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:
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.)