PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.
I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.
There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.
Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.
As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.
I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.
Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.
Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.
Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)