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Everything Is Overrated

January 21, 2014
Maybe... maybe... maybe To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated, but I'm not ready to commit yet.

Maybe… maybe… maybe… To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated, but I’m not ready to commit yet.

The Fault in Our Stars (by John Green) was really overrated,” a co-worker of mine said a couple days ago.  She reads and knows that I read, and we both have kids who read, so all of us have read some of the same books.

“It wasn’t meant for us,” I said to my co-worker.  I’m in my late 40s, and she’s in her mid-30s, and the book was written for high school kids.  Most YA literature is unreadable, so I consider The Fault in Our Stars a decent book just because I finished it, and it has a pretty good ending.

“But it got a bunch of 5 star reviews on Amazon!” she said.  “Maybe it was 3 and 1/2 stars, maaaaybe 4, but 5?  No!”

“Everything gets 5 star reviews on Amazon,” I said.  “If a book hasn’t received a 5 star review, it means it hasn’t been reviewed.”

“Then everything on Amazon is overrated,” she said.

My co-worker is probably right.  Most books on Amazon get a lot of 5 star reviews. I don’t think any book deserves 5 stars.  I haven’t read a 5 star book in… uh… I don’t think there is a 5 star book.  A 5 star book should be like a 10 in gymnastics; maybe it’s possible, but it should be rare.  The good thing about gymnastics is that at least they can use decimals.  If Amazon could use decimals, a bunch of 5 stars would be 4.7 stars, which might not change the average, but there wouldn’t be so many underserving 5s.  Instead, they’d be undeserving 4.7s.

But there are other ways books can be overrated.

If a book is a best-seller, it’s probably overrated.  A book that sells millions of copies usually isn’t that much better than a book that sells thousands.  I’m just as likely to quit reading a best-seller as I am a book that’s obscure.  I’ve finished a few best-sellers recently.  I enjoyed Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  It’s a good book.  But it’s not much better than other books I’ve finished that weren’t best-sellers.  It’s good, but it’s probably overrated.

At least Gone Girl was kind of original.  Most bestsellers are written by authors who have written a bunch of other bestsellers, and their latest bestsellers are a lot like their previous bestsellers.  If you’ve read one John Sandford or Janet Evanovich (a bunch of other names could be included on the list) book, you’ve read a bunch of books by John Sandford or Janet Evanovich.  The authors deserve credit for building a loyal audience, but those individual bestselling books are overrated.

Books that win awards are automatically overrated too.  I haven’t finished many books that win awards, so maybe I’m not the best judge of whether award-winning books are overrated.  I’m not the award-winning author’s target audience either.  I finished the Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction from a few years ago, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  I enjoyed it, which means that it probably shouldn’t have won a Pulitzer.  I appreciated it a lot more than other readers who routinely finish Pulitzer Prize books (winners and runners-ups and books that they claim should have been nominated but weren’t).  A Visit from the Goon Squad is overrated.  It’s good, but the Pulitzer Prize automatically makes it overrated.

Even classics are overrated.  Some critics may disagree, claiming that any piece of literature that survives generation after generation of readers cannot be overrated.  I have a tough time believing that Moby Dick was that much better than other literature of its time period that has been long forgotten.  At least, I hope it’s not that much better.  Otherwise, I feel really sorry for book readers back in 1850.  Moby Dick is a classic because somewhere along the way, it was overrated and the powers that be who choose what others should read decided that it would be a classic.  Without literature professors and super-aggressive high school English teachers, Moby Dick and a bunch of other classics would have been long forgotten because they’re all overrated.

It’s easy to pick on Moby Dick because Moby Dick is Moby Dick.  It’s not controversial to say that classics like Moby Dick are overrated.  I was going to say something a little more recent and a lot more beloved like To Kill a Mockingbird was overrated, but I might not be ready for that yet.  I don’t know if I want to be that controversial.  People look at you crazy if you say To Kill a Mockingbird is overrated, and I don’t like it when people look at me crazy.

There are a lot of books out there that people haven’t heard of.  If nobody knows about something, then it can’t be overrated.  But it has the potential to be overrated.  The books that people have heard of aren’t that much better than the books that nobody has heard of.  But as soon as an unknown book or author becomes well-known, then that book and author have become overrated.

