Pulp fiction

What gets your vote as the world's worst book? Last month in The Independent, 50 public figures revealed their lousiest reads, and we invited readers to join the debate. The result: an avalanche of withering literary criticism. John Walsh introduces a selection of surprising, passionate responses
Click to follow

Thwack! Biff! Wallop! Take that, Charles Dickens. Crash! Thud! See how that feels, Emily Brontë. Pow! Crunch! Pick the bones out of that, Herman bloody Melville. Goodness, what violent passions are displayed by mild-mannered Independent readers when it comes to books they didn't enjoy very much. "Claptrap" was a favourite term of abuse. "Drivel" turned up all over the place. "Pretentious" (touch your toes, Mervyn "Gormenghast" Peake) was a popular choice. It is, perhaps, just as well that poor Charles Dodgson is not around to hear the terrible things being said about him.

As a counterpoint to last month's BBC survey of the nation's 100 favourite novels, we asked you to send in 50-word nominations for the worst book you ever read. Not the worst book in the world (because you won't have read them all), just one that got on your nerves, rendered you comatose, enraged you or was the occasion of an acute bilious attack. The results were fascinating. Who would have thought so many English readers would have wrestled with Umberto Eco's impenetrable Foucault's Pendulum? Or that Wuthering Heights should have disappointed so many?

Dickens came in for a lot of stick on the grounds of "implausibility", though it's a long time since anybody took his fiction as a benchmark of naturalism. Another writer given a good slap for taking liberties was Iris Murdoch, who enraged Mrs M Withers of Cornwall by writing airily about bells in The Bell, while paying "no regard to how much an enormous bell either a) weighs or b) costs". DH Lawrence was ticked off for insufficient humour: Mark Bastable of Sutton has read the collected works of the Nottingham sexpot but found "not a single laugh, not a wry chuckle, not even a quiet grin in the entire po-faced oeuvre". The idea of the emotionally incontinent Lawrence regarding the world with a "wry chuckle" is piquant indeed.

Among canonical writers, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins and Proust were the objects of well-bred scorn, while several bang-up-to-the-minute bestsellers received a bracing cold douche from unimpressed modern readers. I'm not naming names, but I doubt that Joanne Harris, Helen Fielding and JK Rowling would be prostrated with misery by the odd doubting voice.

There were some undergraduate jokes (thanks to those who nominated The Highway Code and the E-K telephone directory - "an imposing list of characters but no discernible plot") and some strange misreadings of popular works. A lady from Amersham, Bucks, thought Lord of the Flies started off well, but was shocked to find it turning "bitter and savage" in the latter half; I rather thought the corruption of the utopian Coral Island dream was the whole point of Golding's book.

It was heartening, at the end, to hear from Mr Ken Hartford of Beverley in Yorkshire, who wrote: "Not being a literary critic, I don't have to read books I don't like. Consequently, I've liked every book I've ever read in its entirety". Mr Hartford confesses that he only reads two books a year - but since he is 77, that still makes a life-total of 140-odd titles read and all enjoyed. A result to be proud of.

"Why," his letter ends, "slate people's efforts anyway?" Because slagging off creative works that we neither like nor understand is such fun, Mr H. Because it's such fun.

AUTO-DA-FE by Elias Canetti

It won him the Nobel Prize, which says a lot about the Nobel Prize committee. The whole book is depressing. There is not a single likeable character. It is profoundly misogynistic, reserving a particular hatred for women who claim to love men - the word "love" is always seen in inverted commas.

Louise Muston, Pearson Park, Hull


The grandfather of all 20th-century books by northern Europeans condescending to loveable Mediterranean folk - eg A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle (named as a lousy read by Miles Kington).

Robin Hope, Islington, London

LITTLE DORRIT by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit features the least believable heroine since Patient Griselda or Isobel Archer. Dickens can't do "good" women and has no sympathy for "bad" ones. This weighty tome is riddled with plot contrivances and blatant implausibilities - for example, how do all these "refained" characters emerge from years in the Marshalsea Prison?

Alison McAdam, Dundee


The worst book ever is, without a doubt, The Celestine Prophecy and all of its subsequent bastard offspring. It has to be the most badly-written, trite, pseudo-spiritual bollocks ever to reach publication, and is nothing more than a cynical (and sadly successful) attempt to exploit impressionable, "new age" dimwits and recovering Catholics.

Jerry Bird, Eastbourne, East Sussex


I finally got into it at the third attempt in five years - or so I thought. I endured the interminable wordplay, pretentious chivalry and disposal of all the remotely interesting characters, in the fading hope of a meaningful ending. Yelled with frustration at the last sentence. Gave the book to Oxfam next morning.

Anne Dobedoe, Loxley, Warwick


I thought it was boring and silly. All that Yorkshire dialect and Gothic atmosphere was incomprehensible and depressing. Although not intended to be funny, some of it was hilarious, especially when Heathcliff was holding Cathy and "gnashing his teeth".

