Friday, June 09, 2006

Mutt's Brief Thoughts on the 'Best of Last 25 Years' Fracas

For some reason after reading Duke's thought-provoking post, I have been having trouble figuring out how I wanted to ring in on this whole question about what's the "best" American novel of the last 25 years, what are the "best" American works, etc. I just can't seem to pick one myself, of course, it's way too difficult. I also don't know if I really see any point to the exercise, ultimately, which is the way at least some people seem to feel. Here's an interesting quote from one critic whose writing I frequently find admirable, who also sometimes writes for the New York Times, Laura Miller. Here, she explains why she did not take part in the selection process after being invited:

"An editor at the Book Review assured me that the list was really a parlor game that I should view in a more cavalier light, like something the obsessive characters in "Diner" or "High Fidelity" might indulge in. But those guys take themselves pretty seriously, and damn if the letter didn't ask for the "most distinguished" American novel of the past 25 years, which sounds pretty sober. I wasn't going to do it as a game when it was likely to be taken in earnest.

"My point in objecting was not just some namby-pamby reluctance to make any relative evaluation about literature, because that really is an important thing that critics do: declare that some books are better than others. I have no problem doing that, but I hate imposing a rigidly, atomistic structure on it. Ultimately, novels are so diverse that once they attain a certain level of quality, they really can't be meaningfully ranked against each other."

I have never seen Diner, but I did read the novel 'High Fidelity', and I like Laura Miller's point about how the guys in the book DO take their lists seriously. They sure do. And I think she is dead right in that last statement, that once a book reaches that plateau of quality, it sort of trascends the rankings: it's a damned good book, and doesn't have to be measured against any other book to make it any more so. That's kind of how I feel about some of the greatest novels I've read, especially in the last 3-4 years. I do get a kind of feeling that is something like, 'This book is just GREAT. No matter how many people read it, no matter what the guy or woman who wrote it thinks or says or what they seem to believe, they wrote a great book. Period.' I got that feeling with a book called 'Independent People' not too long ago, which isn't going to make its way onto any American lists since it's by an Icelandic writer, Halldor Laxness.

I didn't totally blow off the Times' piece, though; I did think it was interesting, and it did inspire me to read Morrison's 'Beloved', which as of this moment I am roughly 20 pages from the end of. And indicentally, I'd put it in the category I discussed above: a GREAT novel. Definitely worth reading for anyone of any race or any gender who cares about literature, and hey, an American wrote it on top of it. When you read 'Beloved', it's obvious that it is a great work of literature. Trust me on that. Or, rather, don't: anyone reading this ought to do what I didn't do for so many years, and read the book.

So anyway, I don't think I can come up with a list of the 'best' American novels, but that doesn't mean I'm knocking Duke's, because he put out there what he found to be "essential" American novels, which isn't necessarily the greatest ones. I thought his list was pretty sensible and it certainly includes 10 great works on it that most people would say represent the finest American literature. Nonetheless, if I were taken hostage and forced to make a list, I'd follow Miller's lead again. This time, she is referring to the National Book Critics' Circle, of which she is a member:

"If I had my druthers, the NBCC would stop at the list of 5 finalists."

I like the idea of coming up with 5 great choices, so the list that appears below ISN'T the 5 Best American Novels in my opinion, it's not the 5 best American novels of this year, but it does represent the TOP 5 MOST INFLUENTIAL NOVELS TO MUTT PLOUGHMAN, PERSONALLY, WRITTEN BY AMERICAN WRITERS. If you don't like that shoe-horn category, well, that's as good as you're gonna get.......

1. "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck
2. "Moby-Dick", Herman Melville
3. "Going Native", Stephen Wright
4. "On the Road", Jack Kerouac
5. "The Violent Bear it Away", Flannery O'Connor


Duke Altum said...

While I certainly understand the rationale behind Laura Miller's point, to me her objection only intensifies what she is supposed to be objecting to: the stuffiness and seriousness of the whole enterprise. Somehow it seems to make the whole thing seem MORE pretentious by having a critic "conscientiously object." I say Come on Laura, it IS only a parlor game. People can take their games seriously, sure (some people play chess and Monopoly with deadly seriousness!), but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a game. Gimme a break. Just ring in, or don't, but don't compound the "problem" by writing some sanctimonious justification of your non-involvement!!!

As for Mutt, well he's on a lot surer ground, I feel. He just doesn't feel he can narrow it down, and of course I understand that. In a way, I can't either. It's just a fun exercise, and that's ALL it is. But he gave us hiw own personal list, and that's what we care about most anyway... as I indicated in my post, the question was which are YOUR favorite or most influential writers, or novels? Mutt's list is a great one... although knowing him, I was personally shocked that Kerouac's 'On the Road' was selected over his lesser-known, but certainly at least as important to Mutt, novel 'Maggie Cassady.'

Anyway, lists like this are fun to think about and take a crack at. No one, with the exception of high falutin critics (Laura Miller not excluded!), thinks they're anything more than that... good fun.

Thanks for ringing in Mutt!

Aura McKnightly said...

I guess John Grisham wins 'cause no one else has any thoughts on the matter!