Bitching about books

For those that haven’t seen it, TIME published a list this week of the “All-TIME 100 Novels”, by which they mean the 100 best novels written in English since 1923 (the year TIME started publishing…”All-TIME”, get it?). Needless to say, a bit of a misleading name. Now, obviously, any such list has to have a starting point, and, if you’re TIME, 1923 is an obvious place, but I think it’s interesting that the time period exactly corresponds to books that are still under copyright. Coincidence or not, I’m sure the publishing houses are pleased to note that none of TIME‘s books is available on Project Gutenberg.

That aside, the obvious thing to do when someone publishes a list like this is to criticize it; since I’ve got some spare time tonight and, to be honest, I enjoy this sort of thing, you get some gratuitous ranting about books. The first thing I noticed about the TIME list is how intentionally eclectic it seems to be. I’m a pretty well-read guy, but I admit I’ve read less than half these books, and there’s a goodly number I’ve never even heard of (and a few whose authors I’ve never even heard of). That doesn’t mean it’s a bad list, but it makes me a little apprehensive, especially when I see Judy Blume (?!?) on the list.

Of course, plenty of obvious choices are there: American Pastoral, Gravity’s Rainbow, Herzog, The Invisible Man, Lolita, Pale Fire, To Kill a Mockingbird, To the Lighthouse and, of course, Hemingway (though if I were to pick out one Hemingway book, it would be For Whom the Bell Tolls, not The Sun Also Rises). Oh, yeah, throw The Lord of the Rings, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984 and Animal Farm on the “obvious” list, too. Still, just because something is “obvious” doesn’t mean it really deserves to be there; The Catcher in the Rye makes all of these lists, despite being a pretty mediocre book. I’m also a little leery of having two Philip Roth books on the list. Admittedly I’ve only read one Roth book (American Pastoral), so maybe I’m off base; still, though American Pastoral was good, probably good enough to be on the list, it was pretty much a one-trick pony. I admit the trick was a good one, but not good enough to make me want to go out and buy the Roth collection, especially since, from what I’ve read, Roth is himself a bit of a one-trick pony.

I have the same issues with Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 both being on the list. Now I understand that Pynchon’s supposed to be this great writer, so I don’t begrudge Gravity’s Rainbow being on the list, even though I’ve never made it through more than 100 pages of it despite multiple attempts, but I have read The Crying of Lot 49 and was unimpressed. In fact, I came away from the experience confused (I’m still not sure exactly what happens in the book or why I should care) but very well-rested (it’s only like 150 pages but put me to sleep at least 4 different times). Of course, I have the same problems with DeLillo’s White Noise, which had a mildly interesting plot but was pretty dull to actually read.

As for Naked Lunch and Money, I admit I haven’t read either of them, but I still question their being on the list. I’ve read a couple of Amis’ books and nothing about any of them made me want to go out and buy Money on the spot. In fact, London Fields put me off Amis completely, even though I’d actually enjoyed Time’s Arrow (for the novelty, if nothing else). On the other hand, I’ve thought about picking up Naked Lunch a few times, not because it actually sounds like something I’d enjoy, but just because of the reputation. But every time I remember my dad’s concise review: “I couldn’t finish it.” → That may not sound like much of a review, especially since there are plenty of books I couldn’t finish when I initially tried to read them but eventually loved upon re-reading, but you have to understand that my dad never gives up on any book, no matter how bad. By his own estimation, there are maybe three or four books he’s ever started but never finished And let’s be honest, here: no book by John Le Carré should be on a 100 greatest novels list.

I’ve also got issues with the inclusion of Dog Soldiers and Snow Crash. I know a lot of people think Dog Soldiers is great and I understand it caused a big stir when it was first published, but I bought it immediately after reading Damascus Gate and I didn’t think it measured up at all. Damascus Gate was one of the better books I’ve read in the last couple of years, while Dog Soldiers was good but not particularly memorable. On the other hand, Snow Crash is one of my favorite books of recent years, but, then again, Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite current authors, so I’m a bit biased. So, while I’m pleased to see Stephenson make the list, Cryptonomicon is definitely a better book and The Diamond Age is arguably so. Of course, the Baroque Cycle might be the best of all of them, but it’s a trilogy (or nine separate books, depending on how you count), not a single novel, so I probably would have gone with Cryptonomicon over Snow Crash.