Angela O'Connor, Hythe, Kent

OUR MUTUAL FRIEND by Charles Dickens

The main characters suddenly undergo such a radical transformation that you realise you wasted your time reading the first half of the book. If I'd been doing it for A-level, I'd have chucked it out of the window. It undermines one's confidence in the people who set public examinations.

Christopher Court, Ashford, Middlesex


As an 18-year-old cocky bibliophile, and to impress my Francophile girlfriend, I began to read A La Recherche. Forty years later, this monumentally tedious masterpiece has defeated me. I've only got a third of the way through, despite having Alain de Botton's introductory book to help me persevere.

Mike Bor, London W2


For years I asked people if they understood this book, but nobody ever did. I tried reading it using a Dublin accent, but still no joy. So I have to agree with the author V Ernest Cox that it is "one long spelling mistake with not a lot of plot".

C Millar, Ballymoney, Co Antrim

MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

The worst book ever written is Melville's Moby Dick, crammed with silly opinions ("Yankees in one day, collectively, kill more whales than all the English, collectively, in 10 years") and otiose "facts" ("Jeremy Bentham's skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of his executors"). Urgh!

Brian W Aldiss, Old Headington, Oxford


Having made several attempts to read it, and found it nearly incomprehensible (as was the blurb on the cover) I eventually gave up. The writing is totally self-indulgent, with little thought for the reader.

David Macgregor, Carshalton, Surrey

FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley

I confidently nominate Frankenstein, in which we are supposed to sympathise with a contemptible rotter who creates a moral and intellectual genius and transforms him into a monster by sheer, cowardly neglect. It relies for its effects on sentences like, "I cannot describe the horror that I felt...", etc.

Alastair Grant, Burwell, Cambs


It's absolute bigotry from first sentence to last. It offers as the truth a horrible lie about people, and incites women to hate men, and ultimately themselves. It's regarded as an iconic work by people I love who should know better.

Sean Goldthorpe, London E7


How could the author of Alice have written this tedious and facetious farrago? Sylvie and Bruno, to which it is a sequel, is saved from the bonfire by the wonderful "Mad Gardener's Song", but otherwise it is as bad. Twee, embarrassing, sentimental rubbish.

Jonathan Guinness, Rodmarton, Cirencester


This was chosen for our reading group, but I found it utterly boring and predictable, and couldn't finish it. I thought it was only for the young, but surprisingly, my children felt much the same way about it as I did.

Joy Hunter, Ilchester, Somerset


by Nicholas Evans

Horse Whisperer is the sort of pretentious drivel lapped up by suburban America which goes on to be made into a maudlin movie - the literary equivalent of junk food.

Roger Hewell, Bath

LAST ORDERS by Graham Swift

I was gutted when Last Orders won the Booker prize. Waterland was a mature book, well written and interesting, but Last Orders? Yuck, yuck, yuck. Swift's William Faulkner phase heralded an unfortunate retrogressive step, to my way of thinking.

Helen Warlow, Beverly, Yorks

ANGELA'S ASHES by Frank McCourt

Sentimental claptrap masquerading as social history. A tale of inadequate parenting - drunken, feckless father, stupid downtrodden mother. No wonder they never had any money. Pulitzer prize? Booby prize.

EM Dwyer, Swaffham, Norfolk

FALLEN LEAVES by Wilkie Collins

Well-meaning but very silly. Christian Scientist hero Amelius Goldenheart rescues dim, web-footed Sally from a life of prostitution. The scene in which Sally's mother, though dying in convulsions from poisoning, recognises her long-lost daughter by her webbed foot (mother has one too) has to be read to be disbelieved.

Barbara Y Brown, London N13

CHOCOLAT by Joanne Harris

Clichéd and silly in plot and characterisation, completely implausible (where on Earth does the central character, the shop owner, get her money from?) with a decidedly embarrassing ending - sleeping with a gypsy as a gesture of revolt.

Linda Appleby, Cambridge

THE ALCHEMIST by Paolo Coelho

I nominate these pseudo-philosophic witterings of Paolo Coelho as the worst read of all time. I cannot easily imagine a sadder, more wasteful, end to the life of a tree. For a noble plant to finish up as a lump of coincidence-ridden, idiotic claptrap masquerading as deep thought is truly unnecessarily tragic.

Andrew Brown, London N9


As home tutor to an excluded pupil, I read aloud the first four Harry Potter books, as he would listen to nothing else. What totally unbelievable drivel! What daily torture! What joy when my pupil was found a place in school a month before the fifth book appeared! There is a god.

Colm Kerrigan, London E15


It gives a whole new meaning to the word "phoney", and encourages the ridiculous attitudes the British have to "the countryside". As a Cumbrian, it put me off that part of England [the Cotswolds] for ever.

Anne Musgrave, London N5