Interlude: Lost in best-of lists, lost and loving it: A semi-formless riff.

14 Oct

(Taking a two-week break from the National Book Award books and posts. Pneumonia done been gone. Read Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine and loved it. Read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and loved it.  Am writing as much as am able. Submitting, too. Simone is acting out picture books in the other room while I frantically type. Hard to concentrate. Children are always the wolf at the door.)

1.

I’ve spent the last week or so reading and re-reading the Entertainment Weekly’s top 100 novels, movies, albums and TV shows. It’s a mania. And a big waste of time.

Only, it isn’t. I love best-of lists. Even when I hate them. I find them infuriating, exhausting. They tap into my compulsive side to consume, organize and synthesize. Lists also contain embedded values, and say a lot about an organization’s tastes. Or a people’s. Or a culture’s.

This particular issue doesn’t provide any criteria, so it’s hard to take seriously. Influence? Style? Psychological insight? Entertainment? Sweep and scope? Ambition? The list doesn’t say.

And when organizing art into a value system, criteria must be applied. Else things seem sloppy, slapdash and arbitrary. Which is exactly how I would describe EW’s novel list[1].

2.

The novel list is the most easily dismissed. EW stopped being a literate publication a long time ago, and the list reflects middlebrow, American-centric tastes. They’re more comfortable with movies and shows. They don’t have a significant book review section, and haven’t had an influential reviewer in years. (Time has Lev Grossman, who pisses me off, but the man can write.)

Still, even for a throw-away publication, there are some terrible choices. The Great Gatsby is not the number two novel of all time. No, and no. Neither is Great Expectations number four. (Take a look at the list here.)

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be "100 pretty good novels, etc."

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be “100 pretty good novels, etc.”

But the real hair-raising ire comes with number 7: the Harry Potter series. Ye gods. We’ve lost our way somewhere. Something poisonous has entered our reading lives. An obsession with easy books.

Numbers 11 an 12 are Mrs. Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury. Perhaps they both belong on a top 100 list of all time, but they are way too high. And not easy at all; ignore my aphorism above.

Okay, so yes to Blindness; yes to War and Peace; yes to Huck Finn; yes to Rabbit, Run; Crime and Punishment; Native Son; Moby Dick; Invisible Man; Pride and Prejudice; Catch-22 and Lolita. Probably yes to Disgrace. Probably yes to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not bad books but still, no to The Sun Also Rises (I would pick The Nick Adams stories, maybe); no to The Catcher in the Rye; no to Portnoy’s Complaint (it falls apart about two-thirds of the way through, although I would include one or two of Roth’s other novels); no to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (although I think it’s a fine novel); no to Lonesome Dove (I would pick True Grit or Butcher’s Crossing, or The Border Trilogy if I had to pick a western).

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is picked for number 15, which is nuts. He’s one of my favorite authors, but All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian both deserve a spot over his grisly survival tale. (Suttree beats it out, too.)

EW inexplicably includes Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which is just strange. Who reads Hesse anymore? Other strange picks: His Dark Materials (I’m a big fan, but?); Neuromancer (ditto); Middlesex; The Talented Mr. Ripley; and Tristram Shandy. These aren’t bad novels at all, but I can’t understand how they would be included over Don Quixote, The U.S.A. Trilogy, The End of the Affair or hundreds of others.

A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t belong on any best-of list. Neither does John Irving. Go Tell It on the Mountain—a fine novel—doesn’t belong on the list. Murakami is included, as is Margaret Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen (a thousand times no), Michael Chabon, Charles Frazier (for shame!), Hilary Mantel, Tom Wolfe, John Le Carre, Ayn Rand (never!), Italo Calvino (nope), Orson Scott Card (um, no), Salman Rushdie (it cannot be) and Bram Stoker. None of these would be on any list of mine.

The list gets just two (not obvious) things right. Richard Price’s Clockers really is one of the great novels—at least of the 1990s—and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, although not one of the best of all time, is a very fine, moving novel about Iraq soldiers touring the U.S. on a PR trip.

What else does the list get wrong?

Underworld isn’t on the list (it’s tar and feather time), nor is White Noise. The Shipping News doesn’t make their cut (how in the world it wasn’t included I have no idea); On the Road, The Savage Detectives (or 2666 or both); The Dog of the South and/or Masters of Atlantis; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Tree of Smoke; 120 Days of Sodom (it must be at least mentioned); Of Human Bondage belongs on any list, anywhere; Babbitt deserves a slot; Slaughterhouse Five is a masterpiece, and it’s not on here, either.

No Graham Greene, no Henry Miller, no Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead belongs somewhere in the vicinity); no Joseph Conrad (which is fucking sacrilege); no John Fowles; no Thomas Pynchon (V. is a must). No Jane Bowles, no Gertrude Stein, no Dorothy Parker, no Marilynne Robinson (Gilead belongs on every greatest novel list).

I could go on. But I’m more interested in why they picked these books and not others. It’s interesting to leave Ulysses off the list, but also inexplicably strange to include Charlotte’s Web on it. There’s little experimental fiction on the list. There’s no rationale for why some canonized books are still here (An American Tragedy, Bleak House, My Antonia) but not others (Mainstreet, The Grapes of Wrath, Candide and where the hell is The Scarlet Letter?).

