Monday, April 11, 2011

The Novelists

When creating a tournament like this, one has to deal with a critical consensus that has decided which are the great works and great authors. Look at their selections, and you'll see that while a few undeniable masterpieces are included, the overall judgement is purely arbitrary. The resulting lists are badly skewed, and have more to do with academic and media trends and biases in place when the works were written. Once on the "list," the work never gets off.

Lolita, for instance, may have been daring in its time. Today it reads like an embarrassment. Catch-22 takes one joke and runs it into the ground. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is an interesting but minor work. Compare these to the best of the French and Russians-- Hugo, Dumas, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky-- and they're not even in the same ballpark.

John O'Hara remains highly placed on the lists. I'm actually something of a fan of his-- but does anyone today read or cherish John O'Hara? His many novels and stories never rise above the competent.

What do we do with three American Nobel Prize winners: Sinclair Lewis, Saul Bellow, and Pearl Buck?

Main Street and Lewis's other novels are stodgy and dated. Model T vintage literature, pseudo-intellectual, smirky and sarcastic with no depth, as narrow and provincial as his subjects, nothing about the characters and language which any longer lives. Bellow's reputation and relevance dates and declines by the year. "Seize the Day" is a great short work. The rest of his oeuvre is a lot of noise. Pearl Buck?

The question isn't just whether or not the authors are still read, but how good they are. I was going to leave one of my faves, James Gould Cozzens, out of the brackets because he's largely forgotten. Yet his novels are way better, as novels, than the bulk of American works on a "Modern Library" list. The Last Adam, The Just and the Unjust, Guard of Honor-- adult, intelligent novels written by an observer who understood America and its workings, and used the architecture of the novel to depict this complex country.

There are a lot of good American novelists to consider. Over a hundred who could potentially be chosen. My attitude with the rest of the seeding is this: A few good novels isn't good enough. The novelist should've written at least one great, striking, or dynamic novel. I aim to punish mediocrity and reward ambition.


  1. If you have someone who wants to stand up for one of these authors, might still consider. Sadly, not me. I've always felt like kind of a yokel for not being on with Saul Bellow. And no need to beat myself up about Nabokov since his brief American period doesn't qualify him for this tournament? Got to check out O'Hara. Recommendation?

  2. I can't think of a single O'Hara novel I can remember, though I read a ton of them at one time, which I guess is my point! He's the kind of guy you read when you have time on your hands, like stuck on a desert island. A time killer. I doubt if he'll squeeze into this thing, whereas some of the others I mentioned have a shot. Bellow, I guess.