A Lone Voice

The Conservatory by Frances Jones Bannerman
The Conservatory by Frances Jones Bannerman

In response to a reader’s question, one segment of a recent episode of the podcast Books on the Nightstand was devoted to discussing those occasions when you’ve found yourself in a minority of one where opinions about a particular book are concerned.  Everyone else you know has absolutely loved it, but you – oh you have been left completely and utterly cold.  Not only do you not like the book but neither can you see what on earth everyone else is getting excited about.  It is, after all, possible to be aware that a book is good and might appeal to other readers without actually liking it yourself, but sometimes even a popular book’s merits evade you.

I’m sure the discussion would have rung a bell with most of us.  Certainly, without much effort, I can think of two novels where I have simply failed to comprehend what everyone else has seen in them. Confessing to the one is, I know from past experience, likely to get me lynched.  Try as I might – and I have tried, believe me – I can’t appreciate a single thing about Wuthering Heights.  Yes, I know, this makes me a complete and utter philistine and I bow my head in shame.  But please, however kindly you mean, don’t offer to send me a copy so that I can put matters right immediately.  I have five already, each one donated by a Brontë fanatic determined to convince me of the error of my ways. No one’s managed it yet. Maybe I would have liked it more (can you like some thing more than not at all?) had Heathcliff ever appealed to me, but I can’t see him as anything other than an out and out bully. And how can anyone think living out on those wild moors is romantic?  Have you ever spent a winter on Haworth Moor?  I have, three of them in fact, and it isn’t an experience I would want to repeat in a hurry now let alone in the nineteenth century.

The other novel is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.  We read this is one of our reading groups and I was the only person who rather than loving it was completely outraged.  My problem was nothing to do with the religious stance that he takes per se.  Normally I love Pullman’s work and stand four square with him in respect of his religious beliefs or lack thereof.  No, what I had difficulty with was that it seemed to me that he was condemning the Christian Church for rewriting the Jesus story to fit its own agenda when that was precisely what he was doing himself.  Potkettle and black were the words that came to mind.  Never has one of our Wednesday evening reading group meetings got so heated and while friendships weren’t exactly threatened I think we all met rather warily the following month.

A third novel that came very close to joining this list was Madame Bovary, which was only saved at the last moment when it became apparent that I had a a different translation from everyone else and it was that which was at fault rather than the original work.  Let that be a lesson to us all; don’t judge a novel by the skills (or otherwise) of its translator.

The opposite of being unable to appreciate a novel which everyone else considers to be a masterpiece would be championing a novel that no other readers have thought to be of particular merit and as I’ve been writing this I’ve been trying to think whether or not I’ve ever been in that position.  This is on my mind because the February parcel from Heywood Hill, Milka Bajic-Poderegin’s novel, The Dawning, was recommended to me by Lisa as a book she had loved but which she thought was woefully underestimated.  Perhaps because I choose my books most often on the recommendation of other readers whose judgements I trust, I can’t think of any such novel that would fit the bill for me.  Maybe, however, you can.  Are there novels that you have thought were excellent but which the rest of the reading community failed to appreciate?  And what are your own blind spots?  Is there anyone else out there who is going to join me in my failure to appreciate Wuthering Heights?  Or perhaps you have similar but different admissions to make that will shock the rest of us into shaking our heads in disbelief.  The confessional is open. Feel free to tell all.


54 thoughts on “A Lone Voice

  1. I have major issues with Thomas Hardy – so much so that I can’t go near his work, and yet so many people I know rave about him!

    1. Oh! You and me both. In my final year as an undergrad I had to study modules on both his novels and his poetry and I shocked the entire English staff by declaring that while he was a second-rate novelist he was only a third-rate poet. Now we can both sit back and wait while the rest of the blogging world tells us how wrong we are:-)

    2. Remember that Tolstoy, for all sorts of reasons, hated Shakespeare and felt that his cult was an example of a sort of mass indoctination! I confess that a lot of Dickens can grate on me and DH Lawrence is a bit of a pain. Virginia Woolf’s fiction is never going to be a favourite with me. I am finding it hard though to think of a famous writer that leaves me utterly cold – the writers I don’t really like I can see why they are lauded and even dislike is a response.

