On the eve of St. Valentine’s Day, we decided to serve up some counter programming. We asked members and friends of the K-State English Department to share a book they truly despise, inspired in part by the conversation about American Dirt, a No. 1 bestseller, that has been rightfully panned for its inaccuracies, its cultural insensitivity, its media campaign, its poor writing, its implausible plot, and a host of other hate-able qualities.
We asked for one paragraph of explanation about each book, but for some writers, the hate just kept on coming and coming. Hey, if you’re going to hate on a book, go all in! (Disclaimer: No actual books or authors were harmed in the making of this list. Just don’t share the link on the author’s social media!)
— Dan Hoyt, Professor
I lived with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara for two weeks, carrying it onto crowded trains, balancing the clunky text in one arm and holding onto the handrail for dear life with the other. I read it at home in the evenings, blocking out whole nights just to find out what would happen to Jude, JB, Willem and Malcom: drug addiction, rape, sexual assault, self-harm, horrible incident after horrible incident, and death after death by the hand of an unkind author. The thing is, Yanagihara’s prose is engrossing; she maintains an eerie level of coolness through the 700+ page book, which makes the reading experience like that of a dark, twisted fairytale. It becomes all too easy to consume large chunks of these devastating, traumatic events without flinching. I finished the book not sure if I loved it, but certain that it had broken something inside me. I cried at moments of genuine tenderness between Jude and Willem, because I had become deprived of joy as a reader and craved the relief. The book’s emotional manipulation reached for me with a gnarly claw and I offered it my throat. A Little Life is vile. Awful. I’ll stand by that. There’s no hope for anyone in the novel. Even Malcolm, a character who is a virtual saint, who somehow becomes a millionaire and spends his free time building an oasis for Jude and Willem in the suburbs, is thrown away in the novel’s final hundred pages. The novel does nothing interesting with suffering, only reinstates over and over again that these characters are caught in a loop of it.
Almost five years after its publication, A Little Life continues to haunt me. I see Queer Eye’s Antoni wearing a shirt with the novel’s four central characters’ names on it. I see people on Twitter call the novel beautiful, talk about how raw and real it is. I don’t look to fiction for relatable characters or representation for representation’s sake, but whenever I hear (mostly) white queer men say this is their favorite book, I can’t hide the horror on my face, and I wonder about the dangerous veil of representation. If this desperation to exist inside the art we consume allows us to accept yet another narrative focused on pain, on suffering, on wanting more and maybe obtaining it and still being told happiness is not possible. If representation is the endgame, can the novel in question be anything but trash?
I once tweeted that I’m overcome with an urge to slap this book out of anyone’s hand whenever I see them holding it in line at a bookstore — one day, I pray, I’ll get the strength.
— Chris Gonzalez, fiction writer
I was once told that I shouldn’t be a graduate student in English because I don’t like The Catcher in the Rye. “That fact alone,” they said, “should disqualify you from the field.” I get it: Catcher is a darling of many literature professors. It’s the book that made them love reading, the book that spoke to them. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand the appeal. If you spent your middle and high school days reading what felt like stuffy, stodgy, out-of-touch novels written about stuffy, stodgy, out-of-touch adults, Holden Caulfield might call to you. He might seem more real, less phony, as he’d say, and more in line with that teenage certainty that adults are clueless and much of what we’re asked to do as adolescents is pointless and absurd. Being a teenager is hard, and I can see why Holden might seem refreshingly honest and relevant after the required reading of early 19th century domestic novels. But my gawd, could he be any whinier? Take some responsibility for your life, buddy. Look in the metaphorical mirror: you’re not a rebel; frankly, you’re just lazy and entitled, and that carefully cultivated cool façade is (I hate to tell you) totally immature . . . and totally phony.
I admit, I probably came to Catcher too late in life. I didn’t read it until I was well out of my early teens, and perhaps that’s why I just. Can’t. Stand. That. Kid. Look, I’ve met this guy. This Holden. I’ve met him a number of times and all I can say is eye-roll emoji. Stahhhhp with your holier-than-thou faux anti-establishment shtick. It’s barely-hidden narcissism, it reeks of privilege, and I gotta tell you, I’m just not here for it. If it’s all the same to you, I’m gonna hold off on Holden.