Maybe one day I’ll be overrated too.

  1. We all hope for the day we can be overrated.

    Enjoyed your thoughts on that 🙂 completely agree about best sellers.

  2. I also find it amazing that what is often stated as overrated is actually quality material, just overexposed. As someone with a literary blog, I appreciate your perspective on this issue. Great post.

  3. Why? Suppose it’s just human nature!! Or is it an attempt to convince others? Hmm… may never know ah? Should you be overrated?

    • To answer your last question, I don’t know. Is it up to a person to decide for himself (or herself) if he should be overrated? Maybe that’s best left up to other people. It would be fun to decide which unknown authors should become overrated and which ones shouldn’t.

  4. Hipsters are over-rated.

    While I do agree that I have read several “highly recommended” books and not gone on to recommend them myself, I do believe that if a book is recognized by a significant number of readers as a ‘good book’, then it is not ‘over-rated’. Even though I might not be an audience for a certain book, that doesn’t make the book automatically ‘over-rated’, it makes me a minority-groupie. Yes, there are tons of books worth reading that are hiding in the shadows of popularity, but some of them are destined to stay there because they are not ‘good books’. I guess all I am trying to say is that this is a very opinion-oriented debate and that I don’t agree with your view completely.

    But then again, my opinion is . . . “over-rated”. 🙂


    • I don’t know if an opinion can be overrated. Yours was great. I might even change my own mind because of your opinion. Now, hipsters… I don’t even know where to start. That might be for another blog post.

  5. These are general and important comments especially about recent books. They seem like they’re part of one giant word processing program – formula – that no one must deviate from.
    Moby Dick is really that good: Melville’s theme is the consummate power of hate, and in the real world he’s talking about North/South before the Civil War.
    To Kill A Mockingbird was probably the best novel I read last year. I noted that in my blog.

  6. I have this insane urge to count how many times you said “overrated” in this piece. I’m with you on Moby Dick. I got halfway through before I decided it’s not worth it. I think in its case specifically its enduring popularity is due to the supposed symbolism behind the story, but in my opinion a story where nothing has happened yet halfway through is not a very good story.

  7. Trails and Ultras permalink

    It’s just occurred to me that I’ve never bought a best seller or a book based on reviews. Normally I go to the sci fi/ fantasy book section of a shop and choose a book at random. If I like the first page I buy it. That’s how I started following your blog….I found a post of the literary girlfriend, read the first page and clicked follow. Of course I am one of those blindly loyal readers…once I find an author whose writing style I like I stick with them… I must try to remain open minded about new writers 🙂

  8. I enjoyed but was slightly disappointed by The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl, The Book Thief, The Hunger Games, etc….not because I didn’t enjoy them but because I picked them up after I had already heard all the hype. Like you and other commenters said above, these are likely just good stories with praise coming in stereo…I think the trick is to read books before others get their hands on them and make so much noise though it’s easier said than done…

    • “I think the trick is to read books before others get their hands on them and make so much noise though it’s easier said than done…” It’s funny that you say that because I’m working on something along those lines, reading books (or samples) on the day/week they come out before people go nuts. I don’t think any of the books that I’m reading right now will become the overhyped ones, but we’ll find out, I guess.

  9. I’ll say it for you: Mockingbird is overrated. Without the race issues, it’s just another decent YA book. I’ll take the heat for saying it.

  10. giving five stars to your friend’s books is perfectly alright (I do it all the time) but a publishing agency should not make it a habit, unless ofcourse all its books are actually five star. Honestly, I too dont recollect the last 5* book I have read apart from classics.

  11. Perhaps it would be better to strive to be popular but not overrated. It is always unfortunate when something of quality is denigrated because a lot of people like it (Tchaikovsky, Mozart).

  12. I tend to look for books with an average of 4 stars. 4 stars means its good enough that it has a healthy fan base, but it’s original enough to be off-putting to some people. Books with almost all 5 stars usually mean that its appealing super strongly to a highly marketable audience (teen girls, usually) and everyone apart from that audience doesn’t really care.

    • I agree. Sometimes a negative review will make me want to read a book, or it can mentally prepare me for something I might struggle with (long paragraphs of exposition) when I decide to read it anyway. But only if that negative review is intelligent or well-written.

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