  2. I wasn’t to big on Wuthering Heights either. Two books I’ve read recently where everyone else loved them and I just didn’t, were Gone Girl and Eat, Pray, Love. I can see some of the reason why one would live Gone Girl but Eat, Pray, Love just annoys me to no end.

    1. Gone Girl annoyed me, Christina. It was so aware of it’s own cleverness. I thought it was a shame that Flynn came to prominence with such an overblown book because her earlier work showed interesting promise of developing into something less commercial. I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, because the subject matter simply didn’t appeal to me.

  3. I hate Wuthering Heights, and I thought The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was unbearably smug and didactic and tedious (like you, not because I thought the religious content was offensive, more because I thought it was simplistic and obvious). So I sympathize completely!

    I’ve been on the opposite side all too often, loving books that nobody else seems to care for — Mary Renault’s The Charioteer is one of my favorite books of all time, and I’ve never met a single other person who liked it. Except on the internet, and even that, only occasionally. There’s also the thing of loving a book that nobody else has even heard of! I always feel I have to love the book extra, to make up for all the people who don’t know about it.

    1. Thanks Jenny, it’s nice not to feel completely isolated. I’ve not read The Charioteer but I loved some of Renault’s other books so perhaps I should give it a go and see if I can return the complement. As I usually discover my next read through someone’s recommendation I’m not often in the position of reading a novel that no one has come across, but I can see how that might be frustrating.

  4. Well, I liked WH and Mme B, but I recognize your drift. Yes, there are books that
    I have highly recommended to book groups and they fell flat: Losing Nelson by
    Barry Unsworth; Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome; Queen Lucia (!) by
    E.F. Benson and no one wants to hear me go on about Mrs. Palfrey at the
    Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor anymore. Still, I don’t care–I love them and would
    reread each one in a heartbeat. Interesting topic!

    1. Oh I feel just terrible when I’ve recommended a book for a group read and it falls flat. But even worse is having to say that the book that someone else has chosen is not to my taste. We had this happen at my last book group meeting where none of us had liked the book someone else had picked but no one wanted to say so. Very difficult.

  5. Oh Alex, I am with you absolutely about Wuthering Heights. Loved it as a child but not as a grown up although the William Wyler film is still a treat. I’m not sure if I can contribute a book that I loved and every one hated but how about one that I loved and everyone ignored? I was in bookselling when E. Annie Proulx’s (as she was then) The Shipping News was romping up the bestseller charts and remember trying to persuade people that good as it was Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, also set in Newfoundland, was better. I got nowhere with it.

    1. Well, I loved ‘The Shipping News’ partly because Newfoundland was such a major character in and of itself so perhaps I should see if I can get a copy of ‘The Bird Artist’. In fact I must do so asap because I have a friend who feels even more strongly about the setting and she has a birthday coming up. You may just have solved the annual problem of what to buy someone who has read pretty much everything already.

  6. Another vote for (or rather against) Wuthering Heights! I suppose there’s a sense in which I *appreciate* it (and I’ve recently started thinking I should assign it, just to test myself), but I made myself reread it recently and confirmed my dislike. Hated The Good Soldier. Didn’t like The Woman Upstairs. Lukewarm about Stoner — which really seems to set me apart these days! I agree with Jenny that loving a book nobody else seems to know is also an alienating phenomenon. But at least there you can always have the positive energy that comes from advocacy (and for me, my most beloved little-known book is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field).

    1. Stoner is coming up on one of my book group lists later in the year so I deliberately haven’t tried to read it yet but there was a point earlier in the term when every second reader in the staff common room would be reading Stoner which in a perverse way kind of put me off it. I haven’t come across Disturbances in the Field but if you’re recommending it that’s good enough for me. By the way,The Bears send their love.

  7. I had a poll on my blog recently to see which literary chunksters people thought not worth reading. The scorn piled upon Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen was immense! And the praise for AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book was equal – but I tried it and didn’t like it at all. I’m more likely to experience the opposite effect of being the only person to like a book at book group and everyone else hating it – as happened recently with James Smythe’s The Explorer – I adored it, read it twice – everyone else Nah! and this from a generally SF tolerant group.