— Abby Knoblauch, Associate Professor
Marcus Pfister’s 1992 picture book The Rainbow Fish was ubiquitous in my elementary school days and beloved by a couple of my teachers. Yet, I felt uneasy about the story as a child. Now, I detest the book. The protagonist, only known as the Rainbow Fish, is noted for his beauty and his rare shimmery scales. Another fish is envious of his beautiful scales, and asks the Rainbow Fish to “give me one” because they are “so wonderful, and you have so many.” The Rainbow Fish responds, justly, with righteous anger at this request to give away an essential part of himself.
However, the Rainbow Fish’s decision to retain autonomy over his body and to value his beauty causes him to be scorned by the other fish. Lonesome and sad, the Rainbow Fish receives some awful advice that he will “discover how to be happy” by giving away his shimmery scales. The Rainbow Fish pulls out (quite gruesome, but the story ignores the details) all but one of his sparkly scales to give to other fish. The book concludes far too happily; the Rainbow Fish is content to join the ranks of the placated fish community. How can the Rainbow Fish be satisfied at giving away his prized scales for the price of acceptance? I bet his contentment is short-lived. This book isn’t about the joy of giving or being conscientious towards others, it glorifies diminishing one’s self and conformity above all else.
— Allison Kuehne (B.A. ’10, M.A. ’15), Instructor and Academic Advisor
I, like so many, have a lot of feelings about Harry Potter. I grew up reading it — I remember the day my dad bought me my first paper-back copy of Sorcerer’s Stone. I didn’t know reading could feel like that. I didn’t know books could undo the harm adults can do to children. I didn’t know imagining magic could be a conjuring of magic in and of itself. I still mourn the feeling of reading the original seven novels — I’ll never get that shock and awe back, and it’s been admittedly difficult to replicate the feeling with other books, even the ones I love most. I think it’s because Harry Potter was my first book love, and nothing feels like your first love, right?
J.K. Rowling didn’t suddenly become problematic. She didn’t pull her casual transphobia out of a hat and become evil just like that. Making Dumbledore gay but not mentioning it in the actual novels, the Jewish-coded goblins that run the banks of the wizarding world, the colonizing of her American school, Ilvermorny, and the troubling way she objectified indigenous culture and perpetuated Native American mascots, all of this, and more, has been building up. But this is the final molting hot goblet in the Gringotts cell called life, and it’s time to say enough is enough. Rowling has supported transphobia unequivocally. I, for one, am through with her.
But in this weird, beautiful, frustrating world of holding folks accountable, what does that mean for her work that meant so much for so many? Does that erase the summers we spent hiding the books during camp so we could read when we were meant to be running around outside? Or the times we finished Goblet of Fire and started over immediately from page one? Or the fanfic we wrote that brought us new friends and a creative fire that has only grown over time? I don’t know. I don’t know what we owe her stories, or what we owe ourselves as fans. I know I’ve wanted a Harry Potter tattoo for a long time, and I’m rethinking it. I know whenever it comes up I feel a deep responsibility to acknowledge its flaws before celebrating its successes. Maybe neither can erase the other. Maybe we have to live with knowing that the same person who lifted us up has shut us (and so many others) down. But if we remain fans without engaging critically with Rowling’s various xenophobic actions, we are perpetuating harm. And if her stories have taught me one thing, it’s that we always have the opportunity to break cycles of harm.
— Kira Bell (M.A. ’17), fiction writer
Somehow reading The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier made Lord of the Flies seem like good fun? Both books were required reading in my high school years, and I cannot for the life of me come up with a reason why we had to read two texts about privileged white private schoolboys being horrible and cruel. Yet, I definitely had a stronger dislike for The Chocolate War. Jerry’s musings about “disturbing the universe” while he refuses to sell the chocolates didn’t interest me. Plus, the story was just so bleak, and even if that’s the point, the sadistic and manipulative children and adults made my teenage self too anxious, even as the book drug on. On a craft level, the writing is good, and the high school power structures strike me as something real to this day, so there are reasons why The Chocolate War became such a noted young adult book, but it’s not the one for me.
— Noelle Braaten (M.A. ’20)