Blogs by Robert Dunbar
Oh God, not another book blog!
9/8/2006 4:20:15 PM
Sometimes you just have to do these things.
It’s not that kind of blog though – not about my books. Books in general. Books specifically.
(I’m not that concerned with who’s buying what, more with who’s reading what.) Of course, I’ve had some provocation. Imagine.
A discussion at the (often stimulating) Shocklines message board recently drove me crazy. (How many people just thought “short trip”? I’m taking names.) In chatting about that most nebulous of topics “great novels,” a number of genre fans dismissed several brilliant works for being too “difficult” or – horrors! – too “literary.” Yet if I chopped these people up into little bits, I’d get into trouble.
Okay, wait. Deep cleansing breaths.
There. Much better.
Where’s that axe?
I mean, are the lunatics running the asylum? Again?
A glut of indistinguishable titles has already choked the horror genre once and is well on its way to killing it again. (Homogeneity is not a virtue unless we’re talking about milk.) Why is this so recurrent a threat? Science Fiction, Mystery, Fantasy – all have advanced in style and sophistication. This is what sustains a genre – growth. Why hasn’t Horror experienced similar development? Could it be that the genre's essential conservatism – all those plot arcs about destroying the dreaded "other" – dictates perpetual mediocrity? Maybe reactionary art is just too much of an oxymoron.
A few months ago, I had the most dismaying experience. I was moderating a panel discussion when a bunch of twenty-somethings in the audience started denouncing writers whose work they didn't care for. The list included Hemmingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck – in short everyone they'd ever heard of who wasn't a pulp hack. But what I found really disturbing was all the people nodding in agreement. "Hemmingway can't write at all" struck me as a memorable line. (In his heyday, Papa H may have been the most overestimated writer in the world. How strange that he’s now become the most underestimated.) Yet those kids all think of themselves as writers ... writers who read nothing but junk.
There’s an expression: "garbage in/garbage out."
Of course, the dumbing down of pop culture is hardly new. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it. (Isn’t that what artists do?) I mean, there’s nothing wrong with liking a kazoo; just don’t decry the symphony for being “too musical.”
Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Right.
Anyway – mostly just to maintain some tenuous grip – I started putting together a list of books I consider MUST READ works for anyone with a serious interest in creating literature.
I’d love to get some feedback. How does mine compare with yours?
Let me rephrase that.
How does this list compare to your list? (Oh come on, we all have them. It’s just that most sane people don’t write them down.) What gems have I omitted? Make recommendations. Please. I know I’ve missed things. (But if you come at me with Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, remember I’ve still got that axe.)
Obviously, I’ve tried to restrict myself to one title per author, just because the list gets too unwieldy otherwise. Some are great thundering epics. Others are elegant little volumes that slip in like a knife blade. Criteria? A lot of people might say a great book is one that changed the world. If that’s the case, all such lists would need to include works by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sinclair Lewis (and possibly Radclyffe Hall), but in good conscience I can’t do that here. No, a book needs more than good intentions. More even than an important topic. (I added and deleted INVISIBLE MAN three separate times. No, not the Wells book. Sigh.) A truly great novel – as far as MY list is concerned – would be one I am personally enraptured by. Awestruck by. Challenged by. Inspired by.
Forget changing society. For the moment, I’m only interested in books that changed me.
All great art is a passionate force for evolution (personal or otherwise). Still with me?
Sometimes you just have to do these things.
Anyway, here’s mine … in a curious order all its own.
Watch it grow.
DHALGREN – Samuel R. Delaney
CALL IT SLEEP – Henry Roth
AS I LAY DYING – William Faulkner
THE GOLEM – Gustav Meyrink
MOBY DICK – Herman Melville
MISS MACINTOSH MY DARLING – Marguerite Young
NADJA – Andre Breton
THE MASTER AND MARGARITA – Mikhail Bulgakov
AGAINST NATURE – J. K. Huysmans
NAKED LUNCH – William Burroughs
NOSTROMO – Joseph Conrad
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN – James Baldwin
TROPIC OF CANCER – Henry Miller
ON THE ROAD – Jack Keroac
[Truman Capote notwithstanding.]