On the sci-fi tip, while I understand that William Gibson is, like, famous and shit, there’s nothing about Neuromancer that really makes it stand out from the crowd, once you get past the fact that it basically invented the cyberpunk genre (which, to be honest, didn’t really last that long or produce that much of note). A far better sci-fi choice would have been Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which, despite the superficial unoriginality of being a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, is actually one of the most inventive novels I’ve read. Brave New World also falls into that category and, while I don’t know which I would take out, probably could have replaced one of the two Orwell books on the list (though it should be pointed out that both Huxley and Orwell owe an enormous debt to Zamyatin’s We, which, if a choice had to be made, should have made the list over both 1984 and Brave New World if this list included Russian novels).

Of all the books that didn’t make the list, probably the most deserving is John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I’m still not entirely sure whether Toole was a genius or insane, but I think we can all agree that Confederacy is better than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The Wicked Pavilion probably also belongs on the list, as does Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, though I realize some may not think it should really be classified as a novel. Ulysses misses the cut because it was published on 1922 (though not in an English-speaking country in its entirety until the 30s), but Finnegans Wake probably deserves consideration, though I admit not having read it myself.

Libertarian nutjobs are probably pissed that Atlas Shrugged didn’t make the list, but I’m here to tell you it didn’t deserve to. Now, I enjoyed Rand as much as anybody back in high school, but let’s be honest: a craftsman of the English language she weren’t (is that the past tense of “ain’t”? I have no idea…warn’t, maybe?). Two-dimensional characters and interminable speechmaking may do the trick when you’re trying to put a dramatic sheen on your philosophical statement, but they don’t make for a great nove. And Atlas Shrugged isn’t even Rand’s best novel: that distinction goes to Anthem.

Criticism aside, the TIME list does make some nice choices even outside the “obvious” category. I just read Blood Meridian a few weeks ago and was pleased to see it on the list. Even though I have mixed feelings about Flann O’Brien, it was nice to see his name on the list (with At-Swim-Two-Birds). Nitpicking about Cryptonomicon vs. Snow Crash aside, I was also glad to see Stephenson, and similarly for Philip K. Dick (though I’d probably go with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep or A Scanner Darkly over Ubik). They picked Red Harvest, the one Dashiell Hammett book I haven’t read, but it was still good to see Hammett on the list (and encourages me to seek out Red Harvest).

The Sound and the Fury gets all the hype, but I was pleasantly surprised to see my personal favorite Faulkner book, Light in August, also got the nod. I also like to see C.S. Lewis’ name on the list, even though I’m not really sure The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. But if you’re going to put Judy Blume on the list, why not? (Of course, if that’s the mentality, why not scrap Judy Blume and list The Phantom Tollbooth, instead?) And, needless to say, I’m happy to see Infinite Jest on the list (and almost as happy to see John Dos Passos and Maxine Hong Kingston not on the list).

That all having been said, the one overwhelming thought that went through my head as I was scanning the TIME list was this: where are all the great 20th century novels? The answer: they weren’t written in English, so they don’t make the list. Of course, that’s half a lie, since plenty of the great 20th century novels were written in English, but it seems narrow-minded to exclude everything written in another language (after all, it’s not like TIME doesn’t review novels written in Spanish or French or whatever). Sure, it gives the listmakers a chance to up their esoterica quotient by namechecking Richard Yates (who?) and any list necessarily has constraints, but I constantly caught myself looking for the likes of Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, Camus, Hesse, Mann, Svevo, Fuentes, García Márquez, Murakami, Valle-Inclán et al. Of course, the insipidly clever but extremely misleading name of the list probably contributed to this.

21 Responses to “Bitching about books”

  1. Curt Says:

    I don’t know, I’m guessing that the editors would be even more prone to errors outside of their home linguistic turf. For instance, when was the last time you heard any mainstream journalist acknowledge that magical realism started (at least officically) with Alejo Carpentier and not Gabriel García Marquez?

  2. Curt Says:

    p.s. And their French list would probably have lots of Marguerite Duras and André Breton (shoot me), no Alain-Fournier or Albert Cohen.

  3. shonk Says:

    I thought magic realism started with Andrade (the literary version, anyway).

