Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Alternative Miss World

On Monday of this week we noted that the New York Times had run a piece about the best American novel of the last 25 years. We further noted that some bloggers were not too impressed by this exercise.

One who was less impressed than most was Beth Quittman, who writes Book of the Day. She decided to run an alternative Miss World competition. She wrote to a number of bloggers, the GOB included, and invited a different set of nominations, the results of which are beginning to come in.

When I received Bett's invitation to nominate, I scratched my head and wrote back as follows:

Within the last 25 years, can't think of anything much. Older than that:
Kurt Vonnegut -- The Sirens of Titan
Richard Condon -- The Manchurian Candidate

I might have added, if I'd thought a little longer:

John Rechy: City of Night
William Styron: Lie Down in Darkness

or even

J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye (though I don't like it's self-pitying tone)

But they're all older than 25 too.

Well, this wasn't good enough for our Bett. 'C'mon,' she said, 'rack your brains.' So I did, and wrote back as follows:

OK, fair enough, I have done some work on this. I have looked on my bookshelves, to see what I've read and thought sufficiently highly of to want to keep. And, among recent American fiction, I can't find anything much. I have also looked at various online lists of 'contemporary classics' and again drawn a blank. I have found nothing that I actually want to vote for as 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years'.

Now this is strange, because when I first began serious reading (in the 1950s) I was strongly attracted to American fiction and read a great deal of it. But in recent times, apart from thrillers, science fiction, and the like, I have found very little work by American novelists that I actually want to read. There is also a great deal that I would willingly pay good money to avoid reading, such as anything that wins the present-day Pulitzer or any other prestigious literary prize.

What this means is that one of two things has happened. Either my intelligence, taste, and general sensibility have markedly declined over the years, or else American fiction has changed in its nature.

Naturally, I do not incline to the first explanation, and consider the second more likely.

What has happened in American fiction over the last fifty years (and exactly the same has occurred in British fiction, I hasten to add) is that the writers and publishers of fiction have split into two well-defined camps. One the one hand there is commercial fiction, which ordinary people read but which is not taken seriously by the mainstream media, let alone the intelligentsia; and on the other hand we have 'serious', or literary fiction, the writers and publishers of which have systematically decided to alienate the average reader. And they have succeeded beyond their most lavish expectations. No literary book today can hold its head up in polite society if it is read and genuinely enjoyed on any scale. Because then it becomes 'popular', lower class, disgusting, distasteful, and generally unclean. And Puritans don't like anything unclean.

The causes of this situation are many and various, but they all have to do with the growth of the formal study of English literature in schools and universities. The situation arises because a considerable number of persons of very ordinary intellect have set themselves up as judges of what is or is not a good book -- largely in order to give themselves nice comfortable jobs instead of working for a living -- and these self-appointed experts have been taken at their own evaluation by whole generations of parents and students, some of whom really ought to know better.

Result: nonsense. On the one hand, we have books which are virtually unreadable being given major honours, and, on the other hand, we have commercial fiction, which is often manufactured to fit a template and looks very much like it. In between, if you search long and hard, are the kind of books which used to be given the recognition which is due to story-telling of a high standard. Sometimes these books, if an author writes enough of them, achieve significant sales and some grudging respect: an English example is Terry Pratchett; but often they don't.

So, what can we take from all this?

I am still disinclined to name one particular novel as meeting your criterion -- the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years. Why? Because I would only feel comfortable in making such a nomination if I had willingly read the book two or three times. And although I much admire some recent thrillers, for example, I do not feel the urge to pick them up again.

The best I can do is point you in the direction of one writer who has already produced a solid corpus of work: Neal Stephenson.

Neal has been written about here more than once. He seems to me to embody some old-fashioned virtues. He is, first and foremost, a teller of tales. He is wonderfully well informed on matters scientific -- and I find it hard to imagine that a modern writer can manage without that background, because our society is now so heavily dependent upon science and technology. And he has a good feeling for character.

What Neal perhaps does not have, as yet, is the ability to generate really powerful emotion in the reader -- emotion of the kind which will stay in your memory and will cause you, over a period of time, to read the book again. But, dammit, who today does have that power? It's a rare accomplishment.


Anonymous said...

I tried Winds of War and War and Rememberance by Herman Wouk but they were past the 25 year cutoff.
I settled on Thomas Harris for Silence of the Lambs/Red Dragon/Hannibal.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

"One the one hand there is commercial fiction, which ordinary people read but which is not taken seriously by the mainstream media"

Have you any evidence for this? The supposedly highbrow Nightwaves programme on Radio 3 had an interview with Elmore Leonard recently. I'm still waiting for them to interview a genuine artist.

"and on the other hand we have 'serious', or literary fiction, the writers and publishers of which have systematically decided to alienate the average reader."

Do you mean bestsellers like Saul Bellow, Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Richard Ford, Nicholson Baker, Paul Theroux, to name but a handful?

Why would a writer "systematically decide"(whatever that means) to alienate an audience? Maybe they're making honest artistic decisions? Ever heard of them?

"we have books which are virtually unreadable being given major honours"

Name one. Was it written in Swahili perhaps?

Noah Cicero said...

Bret Easton Ellis, Bukowski, kathy Acker all had novels in the last 25 years.

What the fuck?

Not to you Michael Allen, but the Americans who made that list.

That list comes right out of Manhatten dinner parties. I've never met anyone who reads those Roth, de lillo and Morrison books.

Know a million Bukowski and Ellis fans though.

archer said...

The same stuff has happened to music. On the one hand is the stuff people actually listen to, and on the other are the professors and DMAs still cranking out Schoenberg and water, with audiences in concert halls all over the world screaming and clawing for the exits.

The better musicians know it's all a scam. Leonard Bernstein caused a huge ruckus in 1967 when he said that "She's Leaving Home" was as good as anything by Schubert; but he was right. If it's music, y'ought to be able to whistle it, and if it's a book, y'ought to be able to read it.

archer said...

P.S. How come I can read Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw or even Samuel Johnson with pleasure for hours on end, and I can't chop my way through Nadine Gori-whatshername or Toni Morrison or that Cold Mountain thing with a jackhammer and would much rather read Tom Wolfe or Stephen King? I mean, it's not like I'm lazy or anything.

Anonymous said...

Old books came to mind immediately--the ones I was force-fed in school, in particular, like The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thorton Wilder. (Might I be walking across that bridge today?) I often think about The Inheritors by William Golding. Pressed, I voted for A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, but I was very hesitant.

Anonymous said...

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, which I have read numerous times. I couldn't get two pages into Jazz, and although I've read Beloved and Paradise, I have little interest in reading them again. Maybe it's not author-dependent; maybe it's just that everything was exactly right just that once.

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