    1. Well, I have to admit that I love ‘The Children’s Book’. I read it when it first came out and then again for a book group and enjoyed it even more the second time around. I haven’t heard of ‘The Explorer’ but will go and search for it now.

  8. Another vote against Wuthering Heights from me – never could see why it had gained its status. But I find myself going against the flow so often that it seems quite normal. It seems to me that once a book gains momentum as great, people tend to follow along with that opinion – the power of advertising. I wonder what you’ll make of the new one from Heywood Hill – have you started it yet?

    1. I’m sure you’re right about the question of momentum, FF, especially in an age of social media where to be seen going against public opinion can be very difficult for some people. And yes, I have started The Dawning. It’s interesting in as much as I’m learning something about a society that is new to me but is it a good book? Now that is a different question. I hope the review will be up sometime next week.

  9. The first time I read Wuthering Heights I didn’t hate it but I didn’t get what all the fuss was about because I found nothing romantic about it. But then a number of years ago I watched a newer movie version of the book with my husband who had never read the book and he made the comment about how sick and twisted it was. Then I reread the book without the romance filter and enjoyed it quite a lot because it really is sick and twisted. My personal I don’t understand why everyone loves it book is the Great Gatsby. I mean, I understand why people love it but it just doesn’t do anything for me.

    If given time to sift through all the books in my head I might be able to find one I consider underrated by others, but there isn’t one I feel so passionate about that it springs immediately to mind.

    1. Oh I’m with you where the sick and twisted is concerned. I think part of my problem with it is that so many people just don’t seem to see that side of it. The early Laurence Olivier film has a lot to answer for, I think. And I agree with you about ‘Gatsby’ as well. I reread it for the first time in years last September for a book group and I was confused. I’ve always understood that it was the ultimate book about The American Dream, but it seemed to me that it was undermining the concept rather than supporting it.

  10. I think there is a lot of hate out there for Wuthering Heights and that the Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre? question is right up there with Elvis or The Beatles? I’m on the Jane Eyre side of the divide myself. Also, as someone who has read and taught the original Mme Bovary, it wasn’t the translation. I adore nineteenth-century French Literature, but not that one.

  11. I didn’t like Wuthering Heights either – all that obsession and violence! not romantic in the least. But I may re-read it one day. I am planning to re-read Madame Bovary in April for a read-a-long I have heard about – I can’t remember what I thought first time round but I don’t think it blew my socks off – but I may have been a bit young.
    Oh *sob* poor Thomas Hardy – I love you.

  12. I have always loved Wuthering Heights, but I’ve found that I’m actually in the minority among book bloggers – as evidenced by all the comments above! The author that I don’t really like and most people seem to love is F. Scott Fitzgerald. After finding both Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby very boring I don’t have any plans to read his other books. I was also disappointed by Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons as I didn’t find it anywhere near as hilarious as everyone had told me it was.

    I haven’t read Madame Bovary yet but am thinking about reading it soon, so I’ll look into the various translations before I start!

    1. Gatsby didn’t do it for me, either, Helen. I re-read it last year for a book group and I wasn’t that impressed but I was definitely a lone voice there. Do make sure you ask someone who knows the novel which translation to go for with ‘Madame Bovary’. We could almost have been reading different books.

      1. Oh yes, Gatsby’s another one. And here in the US where it is the absolute favorite of many, I often feel like a lone voice. I don’t dislike it, but I just don’t love it like everyone else seems to. I like Fitzgerald’s short stories far more than his novels.

  13. I loved Wuthering Heights when I was fourteen, but I hated it when I tried re-reading last year. Hardy, on the other hand, I loved then and I love now. But I can understand why others don’t, and it surprises me that so many people don’t realise that we are all different people with our own different stories, and so different books will speak to us at different points in life.

