Stephen Burt ponders the meaning of "overrated"
Welcome to a new, semi-regular feature, in which Partisan asks contributors to identify a writer, living or dead, they consider overrated and offer a brief take. In the third installment, Stephen Burt reflects on what it means to be "overrated."
“SOME BOOKS ARE undeservedly forgotten,” wrote W H Auden. “None are undeservedly remembered.” He was right, too. And yet some books and writers are overrated: too much in tune with their times, too inclined to reinforce prejudices that ought to be fought against instead, easy in the wrong way, or hard in a silly way, or the object of a cult, often a cult of personality, or famous in ways that draw more from their lives than from their work. And yet—on the third hand—I find it hard to name the very most overrated writer, because the overraters diverge in multiple compass directions: the people who overrate Carol Ann Duffy (and there are a lot of them) are not the people who overrate Bruce Andrews (and there are a lot of them, too). The people who overrate Anne Carson’s non-book Nox—partly because they haven’t seen work that resembles it, partly because they like her other books (as do I)—aren’t the same people who overrate Charles Bukowski. And those people, in turn, aren’t the same people who overrate Derek Walcott (who, at his best, is terrific—but there is a whole lot of Walcott, too much of Walcott).
Then there’s the distinction between writers who are the best at achieving aesthetic goals I don’t especially like (Bukowski, for instance) and writers who turn in second- or third-rate attempts to do something I very much like (ten or fifteen years ago you couldn’t walk into a room of non-avant-garde US poets without finding pale clones of that extraordinarily canny poet, Elizabeth Bishop). Who is more overrated?
There are also the writers I’m not sure I get, where I read them with incomprehension (rather than exasperation or mild pleasure), who give me the feeling that I might wake up tomorrow and say, “Oh, so that’s what they were trying do” (Barbara Guest, for example). There are the writers that very young readers just love, who are overrated by my own standards but who represent valuable stepping stones (e.e. cummings, for example) and there are the writers who have probably made the world better, because of the liberating or empowering—or for that matter chastening—effects that their writings have on the readers who love them and need them—even though those writings aren’t for me. Are they overrated? By whom?
I will say that there is a kind of writing that’s consistently overrated by our literary establishments: it’s the kind of writing you get when someone known for work in a high prestige genre attempts to imitate a less prestigious genre without learning much about that genre or digesting its earlier examples. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road got reviewed by people who mostly read literary realist novels as if it were the first well-written, haunting, blood-soaked zombie apocalypse, rather than the 456th; The Book of Ephraim is one of my favorite long poems, from its or any era, but its sequels suffered from James Merrill’s unfamiliarity with large-canvas science fiction. “Plunges into genre fiction by writers not already familiar with it” are probably the most overrated kind of writing. But even some of those will be remembered. They’ll deserve it, too.
STEPHEN BURT is Professor of English at Harvard. He is the author of Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009) and other books. His work appears in The New York Times, Slate, and elsewhere.