Joseph Epstein at The Atlantic asks, “Is Franz Kafka Overrated?” He offers his own difficulty stomaching Kafka’s work while having his morning tea and toast, and then provides a number of other (by Walter Benjamin, Erich Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, etc.) thoughts on the writer, and then tries to sell us on his idea that”Kafka, in other words, is given a pass on criticism.” Also, “The argument is that he cannot finally be explained, but merely read, appreciated, and reread until his meaning, somehow, washes over you,” and quotes Jeremy Adler’s thoughts that Kafka’s work is “less dazzling than Proust, less innovative than Joyce, [but his] vision is more stark, more painful, more obviously universal than that of his peers.”
Not sure where he got the idea that Kafka is somehow above criticism, but Epstein does sort of shoot holes in his own theory (which I’m led to believe isn’t really his own theory at all, rather just an Atlantic editor getting clever with a title that will obviously draw clicks from the many fans of Prague’s favorite son) on Kafka’s fame by stating:
Kafka is credited with prophetic powers, because he predicted, through his novels The Trial and The Castle, the totalitarian regimes that arose after his death, especially that of the Soviet Union, with its arbitrary, insane, crushing—yes, Kafkaesque—bureaucratic apparatus for killing.
To answer Epstein’s question: No, Franz Kafka is not overrated. He’s a writer whose life and work is equally interesting and mysterious, and whose influence is still felt to this day. While I don’t agree with Epstein’s insinuation that Kafka is immune to criticism, I do agree that he’s the type of writer that winds up on nearly every “Must Read Before You Die” type of list that are far too common in the internet era. I also can’t help but feel like the context in which Epstein’s argument was mounted is also a symptom of the new type of criticism afforded by the internet–quick, punny and provocative without much explanation.