  14. Virginia Woolf! And I really want to like her. I can see what a breakthrough she was in writing the way she did about a woman’s interior life. But it was boring, both books that I read by her, overall, and I always feel disappointed in myself that I didn’t get it. Broken Harbour by Tana French – I was the lone voice in the wilderness there. I still think about that book, about how I was dissatisfied with what the character did, and everyone else raved about the book. The book is very well written, marvelous suspense, but the motive – oh it was not well-done for me. And I just remembered – Catcher in the Rye! Aaagh! I never got past the second page, he was such an annoying whiner poser that I was immediately bored and had to put the book down. And everyone raves about it being the secular book of their youth/growing up.

    We all have our little places in the world of literature where we stand alone, don’t we?

    1. I love Woolf’s essays, letters and journals but don’t really get on with her novels either, Susan. I did love ‘Broken Harbour’ though. Have you read her earlier books?

  15. Okay, I confess. Margaret Atwood (gulp). I was bored to tears with Robber Bride and just don’t get Blind Assassin. Could finish neither. Another wildly popular book that I quite simply hated was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I can’t think of any that I loved but which has been overlooked by the reading community. Like you, I most often read books recommended by someone whose taste I trust. (And I do love Wuthering Heights.)

    1. For years I had the same problem with Atwood, Grad, but I broke my duck with ‘Blind Assassin’ and I also enjoyed ‘Oryx and Crake’. She isn’t on my go-to list though, I have to say.

  16. For me it’s also The Great Gatsby. Mercifully it’s short so I’ve read it multiple times trying to see what makes other people think its so special. And I’ve failed every time. Even worse for me is Lord of the Rings. I got half way through and decided life was absolutely too short to waste it on drivel. It seems I’m also in a minority on Atkinson’s Life after Life which I found repetitive and not in the way the author intended.

    1. Well, I’m definitely with you on Gatsby and can only applaud your dedication. Twice has been more than enough for me. But ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a book I first read at thirteen and have re-read so often since that I have lost count of the number. Many times that has been because a student has wanted to do a dissertation on it, but it still hasn’t got stale. Now the films are another matter….

  17. Like some others here, The Great Gatsby has never moved me in any way, and I always wonder why people claim it as their favorite book of all time. But then again, I love Flaubert so I’m sure I’m a mystery to some like you, haha. I’m sure in part it has to do with one’s preference, but I wonder if it also has to do with how we were first exposed to the book or author in the first place. In a boring classroom setting for example. Thought-provoking and fun post.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about the influence of the classroom, Letizia. I had a dreadful school experience with ‘Emma’ and although I can see what a great book it is, I have never really got over that early dislike.

      1. I love Austen, but Emma was way down on the list when I was younger. I find it improves with age and has slowly crept up in my esteem. It will never dethrone Persuasion, but it may give P&P a run for its money at this point.

        1. Oh I love ‘Persuasion’. Now that was a novel I came to through good teaching, so the classroom influence can clearly go either way.

  18. I can’t think off the top of my head of any books that I’ve loved and other’s haven’t or vice versa, but maybe teaching literature makes a person immune to paying too much attention to the likes and dislikes of others! 😉 But it was very interesting to read your post and the great discussion it provoked!

    1. You’re right, of course, you have to be more objective about a book when you know you’ve got to teach it. Mind you, I’ve always managed to tweak my syllabi to ensure that I wasn’t teaching anything I felt too strongly about.

  19. Well, I am with you regarding the Philip Pullman, which I felt was simplistic and overbearing, but I think you put it much better. However, I am very fond of Wuthering Heights, not that I have ever understood why anyone could find it romantic, more like the working-out of one of those intergenerational Greek myths but with worse weather. I don’t think that I have particularly unusual reading tastes, although I have never got on with The Mists Avalon despite it being pressed on me often with the words ‘life-changing’, I get bored if I read too much Wodehouse, I found Diary of a Nobody painful rather than amusing and I am the only person I know in real life who loves The Brothers Karamazov. This has been a fun discussion to read!

    1. I love the idea of ‘Wuthering Heights’ as a Greek myth with worse weather, Helen. I used to live not far from Haworth and so I know all about the weather. It’s certainly one thing the Brontë got absolutely right.

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