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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Modern American Great Novelists

(after discussion of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joseph Heller) ...The generous critic might hold up numerous other writers as important artists -- John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, James Purdy, William Gaddis, John Hawkes, Katherine Anne Porter, Guy Davenport, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, and John Updike, to name a few. How many of them will outlast the century? Perhaps Malamud, certainly a powerful artist at his best; conceivably Guy Davenport, if sheer precision and uncompromising artistry count, but his output is spare and his work goes underadvertized; possibly Eudora Welty, because of one superb novel, Losing Battles, a handful of stories, and her secure position as Southerner and woman in our college American literature courses; possibly Joyce Carol Oates, for a few excellent short stories; possibly Salinger. But I suspect that what I've typed above is a list of inflated reputations. Some on the list will die quickly, of pure meanness -- Porter, Coover, and Gaddis -- and some will die of intellectual blight, academic narrowness, or fakery -- Pynchon, Updike (or most of his work), Barth.
--John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978

So. It's 38 years later. Who on this list is still remembered, or if remembered, hailed as one of the canonical American writers? Of all the above mid-century authors, I've read snippets of Eudora Welty (my mother is from the South), and I started Salinger's Catcher in the Rye but found it too precious to read more than a few chapters. I've received vaccinatory quotes from John Updike, which have protected me from even wanting to read any of his output. Sure, I recognize a lot of the names, but as for reading them? No.

Mid-century names not on the list: Flannery O'Connor (d. 1964, in plenty of time to have been noticed by Gardner, notably one of the only mid-century authors featured in my American Novel college course, beating out even Eudora Welty), Walker Percy (mentioned once in Gardner's book).

If one were to assemble a list of modern American novelists (or, to continue Mr. Gardner's work, American novelists of the last 40 years) who are notable for writing moral fiction and likely to join the pantheon of classic authors, who would be on that list? I turn to you all because my reading of the moderns is spotty. I know many people who would include Marilynne Robinson. (I read Gilead and had opinions on it, but I find I'm in the minority.) Friends like Mary Karr, but she's not a novelist. Jonathan Franzen, but again, I haven't read him, and people I trust tell me that he's full of it. So, who's it to be for the Americans on future lists of Great American Authors? Or do we just write off the 80s, 90s, and Aughts as a low point in American literature?


John Farrell said...

O'Connor is only problematic in that she was clearly superior as a short story writer than a novelist. But I would certainly say she will be read. I would add Raymond Carver, same reason: some truly magnificent short stories ('A Small Good Thing'). Franzen indeed is overhyped and easily dismissed for the same reasons Gardner leveled at many of the others: he has no sympathy or compassion for any of his characters, and, like Updike, can't help dwelling on the ugly side of human nature.

I think Gene Wolfe's Soldier novels are small masterpieces and I think of all he's written, those will survive as well. But, they need to be discovered by a wider audience first, and that may not happen for some time.

Josiah Neeley said...

The two names that come to mind are David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison. As for Franzen, it's hard enough for me to fathom people reading him now, let alone in 100 years.

Enbrethiliel said...


How about the literary couple who are American fiction's answer to the Brownings--the Darwins! =D Of course, they'd have to be published on paper first . . .

And now I remember, with very great embarrassment, that you sent me something to read several months ago that I have not finished yet. *headdesk* I'll get right to it this weekend, Mrs. D!

MrsDarwin said...

Heh, I had to stop and think, "What did I send Enbrethiliel?" Hope you enjoy, but no rush.