Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Art Novels vs. Real Novels

As people may have noticed, I'm a sucker for lists and also a sucker for intellectualism. Thus, I ended up picking up a copy of Susan Wise Bauer's The Well Educated Mind at the library the other night. (Of course the other danger with this kind of move is that I seem to have this rivalry impulse with any author of a book on classical curriculums -- hold-over homeschooling one-upsmanship, I guess.)

Anyway, I was looking over her list of 'great' novels that should be read, and realizing that despite my pretensions I've only read about 30% of them -- not that this is causing me to lose sleep or anything. (Most of the things that cause me to lose sleep are under four feet tall and kick when they show up in mommy and daddy's bed in the middle of the night. We don't need a daddy in our house, we need a conveyer belt that leads from the parental bed to the kids' room. But that's another story.)

But I digress...

One of the things that hit me is that aside from 1984 I hadn't read a single one of the listed 'greats' from post 1940. I hadn't even heard of most of them. And this got me wondering: with something so recent, how exactly do you classify something as 'great' other than the fact you liked it a lot?

One thing I've wondered about a bit is whether novels have in some sense split into two tracks, a self-consciously 'art' group of novels which English departments spend their time on, and others which, however good, are considered only 'popular', but might also be termed 'real novels' -- as in, novels written for the quaint but original purpose of the genre: so that people will enjoy reading them.

I'm not just talking about the old "are Tolkien and Lewis literature" debate, though that's perhaps part of it. Authors of the last 60 years that spring to mind and seem to me to be 'literature' of some sort would include:

Robertson Davies
Yasunari Kawabata
Kazuo Ishiguro
Evelyn Waugh
Anthony Powell
Donna Tartt
Tom Wolfe
Umberto Eco

Yet these don't seem to be the sort of people who show up on "20th Century Literature" reading lists.

Is there some essential difference between "good" and "great" that I'm missing here? Something that divides these from those authors who are often listed among the great authors of the later 20th century? Or is it rather a matter that liturature as a field has fallen into studying those authors who tend to write in self conscious knowledge of being studied by literature faculties, rather than those who write otherwise very high quality works for readers rather than for academia?

Or is it just a matter of different taste?

(Anyone know of a link to an online version of Bauer's lists? I can't seem to find anything on the Well Educated Mind site.)


Amber said...

Not to be nit-picky or anything, but Susan Wise Bauer is a she, not a he (see beginning of the second paragraph)

I like Bauer's book, especially since I have a thing for reading lists. I would really like to tackle her book and her reading lists (my husband bought me the book for my 30th birthday - and he said he would read them with me!) but I'm not sure we're going to be able to start for a couple more years. Maybe once the house is built...

Darwin said...

Thanks, I fixed the "his". Caught on to the female thing, just slipped a pronoun somehow...

Kevin Jones said...

If you've not read it yet, Georgetown U's James V. Schall has a book called "Another Sort of Learning" which is a compilation of essays ending with book lists.

Bob the Ape said...

I would guess that we're still too close in time to the later 20th century to know who the "great" authors are. Let's wait another 100 years or so - anyone who's still in print is probably a safe bet.

A Philosopher said...

I guess I think there is a good/great distinction here. I haven't seen the Bauer list, but none of the authors you list would make my own "greats of the last 60 years". I'm going on reputation rather than exposure in several cases (I've read all of the Ishiguro, a good bit of Davies, some Eco, and a tiny sampling of Waugh), but I'd take Waugh as the best of those, and would think that pretty much all of them are no better than a few dozen other good-but-not-great writers I could quickly list.

This is just off the top of my head, but I think that I'd identify a clear top tier of Nabakov, Pynchon, and O'Connor, followed by a second tier of Borges, and Mishima. I think those are the only ones that I'd be very confident would stand the test of time. After that, there's third tier of John Barth, Don DeLillo, Stephen Dixon, and maybe Kobo Abe (although I find his experimentalism falls flat perhaps a bit too often). And then a broad range including William Gaddis, Robert Coover, maybe Stanislaw Lem, maybe Harukia Murakami (probably not, though), Jose Saramago, Ian McEwan, and probably several others I'm not thinking of right now. (Waugh and maybe, but probably not, Ishiguro would come in here.) Among the younger crowd, I'd probably take David Foster Wallace as most likely to some day make the cut.