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT – Ernest Hemmingway
ULYSSES – James Joyce
AT SWIM – TWO-BIRDS – Flan O’Brien
AT SWIM, TWO BOYS – Jamie O’Neill
TO THE LIGHTHOUSE – Virginia Woolf
THE GOOD SOLDIER – Ford Maddox Ford
THE GOLDEN BOWL – Henry James
THE MARBLE FAWN – Nathaniel Hawthorn
THE LONGEST JOURNEY – E. M. Forster
DIFFICULT DEATH – Rene Crevel
POINT COUNTER POINT – Aldous Huxley
LOLITA – Vladimir Nabokov
A HANDFUL OF DUST – Evelyn Waugh
RAZOR’S EDGE – Somerset Maugham
THE MINISTRY OF FEAR – Graham Greene
SONS AND LOVERS – D. H. Lawrence
CONFESSIONS OF A MASK – Yukio Mishima
WUTHERING HEIGHTS – Emily Bronte
DELTA WEDDING – Eudora Welty
THE DOLLMAKER – Harriet Arnow
[Okay, I know. People will scratch their heads over this one. But if one test of a great book is that it had a profound effect on the reader at an impressionable age, then this absolutely qualifies. So do TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE GRAPES OF WRATH.]
THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK – Doris Lessing
MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN – Salman Rushdie
COUSIN BETTE – Honore de Balzac
IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME – Marcel Proust
A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION – Gustav Flaubert
EXTINCTION – Thomas Bernhard
DEATH SENTENCE – Maurice Blanchot
THE BOOK OF DISQUIET – Fernando Pessoa
THE CASTLE – Franz Kafka
DELIVERANCE – James Dickey
THE MAGUS – John Fowles
CLOSER – Dennis Cooper
GOING NATIVE – Stephen Wright
BLOOD MERIDIAN – Cormac Mccarthy
THE DWARF – Par Lagerkvist
THE OGRE – Michel Tournier
A lot of those, especially toward the end there, probably qualify – at least on some level – as Horror, but genre novels seem like they should have their own category. Does that mean standards should be relaxed? No, the trick is to maintain standards and not be swayed merely by remembered pleasure. All too often pleasure = entertainment = narcotic reading = the very opposite of what I’m advocating here.
ON WINGS OF SONG –Thomas Disch
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE – Shirley Jackson
THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER – William Sloane
CONJURE WIFE – Fritz Leiber
THE CELL – David Case
[A trio of themed novelettes, I know, but must we quibble?]
THE LITTLE FRIEND – Donna Tartt
DEEP NIGHT – Greg F. Gifune
THE MALTESE FALCON – Dashiel Hammet
THE WORM OUROBORUS – E. R. Eddison
THE WOOD WIFE – Terri Windling
MYTHAGO WOOD – Robert Holdstock
Oh … did I mention it was all different genres? Sorry.
Jeez, I’m all out of breath here. The problem with a list like this is … how do you stop?
Do I not mention Lawrence Durrell? And it seems weird not to include F. Scott Fitzgerald. Or at least Zelda. How about Henry James and Edith Wharton? Iris Murdock or Muriel Spark? Penelope Fitzgerald or Elizabeth Bowen? (Especially Elizabeth Bowen. But it’s not “body of work” I’m looking at here, however important.) How about Paul Bowles and Don DeLillo? Paul Theroux or Robert Creeley? Malcolm Lowry, Saul Bellow, John O’Hara, John Dos Passos, John Cheever? What about Pynchon? Irving and Updike? (Or – gods help us – Roth?) Heller? McMurtry? Flannery O’Connor or Willa Cather? (And can I get into trouble for not really liking Toni Morrison all that much?) What about Marge Piercy? Doesn’t it all nourish the inner writer?
Okay, let me just keep going until smoke starts coming out of my ears.
One last push. Top of my head. Bottom of my soul.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
HOPSCOTCH – Julio Cortazar
THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES – Robert Musil
THE AGE OF WONDERS – Aron Appelfeld
DARKNESS AT NOON – Arthur Keostler
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH – Samuel Butler
THE MOVIEGOER – Walker Percy
ANGLE OF REPOSE – Wallace Stegner
LOVING; LIVING; PARTY GOING – Henry Green
A BEND IN THE RIVER – V. A. Naipaul
THE RECOGNITIONS – William Gaddis
ASK THE DUST – John Fante
Okay, that’s it for now. No, wait.
THE RETURN OF JEEVES – P. G. Wodehouse
[Because I figure if you’ve read it more than twenty times, it belongs somewhere on your list.]
LUCKY JIM – Kingsley Amis
SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES – Ray Bradbury
[And again. And in spades.]
Okay… at least that’s a start.
In the meantime, additions, anyone? Objections?
But if even one person so much as mentions Steven King …
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More Blogs by Robert Dunbar
THE PINES (in paperback) - Monday, July 14, 2008
Finally got it up ... - Sunday, March 25, 2007
Okay, so I lied ... - Thursday, January 11, 2007
De-Motivational Quotes for Writers - Monday, October 23, 2006
Aural Death - Monday, October 23, 2006
Oh God, not another book blog! - Friday, September 08, 2006
My Favorite Topic - Saturday, March 18, 2006