. Walt Whitman – yes – Sean. There’s no there there. Song of my self? But what self? There’s no self there. Any of hundreds of thousands who gave their lives for the Union, for a real reason, could write better and more convincingly than Whitman.

  28. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite books of all times. I think the first few chapters of Moby Dick are among the funniest in American Lit. I also love all the books karen mentions — but I have a real fetish for road/quest/journey lit. Joyce is subtle. I’m feeling I’m still not quite ready for Ulysses, although I’ve enjoyed everything else. Whitman I didn’t get at first — I had to put a lot of miles on my odometer as far as poetry goes before I was able to see what he was doing (in his own filthy old man fashion) — and enjoy it.
    I suppose of everything mentioned I enjoy Faulker the least. I can see his brilliance, but I’m just not fond of Southern Gothic.

    Not all contemporary lit is going to stand the test of time, obviously. I liked a few of the hot books this year — loved Atonement and Middlesex, for example; also, the Chinese Seamstress book (which led me to read a bunch of Balzac, which I also loved). I tend to read a classic and a contemporary at the same time — right now I’m reading Dharma Bums and Bel Canto.

  29. Henry James has the most annoying way of skirting around the edges of his plots, not giving quite enough information to us to decipher what’s really going on. I mean, in Wings of a Dove, what did the father DO????

    I also don’t get Woody Allen. Or most movies that win the Best Picture Oscar.

  30. Jack Tanner says:

    The Beatles – the treacle that spawned Muzak.

  31. I certainly wouldn’t list Faulkner or Joyce, because the original point was that you have to consider them great, masters of their craft, not that others do.

    For me, the only thing I can think of is certain jazz artists. As noted above, I can hear their mastery, the subleties and control but it does nothing for me. It’s like some obscure acrobatic trick – I can see that it would take a lot of natural skill and years of effort to be able to do that, but why would you want to?

  32. Bill Leonard says:

    Old Guy, while I am absolutely fanatic about jazz I would be the first to admit (or agree) that there are players who from time to time, or in some cases all the time, are simply playing meaningless, obscure stuff. Case in point: John Coltrane frequently, perhaps generally, was brilliant. Then there are the 25- and 30-minute cuts on albums such as Africa/Brass that go on and on, but go nowhere.

    I approach most jazz since about 1945 with Charlie Parker’s dictum firmly in mind: anything more than four choruses is just practicing.

  33. To get a handle on On the Road and jazz, which are inextricably linked in a glorious extended riff, listen to wonderful readings from the book, accompanied by jazz backing, from great jazz singer Mark Murphy on his album Bop for Kerouac. He has also composed wonderful songs about Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Billy Strayhorn and others.

    Murphy helps you dig Kerouac’s phrasing because he understands it very well.

  34. For those who don’t get the nineteenth century great writers at all: Think about life back then. No TV, movies, or recorded music. For the majority of the population who lived in small towns and on farms, there were only a few live performances a year (other than the preacher’s weekly sermon), and they were usually pretty terrible by modern standards. Big cities might have a choice of live performances every night, but only a few people were rich enough to go frequently. So for entertainment, you either:

    1) Went to church a lot.
    2) Made your own entertainment at home with your family. If you think some of these 21st century rock stars are bad, think of listening to Aunt Ethel’s accordion-playing every night…
    3) Read.

    So those old books were written to take up as many hours as possible. It’s not that they’re bad, but that you don’t have the time to read them properly.

    (This doesn’t apply to Henry James – IMO, his work is both overwritten in the 19th century style and overly murky and self-absorbed like too many 20th century works.)

  35. markm, I like to read those old books because they slow me down. Otherwise I feel like I’m hyperventilating all the time, especially when I’ve driven home through rush hour.

  36. Don’t know if anyone is still reading this thread, but anyway:

    The kid is writing a paper about Edith Wharton, and my spouse and I ran over to the library to pick up her autobiography, A Backward Glance. It looks pretty interesting; I’ll read it when she’s through. Anyway, in the car I opened it at random, and there was the conversation with Henry James about how the four characters in The Golden Bowl were just flung out there with no context. Here’s what’s funny: James was perplexed and bewildered because the readers who loved Portrait of a Lady and “Daisy Miller” were silent about GB and he couldn’t understand why, because he thought he was so much more mature as an author when he wrote it. This caused him much pain. So it isn’t just me!