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October 21, 2009

Unusual Literary List

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Edward Craig, back in Michigan after bravely braving San Francisco's City Lights Bookstore and living to report his findings here, now unearths for us a surprising nugget of ... well, let him report:

* * * * *

Michael Blowhard often lamented on this site about the lack of appreciation for the writing skills of popular novelists. These novelists often share the same lament. In his book On Writing Stephen King relates a story about Amy Tan at a conference, complaining about how the audience always asks questions about her plots or characters, but never about her choice of language.

I purchased a book a few years ago called The Top Ten edited by columnist J. Peder Zane. The book collects responses from a variety of writers about the ten greatest works of fiction. The topic probably proved too broad, like when the Heisman Trophy tries to name the best player in college football. There’s a lot of repetition, such as Anna Karenina making 25 percent of the lists.

I wonder if some of the choices aren’t the result of what economists call “signaling.” In other words, I wonder if some of the respondents want to be known by what they read, rather than what they write. An example is Robert B. Parker, creator of the “Spenser” detective novels, whose list appears across from Joyce Carol Oates. I fully expected her to choose titles by Stendhal, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. But I was strangely disappointed that Parker chose works by Henry James and John Dos Passos. He did have Hammett and Chandler on his list, but those are acceptable among the literati.
Other modern novelists presented lists that lead one to conclude nothing worth reading has been written since the start of World War II. Lolita is the only post-war selection on Bobbie Ann Mason’s list.

Chick lit author Jennifer Weiner struck me as one of the most honest contributors. Her list included not only The Stand by Stephen King, but Pearl a novel by his wife, Tabitha. The most interesting list, hands down, was the one across from Weiner’s. David Foster Wallace, the late poster child of literary fiction, submitted the following:

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
The Stand by Stephen King
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Fuzz by Ed McBain
Alligator by Shelley Katz
The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy

Maybe I’m misreading the meaning of these lists. Maybe Parker was just naming what he considers the best works of fiction in a traditional sense. And maybe Wallace was making some sort of ironic joke. I still enjoy the idea of a pompous grad student having a minor stroke reading his list, though.

* * * * *

Once again, Edward, thank you for contributing to 2Blowhards.



posted by Donald at October 21, 2009


I'd like to think that Wallace was being sincere, and a few grad students would be less snobby as a result, but I'm sure I'd be wrong on both counts.

Posted by: Bryan on October 21, 2009 1:43 PM

The sad fact has that there really hasn't been anything seriously worth reading (I mean, more than just mildly entertaining), written since WW2, it's quite astonishing and quite dismaying.

I try, I really try, but all the hyped post war novels end up being tripe. I just picked up Kundera's Lightness of being - utter junk! Pretentious junk! Then there's Franzen, Zadie Smith, Mcewan, Phillip Roth (utterly worthless), all the supposed heavyweights of post-war fiction, and there isn't a a serious writer amongst them. At best they are mildly entertaining, and most don't rise even to that height.

Maybe some of John Fowles is okay, I suppose, and a bit of Rushdie, not much.

Then you look at the period right before the war, Celine, Fizgerald, Kafka, Hamsun, Gide, Fante, Hemmingway, Svevo, Bulgakov, Camus, Sartre, Musil, Mann, and countless, countless others writers of incredible, stellar merit!

Really, our literary culture has gone out not with a bang but a whimper! Dismal.

Posted by: John on October 21, 2009 4:20 PM

It takes a while for a literary piece to work its way up to the iconic status of "masterpiece". I would say a work needs about 50 years of constant praise and perhaps entry into the college curriculum in order to reach that benchmark. It helps to be a universally admired writer like Tolstoy who has enveloped himself in a quasi spiritual aura. Or someone like Dickens who seems to have developed a wide following among various levels of society during his own lifetime. And does the author's work remain timeless, or does it simply melt away because of the tediousness of dated themes? A classic must not only continue to sell well in order to maintain its status. It must also continue to instruct and entertain well. "Lorna Doone" was once on the canon list at most universities. Since WW2 it has lost that status, though barely clinging to its "classic" moniker today.

I would also remind everyone that a true genius does one thing that others do not: he works constantly until he dies. At some point in his creative output, this writer starts producing masterpieces. He may continue to do so, like Dickens, till he dies. Or, like Conrad, his later works may fade into obscurity. But he will produce a large body of work of which some or many will be "classics". My gut feeling is that we are entering an age in which the West's ability to produce literary geniuses is waning. I don't want to think that this portends something bad, but I do agree that the first half of the 20th century has been more interesting for literature than the latter half. Perhaps it is in adversity that genius arises.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 21, 2009 10:07 PM

I've only read Portnoy's Complaint but I thought it was hilarious.

Posted by: Bryan on October 21, 2009 10:30 PM

My guess is that DFW was quite sincere in his list...and also deeply aware of its ironic joke side, too. Sadly, it seems to me that part of the genuine appeal for him of all those writers was that they lacked what might be called "self-consciousness" as writers. All of them wrote, some of them very well (King wrote very well in The Stand, despite it also having many of his flaws as a writer on full display), but all of them, I think, just kind of got on with it, and wrote.

For a man whose every waking moment was to be consumed by self-consciousness, they must have seemed like a promise of life and freedom and happiness, exemplars of what the psychologist with the massively unreadable Hungarian name (M Czichmentzshimalyi) called "flow". When you're in "flow", you're not self-conscious at all. You're absorbed in what you're doing.

And that is a, if not the, key component of what Aristotle called happiness, true happiness. Something DFW probably never experienced in his life.

I think John's point above about literary decline is not unrelated to the efflorescence of writerly self-consciousness in the post-war decades. You do everything better when you "flow". And there just ain't been a lot of "flow" in post-war lit-fic.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 22, 2009 6:13 AM

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