Monday, December 29, 2008

`Not a Mini-Canon'

D.G. Myers at A Commonplace Blog has quickly and quietly established himself as the best and most readable literary critic in the blogosphere. Most litbloggers, including the proprietor of Anecdotal Evidence, are not critics and most critics who are litbloggers are not readable. In little more than two months Myers has become one of the few essential writers in the neighborhood. The accomplishment is especially noteworthy because Myers is an academic – he’s professor of English at Texas A&M University -- which customarily excludes a writer from the realm of readability.

On the day after Christmas, Myers linked to a list he posted at “Best American fiction: 1968-1998.” One normally ignores such things as the parlor games of the pretentious but this list is different: Myers is deeply read in American fiction, his taste is excellent and he doesn’t pimp, pose or play politics. His choices ignore genres and schools, and emphasize literary worth. Some of his inclusions are surprising and probably intentionally provocative. Here he outlines his criteria and explains the 1998 cutoff:

“It’s a good rule not to read a novel before ten years have passed and the novelty has worn off. Here are the best American books of fiction from the post-Vietnam period, excluding `meta-fictionists’ like Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, and displaying a clear preference for novels (in Larkin’s phrase) about ordinary people doing ordinary things.”

To his credit, after leaving out the “meta-fictionists” (That’s fodder for another list: isn’t DeLillo the most overrated living American writer?), Myers felt no obligation to include a token Updike or Cormac McCarthy (Scratch DeLillo – it’s definitely McCarthy). No Barth, Barthleme, Coover, Gass, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, Robert Stone, David Foster Wallace or, God forbid, Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates. Despite the growing attention paid to female writers during Myers’ 30-year period, he rightly excludes books written by women except O’Connor’s (and she died in 1964) and Welty’s (her best stories were written long before 1968). It was a fallow period for American women writers, except for three I note below. We produced few writers of either sex during this period comparable to, say, Penelope Fitzgerald.

Seven books on Myers’ list I haven’t read – those by Shaara, Harris, Buechner, Moore, Eugenides, Buckley and Ha Jin. Of the others I would argue against inclusion of Dick, Doctorow, Sorrentino, Toole, Auster, Carver and Johnson. His single most inspired choice is Ron Hansen’s wonderful Mariette in Ecstasy and his foremost act of justice is finding a spot for J.F. Powers’ Wheat That Springeth Green. Here are my suggestions for inclusion:

Thomas Berger
Vital Parts (1971)
The Feud (1983)

John Cheever
The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

Guy Davenport
Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979)

Leonard Gardner
Fat City (1969)

Shirley Hazzard
The Transit of Venus (1980)

Steven Millhauser
Edwin Mulhouse (1972)

Vladimir Nabokov
Ada (1969)
Transparent Things (1972)

Cynthia Ozick
The Puttermesser Papers (1997)

Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping (1980)

Thomas Rogers
The Confessions of a Child of the Century (1972)

Philip Roth
Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Isaac Bashevis Singer
A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories (1973)

Mark Smith
The Death of the Detective (1974)

Richard G. Stern
Natural Shocks (1978)

Peter Taylor
The Collected Stories (1969)
The Old Forest (1985)

Eudora Welty
Losing Battles (1970)

Theodore Weesner
The Car Thief (1972)

I would note that three titles on Myers’ list were published in 1971 and four on mine in 1972. That was a good time to be young and reading. Myers urges us to accept his list “for what it is—a list of recommendations in an online bookstore and not a mini-canon of American fiction for the period.” Such efforts are, by definition, idiosyncratic and do not signify declarations of war. They are useful for spreading the news of good books others may not have read, for prodding a return to old favorites, and for reminding us that even the best books are sometimes forgotten.


Anonymous said...

I'm thrilled that you mentioned EDWIN MULLHOUSE, an essential book for remembering or evoking childhood. I have his newest book from the library and have decided I must read all his short stories, pronto!

Anonymous said...

I applaud your inclusion of Peter Taylor, a writer often damned with faint praise as being a talented "regional" writer. Many other fine writers suffer from this geographic bias, including a pair whose best novels were published between 1968 and 1998: Larry Woiwode (Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Born Brothers) and Fred Chappell (I Am One of You Forever, Brighten the Corner Where You Are).

I have not read Brian Moore's Black Robe, but can unreservedly recommend the Bruce Beresford film (with screenplay by Moore) based on the novel. No film better captures the strangeness and complexity of the Native-European collision in North America. The courage, fear, religious fervor, confusion, nobility, and savagery of the natives and Jesuits are conveyed with an almost anthropological dispassion, with the beautiful, brutal Canadian wilderness portrayed as the ultimate, sovereign force.

Patrick Murtha said...

You and Myers are racists and sexists, pure and simple -- the worst kind, too, masquerading as principled intellectuals. I am a latecomer to the debate, so will probably repeat points made by others. They seem to me to be deeply obvious:

1. If on given definitions of "greatness" and "masterpiece" you seem to wind up excluding utterances by large numbers of people with certain significant (I won't say "definitional") characteristics, including gender, race, religion, and philosophy, there is undoubtedly something wrong with your definitions.

2. There is something profoundly suspect about invoking some sort of objective standards to judge greatness and masterpieces, and then to come up with canons most of whose members share a significant characteristic (in this case, white maleness) with oneself.

3. "White male" is not a neutral default setting for humanity, and not even for the American population. So if one judges most greatness and masterpieces to be coming from what is, after all, a minority group itself, that raises a question, again, of loaded standards.

4. Despite the fact that multiculturalism ought at the least to have educated us all about our own blind spots, much Internet writing and blog writing does not take personal blind spots into consideration at all -- is not written in the spirit of "I may be blind to the merits of this, but educate me better so that I might see better." Professor Myers and others would do well to take a leaf from the great Henry Adams and admit that not only are their own educations not complete, they may not in some crucial respects have even begun yet. Intellectual humility is way lacking on the Web.