The list excludes outlaw fiction. No Harry Crews, no Charles Bukowski, no Steve Erickson, no Anais Nin, no James Ellroy, no Jim Harrison. No Celine, no Gide (thank the heavens; I’m not a big fan), no Genet, no Hamsun, no Bernhard. I don’t see any African novelists—Achebe or Alan Paton are usually included in most lists, for the appearance of fairness, I suppose—and with the exception of Marquez, no South American novelists. That means no Fuentes, no Rudolfo, no Casares, no Llosa. Scandinavia is excluded completely. I don’t see any Chinese or middle eastern novelists.

And without an explanation as to why this list exists, it seems weird. Aggressively ethnocentric. And out of keeping with the 21st century world.

3.

The list has sidebars, so consider this a sidebar in my criticism of it. The best story collections is pretty solid: O’Connor, Munro, Borges, Shirley Jackson, Cheever, Raymond Carver, George Saunders among a handful of semi-duds.

But the graphic novels list is predictable and annoying.

Here’s mine, in no particular order:

Sandman—The greatest fantasy epic the medium has ever produced.

Watchmen—The best deconstruction of superheroes ever written. With stunning artwork.  

The Invisibles—Super-scribe Grant Morrison channels Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs in this epic, maybe-end of the world tale. One of my most profound reading experiences. 

The Complete Persepolis—The best non-fiction comic ever written.

Fun Home—The best confessional comic ever written.

Fax From Sarajevo—Joe Kubert’s knockout telling of the true story of his friend living in Sarajevo during the wars.

The Darwyn Cooke Parker books—Superb artwork, excellent writing, great crime capers. Flawless.

The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One—Frank Miller before he lost his gift, telling the story of Bruce Wayne at the end and at the beginning of his career as Batman. Gritty, yet subtle.

David Boring or Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron or Ghostworld—Daniel Clowes’s misanthropic tales touched with science fiction and perversity. Glove in particular is a crazed ride. He’s the David Lynch of the comic book world.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World—Stunning artwork and design, and a heart-rending story of three generations of melancholic dudes. Each page is a marvel.

From Hell—Alan Moore’s insightful, disturbed, non-linear take on the Jack the Ripper legend. Literate and unforgettable.

Enigma—High psychosexual weirdness from Peter Milligan, about a messiah child with superpowers left to die in a well, and emerging with a amoral value system and an affinity for lizards and other vermin. Mid-90s zeitgeist existentialism.

The Beats—Harvey Pekar’s superior essay on the life and works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, as well as insightful appraisals of their work, in Pekar’s inimitable style. (Pekar’s post-American Splendor work, including Ego and Malice, The Quitter, and SDS are the best books he produced.)

Red Rocket 7—Mike Allred’s epic story of rock n roll music history intertwined with the personal history of an alien clone. One of the best things ever.

And that’s fourteen. Lists aren’t easy. I’ll stop there.

4.

And I’m losing myself here. So many lists crowd the digital eco-sphere it’s tough to digest. But I’ll try.

Time magazine has a much, much better list. It’s wilder, more inclusive, with weird choices (like Cheever’s Falconer, for instance) that are fun, as opposed to offensive.

Here’s a link to it.

They have A.S. Byatt, Ken Kesey, Richart Yates, Don DeLillo. Plus Philip K. Dick, John O’Hara (overrated; read my review of Ten North Frederick), Bernard Malamud and Robert Stone and James Dickey and John Barth. A wilder, better list, yet somehow even more Anglo-centric. (They should just do the best novels written in English, it would save them heart-ache and criticism.)

5.

The Modern Library list is in some ways stranger than both. Here’s the link.

They have Erskine Caldwell, an overrated writer of pulpy grotesques; Ironweed, an intriguing novel of ghosts and memory with some killer lines, but strangely difficult and obtuse; Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop which is just okay; The Moviegoer, which isn’t bad but come on (I review it here); and too much Faulkner, too many Henry James. (Plus James Jones, I review From Here to Eternity here, an awful mean-spirited book.)

Their list is—with the exception of Pynchon, O’Brien, Burgess and Lowry—staid, canonical and semi-safe. I prefer the old warhorses to J.K. Rowling and the like, but there’s something askew in this list. A reverence for writers of a bygone era. A resistance to genre fiction, which often makes sense but can exclude significant writers. The Modern Library list has no sense of balance, fairness, or exhaustiveness. The writers of the list picked their favorite authors and then front-loaded them into the rankings.

I’d rank the EW list the worst. The Modern Library and the Time list are interchangeable. The World Library best books of all time is fascinating, but also cluttered—for lack of a better word—with ancients texts. I love ancient literature, but with Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Bible and so on, there’s little room for novels. Here’s the list.

Enough. I’m ranking the best-of lists into a best-of list. As I said, it’s a mania. Best-of lists have a way of stealing time away from enjoying actual books. Must get back to my own work.


[1] I’ll address their movie list in my next post. Hold on to your butts.

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