Worst Books of 2017 – Fiction!
2017 was in fact an excellent year for so-called literary fiction – so excellent, in fact, that its rising tide floated all (well, most) boats: I noticed that even the year’s second- and third-rate stuff almost always had a certain level of technical soundness that you don’t always find in any given year’s fiction. This may be a good sign, a harbinger of some mid-century Golden Moment of contemporary fiction. Or it could signal that now just about every patronizing poltroon in the Western world now has access to an MFA program that’ll sand down some of their more egregious blunders in exchange for $35,000 a year. Time will tell, but meanwhile, here are the year’s worst offenders:
10 Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson (Ecco) – Wilson’s follow-up to his very likable The Family Fang had all of that book’s weaknesses and none of its strengths. It’s the story of a nebbishy child psychologist (and painfully obvious author stand-in) and a wacky caricature-girl who stumble into love in the midst of a bizarre experiment in communal child-rearing, and as will be the case over and over on the list this time around, it’s technically competent and dull as a bag of dirt.
9 Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (Penguin Press) – The opening question of the book – what would happen if the orderly, buttoned-up world of the Richardson family were disrupted by newcomers – raises all kinds of worrisome expectations about programmatic plotting and cardboard characters, and Ng meets and then exceeds all of those expectations. Again like many books on the list this time around, I finished it wondering why I’d bothered to read it at all – never a good sign.
8 Exit West by Moshin Hamid (Riverhead Books) – Quite possibly the most mysterious thing about the entire 2017 book-world was the torrent of praised heaped on this flyblown piece of incompetent headline-vamping. Star-crossed lovers – a bombed-out city – magical doorways that side-step travel-bans and lead away – how any reader with two brain cells to rub together couldn’t end up feeling both angry and soiled by such explicit pandering (and wretched prose) is beyond me, and yet book critics lined up to praise it.
7 The Weight of This World by David Joy (Putnam) – The year’s most egregious piece of hick-lit features a traumatized Afghanistan-vet, a trailer park full of rat-crazy white trash, and of course a seedy meth dealer, all hauled out in their bib overalls and pidgin-Appalachian in order to give the author holler-cred when he clomps his muddy boots onto the stage at the 92nd Street Y. The sooner this particular sub-strata of fiction peters out, the better.
6 The Power by Naomi Alderman (Little, Brown) – This highbrow rewrite of the ending of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” asks the hypothetical question: what would the world be like if women suddenly had a physical advantage over men? … and then proceeds to answer that question in ways so predictable and hum-drum that I finished the book wondering what we pay our novelists for, if the end results aren’t any better than what we could get by assigning novel-writing homework in high school.
5 4321 by Paul Auster (Henry Holt) – The gimmick of composing a novel of successive alternate rough drafts of a character’s life was old when Auster got around to it, but he brings to these thematic retellings of the stories of his cast two elements that are relatively new to the formula: bloated prolixity and a lifeless prose-line. The result is surely the bad bargain of the year: four boring books for the price of one.
4 Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins) – I’ve complained many times – since the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale, in fact – about parvenus carpetbagging into science fiction because they think it’s an easy way to make flat-footed sociological observations but who never bother to attempt let alone master the hallmark of science fiction, which is world-building. That annoying condescension is on full display in this latest from Erdrich, in which evolution seems to be “reversing” itself (*sigh*). Since the book does no world-building, its entire intellectual framework is ridiculous, and its stagey plot and shopworn characters don’t exactly compensate.
3 Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw (MCD) – In the wake of a debut as epically, comically awful as Faw’s Young God, my instinct is always to be extra-indulgent of the next thing to appear, like being extra-solicitous to a cow-worker who drunkenly embarrassed herself at the company Christmas party the night before. But this second book burns through any such pity-consideration in the first few sentences and then just keeps grating along, haphazardly stabbing at the half-baked story of the main character’s return to a life of shopping, drugs, and pricey prostitution. After reading Young God, I assumed this author had no literary talent and thus at least could get no worse, but this new book combines that lack of talent with a coarse, slam-poetry arrogance that both makes for unbearable reading and guarantees a long and prosperous career.
2 Who Is Rich? By Matthew Klam (Random House) – It didn’t take me long when first reading Klam’s new novel about a schlubby illustrator teaching at a swanky arts retreat before I realized, with neck-chilling horror, that I was reading a campus novel, that rightfully-dreaded bagatelle-form best suited for capturing an author’s laziness while excising his craft. Wacky personalities, fumbling attempts at comedic dialogue, and a paint-by-numbers ending dutifully ensue.
1 The End of Eddy by Edouard Louis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) & Moonstone by Sjon (ditto) – The spot for Stevereads Worst Novel of the Year isn’t exactly coveted but it’s at least usually solitary. Not so for 2017, where the two worst books (both translations, a dark day for international amity) are not only equally bad but equally worse than anything else to appear this year. Both are thin, both are relentlessly lightweight, both are filled with pretentious self-loathing (lightly disguised in Sjon’s case, right out there in the open in Louis’s case), both are told from the perspective of edgy crybabies, and both are completely lacking in plot, character, or dramatic insight. Taken together, they set back even nominally gay literature by a good two or three decades. With friends like these …