I saw this blog post on my feed this evening, thanks to a friend on a social networking site. The blog post describes a blog post from 1898, when the latter was posted in something called a “newspaper” – sound it out, kids – and it details the 100 novels the blogger (or “literary critic”) felt were the best 100 novels published to date. The critic was mad about Tristram Shandy – a book he felt was too odd – being lauded as a groundbreaking novel (which it is), and this list was his rejoinder. I’ll let you go take a look at the list. I’ll be here when you get back.
I’ve lost my taste for arguing which are the best novels because it feels like so much posturing and bullshit. Which, maybe that’s a lie (and more posturing) because I certainly get sucked into arguing them every time they come to my attention. I once saw a round up on Kirkus (which I can’t find at the moment) of the best science fiction slash fantasy, and I laughed until I fired off an angry letter. Not only did it read as something put together by someone who only read literary science fiction (which is a thing, I assure you), including just a ton of stuff by people like Atwood and Chabon who sit decidedly uneasy in the genre. (I’ll give you Yiddish Detective’s Union as spec fic or alt-history, but Kavalier & Clay? Please. That isn’t science fiction, unless all histories who have characters inserted into them that didn’t exist are speculative fiction. I think even the most hardened sff nerd would object to that.) But it wasn’t even that I disagreed with the definition of best – the list was pretty good – but that I disagreed with their concept of genre.
Anyway, my grudges against Kirkus aside, top 100 lists are funny things, generally more link-bait than anything, so it was a trip to see one from so long ago. (I think they’d call it “circulation-bait” back in the day.) The 2013 blog post about the 1898 critic rightly notes that the 1898 blogger is weirdly squeamish about including living writers, adding in an addendum of 8 works by those still breathing that he felt might make the cut of history. (And by and large, they do, or did.) I think we do now rush to add living writers to the canon. Some of this is the fact that there are so many novelists now, and, as the form reaches its end-stage, there really is a lot of weird, form-breaking and remaking stuff out there. Maybe it won’t make the cut of history, but it certainly makes the cut of now.
And here I’ll just gesture to my pet theory that art forms, like the novel, or poetry, or whatever, have their rises to popularity and then falls, and I think right now we’re in the Decline of the Novel. Which is not to say that novels are getting worse, or that I think that that means it’s the End of Western Civilization or something, just as a form, the novel is being replaced by newer, sexier art forms as they work out their trajectories. Things like television. After the stale episodic nature of tv at the beginning, television is turning into something surprising and weird. Deadwood, The Wire, Community – these shows are all building on the tropes of the medium in ways that I find exhilarating. Sure, there’s a lot of crap out there, but 95% of anything is crap. Many of the works cited as the first examples of the novel in English are included in the 1898 list – Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe – and as a well-established genre now, I think people tend to leave these off. These works are formative and influential, but maybe not best. They belong on another list entirely.
I did find it interesting how many books by women make the list. That surprised me until I thought back to my 19th Century lit class, and about all the screaming and hand-wringing in the 19th C about how the novel was an example of the End of Western Civilization, its dangerous domesticity and lurid tropes read (and written) often enough by women to be suspect. Northanger Abbey – not on the list, but by Austen, who is on the list for another work – takes aim at Mysteries of Udolpho – on the list – for its hysterical Gothic trappings, and what they might do to impressionable minds. Anyone who was Serious and Important was writing poetry in the 19th C, and the novel was for icky and suspect things like social commentary – Trollope, Dickens, Morris – or girls – Brontes, Austen, Eliot – or horror/Gothic – Radcliffe, Le Fanu – or sentimentalists – Cummins, Stowe.
Though formative doesn’t always mean the works will stand up – I think the weird titles I’ve never ever heard of attest to that – sometimes 1898 nails it, like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Sometimes it’s like, why Salammbô and not Madame Bovary? We can agree that Flaubert was awesome, but not which work was the awesomest. I don’t think anyone reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin except as an artifact of history; it’s not “good” so much as “historically important”. My dad and I recently had a conversation about James Fenimore Cooper, who is included on the list. His English teacher in high school looooooved Cooper, and assigned him copiously, but I don’t think, short of the movie with hunky sex-pot Daniel Day Lewis, anyone knows who he is anymore. Same goes for Trollope, and Le Fanu, and Burney and, and… Many of these novelists have become the fodder for footnotes, and the boutique interests of novel nerds. They may be good, or influential, or occasionally both, but they’re also forgotten.
The elisions are also important. Whither Moby Dick? I think we can all with rancor and fighting agree that Moby Dick might be the first Great American Novel. But, it is my understanding that Melville died in obscurity, and it was only later critics/bloggers who dug Melville out of the ash pit of history to straddle American literature with his great, white, swinging whale. (That’s a dick joke, friends.) Which kind of makes me want to live for another 100 years, so I can see what novels I’m totally missing, the secret ground-breakers, the oddballs, the things that make literary critics/bloggers so mad they have to make a list of the 100 best novels to counter them. That’s the stuff I want to be reading: the things that piss the Brahmans of literature off. The things the list-makers miss because they’re too odd. The things the list-makers avoid.
The thing I notice about lists is that the books that tend to get listed year after year, century after century, are controversial in some way. A novel that is revered by everyone as “good” when it is written often just sinks into obscurity, because good is often boring and too culturally specific. To write a lasting work, you have to piss people off, break rules, and generally fuck with expectations. That’s what I want in a novel. When I don’t want comfort food, of course. Being the problem with the concept of “best.”