  4. Curt Says:

    You could claim the tradition started absolutely anywhere, even the Bible if you wanted to. I’m just saying that Carpentier seems to have invented the term and concept in about 1949, at least in a literary context (it has been variously ascribed to a German art critic named Franz Roh in 1925, describing the Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) school of painting).

  5. Tom Says:

    Shonk I can’t help but feel you are rubbishing some books because you feel they didn’t have much of an impact (i.e you hadn’t heard of them) and then go on to criticise others for not being your personal cup of tea (Catcher in the Rye for example, or London Fields). Perhaps if we were to limit the decision making process to one criterion, it would be much more simple. Anyway, a couple of hacks in the Time office cannot be expected to deliver a comprehensive list based on fact, because the only quantitative evidence is book sales, which is hardly a fair way to judge book quality.

  6. Curt Says:

    If you didn’t think a book was important and/or you didn’t like it what other criteria are there?

  7. shonk Says:

    Well, whoever we want to ascribe it to, I agree that García Márquez didn’t invent magic realism, journalists notwithstanding, and that the common belief that it was a phenomenon of Latin Americans and Toni Morrison is a misconception.

  8. Curt Says:

    True, but Toni Morrison is a good example of how in some ways the genre maybe doesn’t make much sense outside of a Latin American context.

  9. mock Says:

    I’m sure Dog Soldiers made the list because it is Stone’s only National Book Award winner, but I agree that both Damascus Gate and A Flag for Sunrise are much stronger works. I was pleased to see Richard Yates on the list, a somewhat neglected writer who was able to plumb America’s ambivalent material progress without descending to either satire or didacticism.

  10. Curt Says:

    Speaking of random lists, the Prospect/Foreign Policy reader’s poll of top intellectuals has been completed here. Let’s just see these aren’t the best of days for non-ideologues.

  11. Curt Says:

    Sorry, link doesn’t seem to work. Let’s try that again.

  12. shonk Says:


  13. Curt Says:

    Notice that it takes them 24 spots to get to any scientists, with the Dennett-Dyson-Pinker cluster.

  14. Curt Says:

    Actually I’m not even sure that one would technically call Dennett and Pinker scientists, but they work a lot with cognitive science, so the distinction is not overly relevant.

  15. shonk Says:

    It’s slightly disturbing how much I’m enjoying the fact that you’ve exluded Dawkins from the “scientist” category.

  16. Curt Says:

    Well, I won’t pretend that I didn’t just overlook him, but in a sense it’s true: even if he is a scientist it’s not in that capacity that he is prominent. Of course you could say the same thing about Chomsky as a linguist, Salman Rushdie as a novelist, etc., but in Dawkin’s case it goes even beyond the political posturing, since even in his ostensibly scientific works (at least the well-known ones) he’s just popularizing the theories of W.D. Hamilton, John Maynard Smith et al. It’s kind of like naming Scott McClellan most influential political figure in the world.

  17. shonk Says:

    Well, I was enjoying it because I agree. Dawkins used to be a scientist, but he’s now basically a proselytizer.

  18. Curt Says:

    By the way, while we’re playing these parlour games, I’ll throw out what I think is probably the greatest novel I’ve ever read: Père Goriot by Balzac. I’m not even joking when I say it almost makes King Lear seem tame.

  19. John T. Kennedy Says:

    I think The Diamond Age is a finer novel then Cryptonomicon (and I like the latter a lot), though I did feel it fell apart at the end. TDA soared higher.

    I’m not for dismissing The Fountainhead because Rand wasn’t a great stylist, I think her novels deserve to be appreciated on their own terms.

  20. shonk Says:

    I disagree that TDA fell apart at the end. I used to think it did, but upon re-reading I realized exactly what Stephenson was trying to do and how well it worked.

    I’m not for dismissing The Fountainhead because Rand wasn’t a great stylist, I think her novels deserve to be appreciated on their own terms.

    …which, no matter whether you agree with the philosophical content or not, is not as great literature.

  21. John T. Kennedy Says:

    I’ll have to reread TDA.

    I think your idea of great literature is too narrow. I look how much of value was successfully communicated in a work. If a great deal of value was successfully communicated why doesn’t that qualify as great?

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