Darwin said...


Interesting. I'll have to take a look at the book and post the list of 'modern greats' (if I may abuse the Oxford term).

I know that an Italo Cavino novel was on there. Also Native Son by Richard Wright and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Other than that I'd have to take a look. (The names, being unfamiliar, mostly didn't stick.)

I haven't read (or with the exception of O'Conner heard of) the ones that you mention, so I'll admit to being out of my depth there.

Of the ones I listed, I think I'd be most prepared to defend Davies, Powell and Waugh. Eco is, of course, a billiant Semiotician, and I think also a very good writer, but his best books (to my mind Name of the Rose and Island of the Day Before -- haven't had the chance to read Baudolino yet) strike me as being most brilliant in their ability to reflect a specific time, so I'm not sure if stricly as novels distinct from their period feel they're brilliant.

Tartt, Wolfe and Ishiguro I like quite a bit for their respective styles, but I'd be fairly willing to categorize them simply as good popular writers.

Kawabata I've only read one novel by, but I believe he won a nobel price for literature, so I threw him in on principle.

Are there specific novels you'd recommend by the authors you mention?

A Philosopher said...

I had been thinking of a list of authors, rather than books. Invisible Man is a reasonable choice for a single book, but I don't know enough about Ellison's other production to say whether he would make an "authors" list. I went through a Calvino phase at one point, but it strikes me as a bit thin now -- too much style and not enough substance.

Powell's been on my list of writers to check out for a while now. I don't know quite why Davies doesn't do it for me. I rather liked What's Bred in the Bone, but everything else I've read (the remainder of the Cornish and the Deptford trilogy) felt too much like an academic's attempt to produce a novel.

Some recommendations: for Thomas Pynchon, it's pretty easy - The Crying of Lot 49 is both short and extremely good. Nabakov is much harder. The two greatest works are Lolita and Ada, but both of them can be pretty off-putting, Lolita because it's Lolita, and Ada because of a heavy incest theme. Pale Fire is brilliant if you like things very experimental, and Despair is probably the most accessible. For Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a great starting point, and if you like it, the Sea of Fertility tetralogy (Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, Decay of the Angel) is his master work (and the only series I know linked by the successive reincarnation of a character). Borges is, I think, the greatest writer of short stories ever, and pretty much any of his shorts is good. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is a person favorite, and "The Library of Babel" and "Funes the Memorious" are both excellent.

On the lower tiers: John Barth's major work is "Giles Goat-Boy", but for something quicker you could try his short story "Lost in the Funhouse". Delillo's best is "White Noise", I think. Stephen Dixon's best is the amazing "Interstate", but it's also one of the most harrowing books I've read. Kobo Abe's masterwork is definitely "The Woman in the Dunes", which is also more readable than some of his other experimental novels. For William Gaddis, J.R. is the thing to read, although it's intimidatingly dense. For Coover, The Public Burning is probably best, especially if you have any interest in a (weirdly) fictionalized life of Nixon, or perhaps The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. For Stanislaw Lem (apparently a friend of Karol Wojtyla), I'd recommend either Fiasco or Solaris. For Haruki Murakami, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World is probably the most accessible, but I have a fondness for Wild Sheep Chase. For Jose Saramago, Blindness is probably the best starting point. For Ian McEwan, either Enduring Love or Atonement. And for David Foster Wallace, you can always leap into the thousand-page Infinite Jest (complete with 200 pages of footnotes), or you could try some of the short stories in Girl With Curious Hair (John Billy is probaby my favorite).

Ah, the pleasures of theological evangelism pale compared to those of cultural evangelism.