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

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Modern Greats

Last week I posted some general reactions to the later reaches of the list of great novels in Susan Wise Bauer's book, The Well Educated Mind. I listed some "modern greats" of my own choosing, and A Philosopher obligingly listed off some great modern novelists in the comments.

Anyway, the question of what might constitute "modern greats" in the novel genre continues to intrigue (as do A Philosopher's suggestions, a couple of which I just picked up at the library). Anyway, I thought it would be helpful if I went ahead and posted the post 1940 section of Bauer's list (which is the part I'm wondering about -- perhaps as someone pointed out because it's too soon to tell what is "great" in that period).

Native Son, Richard Wright
The Stranger, Albert Camus
1984, George Orwell
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
White Noise, Don Delillo
Possession, A. S. Byatt

Now, of these I've only read 1984 and The Stranger, and a bit from the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude (MrsDarwin then took possession and read it -- and I never got around to continuing).

Of the two I have read, 1984 is certainly an essential piece of cultural literacy, but I'm not sure that I'd label is as a great novel qua novel. The Stranger certainly helps you understand some things about mid 20th century intellectual movements, though I think you might be better off reading No Exit by Sartre instead (though that's not a novel, so I guess that doesn't count here.) However, I'll admit to finding The Stranger pretty darn unsatisfying just taken as a novel.

My point here is definitely not to attack Bauer's choices -- my literary education gets pretty spotty after 1940, so I'm in absolutely no position to do that. However, I'm trying to understand what sort of list this is. Is it more a "this is what English departments study" (Bauer is, after all, a grad student in English literature), or is it a list of novels that typify major 20th century intellectual trends, or is it an attempt to identify the "great" works of the period? (My impression from her introduction to the novel and various schools of novel writing is that it's one of the former two, but the overall plan of the book would just the last possibility.)

Whatever it is, I do have ambitions of improving on my knowledge of modern novels one of these days, so I'm curious as to whether these, or perhaps some other list, are what I should be reading.


Entropy said...

I think she says that her list is by no means complete but just to give a good jumping off point. She mentioned that she chose books for their cultural importance, like 1984, and also books that show trends of thought (since ideally you're reading these books in order from Don Quixote on up).

It's been a while since I read it (got my copy from the library too) but it seemed she was pretty open about everyone needing to tweak their own lists.

Anonymous said...

My general impression of the list as someone with both a BA and an MA in English, is that it is, as you suggested, the kind of things that English depts study.

Though I'm not sure that's going to be much different than a list that tries to identify major intellectual trends as that is one of the criteria for English depts. But Possession, for example, is the kind of book that really appeals to English dept types... as the protagonists are themselves literary scholars.

I agree that an attempt to identify great works is premature. At least one of the criteria should be that a book stands the test of time and speaks to later generations.

rose said...

Well, I'm not familiar with most of those books, but my teachers would have been willing to let me do Possession for my senior thesis. Whether or not that means it's studied in most universities, I can't say.

Personally, I enjoyed Possession--the fake lit crit alone is worth the price of admission--but I'm not sure I'd really term it great. The author's ability to mimic period works is impressive, and I enjoyed the interweaving of plot threads, but . . . I don't know, nothing about it struck me as amazingly skilled or insightful. Also, I thought some of the female characters were rather unconvincing--which was odd, as the author is herself female.