Why the change? I don’t know. Some of the satisfactions I once found in fiction – human drama, moral complexity, memorable language – I now find more reliably elsewhere, in poetry, history and biography. One of good fiction’s chief virtues, the way it encourages self-forgetting as we inhabit the lives of others, is often better accomplished in other forms.
Terry Teachout has assembled a list of “the ten American novels I most wish I'd written.” By that criterion, you can’t argue with the list, which would be like arguing about one’s choice off the breakfast menu. It’s a form of autobiography, a Rorschach test for sensibility. Terry writes:
“This is a purely personal inventory, reflective only of admiration, love, and--if a reader who has no gift whatsoever for the writing of prose fiction can use the word--identification.”
It’s Terry’s final quality that interests me here. Some of the books on my list are tours de force of technique and verbal pyrotechnics, but in each I find a character, or several characters, or situations that supply an empathetically contrasting template for my life. Here are my “ten American novels I most wish I’d written”:
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day (1956)
Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
Henry James, The Ambassadors (1903)
Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940)
John Williams, Stoner (1965)
I limit myself to one title per writer, so some choices are iceberg tips, meant to represent a novelist’s body of work, the embarrassment of riches they’ve left us. Do I really mean to snub The Portrait of a Lady, Lolita and Herzog? The only title common to my list and Terry’s is Maxwell’s, and I almost chose Time Will Darken It. Some will quibble that Stead, though she lived in the United States for about a decade, was in fact an Australian-born cosmopolitan. True enough, but her greatest novel is set in Washington, D.C., and all of its major characters are Americans. She knew us, so I grandfather her into my list.