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Searching for the Great American Novelists

11 Jul

It’s no secret that I love American novels, so when I saw an article by Matthew Spencer in the Guardian searching for the Great American Novelist, I was instantly drawn to see who he might include in the mix. The two lists (one of seeded contestants, non-replaceable, and a second of equal length of which can be changed if a stronger case is made for another novelist) were strong but it niggled me somehow. I spent a while thinking about what points I thought were making me wince a little bit, and I’ve come up with a short list.

Philip Roth, the first seeded author

Before beginning, I have to say that this doesn’t mean I’m rubbishing the list by any means: no list would be complete without the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald and Mailer, but I just wanted to highlight some of the sticking points with creating such tournaments and why searching for the Great American Novelist could be a fruitless search.

1. What Constitutes a Great Novel?

I had a hard time working out whether each of the listed authors had four novels that could be considered equally great or, perhaps, masterpieces. Undoubtedly there are novelists that have produced good bodies of work, but most of those have one or maybe two standout novels with the rest being good, but maybe not quite as masterly as that one defining work. Everyone, for example, thinks of The Great Gatsby when they think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but fewer people have read Tender is the Night or The Beautiful and the Damned. Does that mean that Fitzgerald has created one masterpiece and a few other good works that aren’t quite up to that level?

On a similar topic, many of the novelists on the list can be said to have written ‘heavy’ works. By that I mean works that either have a heavy subject matter or are written in a complicated, serious or classical literary style. The authors of the modernist period (of which there are many on this list) are clear examples of this. Maybe that’s why we don’t see names that are synonymous with a genre that couldn’t be more American: pulp fiction. We don’t see the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, Raymond Chandler and, arguably, James Ellroy, on the list. Surely these works have something specifically American about them that perhaps sets them in a league of their own.

As a last point, where’s Jack Kerouac?

Raymond Chandler: omitted

2. The one-book dilemma

An author has only written one work of fiction. Okay, according to the rules they’re off the list but… that’s not fair is it? The four-book rule means that a whole host of authors are being excluded. I say: does an extensive canon equal a quality author? I’d like to use the example of Jean Toomer here: Toomer’s only novel was Cane, an experimental mix of loosely interconnected stories interspersed with songs and poetry following the lives of African-Americans in the Deep South and Washington DC and the everyday racism and frustrations that they face. Though largely ignored at the time, it is now widely regarded as a brilliant novel filled with insight (and it’s beautifully written). Should novelists like Toomer be penalised for an unfortunate lack of work? After all, sometimes this is not the author’s fault, other issues impose upon them and they have to quit.

3. Where did all the women go?

Linked to this idea of the four-book policy… where are the women? It’s as if the competition was designed to keep Harper Lee from winning (she famously only wrote the one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s one of the most beloved books in the American canon). 1/8 of the list are women, and two of those women aren’t actually safe. But thee are a whole host of women you could add into the mix. At one end of the scale you could include Ayn Rand and her novels which were an inspiration to the likes of Silicon Valley (her books are controversial in a way, but in that way they embody the edgy spirit of American writing) and at the other you could easily shout out for some children’s literature and include Ursula Le Guin, whose books are unconventional and challenging (at least they were to me when reading them when I was about ten or eleven). It’s an interesting one to ponder: does the lack of women novelists mean a lack of ‘great American’ women novelists (i.e. the men are just better in America?) or are the rules just locking them out of the competition?

All in all, it’s one that could be debated for hours. Everyone will have a different opinion on who should win (nobody has the same taste in novels after all: I love the modernist period, but a lot of people will recoil in horror at the likes of Faulkner), so is a competition like this actually pointless? Maybe the quest to find the defining novelists, encompassing a wider variety of novelists, would be more of a worthy competition than trying to find one standout writer. Still, it’ll be interesting to see who actually wins so we can all quibble over who should’ve been the real winner…



Gatsby Casting: Still A Sticking Point?

6 Jul

I know it’s been a long (long long long) time since the casting and shooting started on Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby and I’m still highly skeptical. Very skeptical. First I was put off by the fact that Baz found the need to shoot the film in 3D – I still don’t understand this logic. 3D works best when there’s a lot of action, not when it’s a tender talkie (unless he’s trying to reinvent the image of 3D, which is admirable in a way but still a bit… pointless). Still, that’s just a small quibble when compared to the casting of the film. Well, the casting of one character in particularly.

I have no qualms with the following: Carey Mulligan is wistful and pixie-like enough to be airy-fairy irritator Daisy, while Leonardo DiCaprio is the obvious choice to play our eponymous hero as he’s one of the only modern actors I think is suave but also quietly ponderous enough to play Jay. No, I have a huge issue with Carraway, our narrator and eyes through the story, because Baz has cast Tobey Maguire.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with Tobey Maguire or his acting. He’s great in the likes of Pleasantville and was the perfect Spiderman (his adolescent, almost nervy performances were what you wanted in a Peter Parker, not Andrew Garfield’s too-cool-for-school approach). But… he’s just not Carraway. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, Carraway is a man who intimates the strain of his own life, how he has had to struggle through, and he presents a world-weariness, an almost depressed view of the world. For every time he mentions the brilliance of the metropolis, there’s some downer to go with it. The Jazz Age isn’t so great for Carraway, and his conclusions at the end of the novel sum up his attitude to life and the world around him.

Tobey Maguire just doesn’t scream ‘world weary narrator’ to me. Despite some stills and his attempts to look more manly, I can’t shake the fact that Maguire looks a bit too young and fresh (still!) to be Carraway. You’re probably thinking: ‘well, smartypants, who should play Carraway?’ Yes, admittedly the options seem a little bit limited nowadays. I am, though, tempted to suggest Michael Fassbender as an alternative Carraway – more rugged, more beaten by life and just a bit less adolescent.

Of course, Maguire could prove me completely wrong and be the biggest revelation I’ve seen, producing a pitch-perfect Carraway that defies all expectation and if he does, all power to him. Until that happens though, I’ll remain skeptical.

Fifty Shades: Good for Books?

26 Jun

It’s the book phenomenon of the year: seemingly from nowhere, a fanfiction writer called EL James is snapped up by a major book publisher and within a week all three of her novels have sold more than 100, 000 copies, the first writer to do so. Aside from that, in two months the records were broken again as the first novel sold more than 765, 000 copies, beating the previous paperback record holder – Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – which took six whole months to reach that total. But what is going on with the Fifty Shades trilogy? And is it good or bad for books?

Basically, the books follow the story of recent university graduate Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey, who makes her sign a contract saying that he can have full control over her life as well as a non-disclosure agreement. As their relationship gets more involved, Anastasia begins to wonder about her own life and who she is. And obviously, there’s lots of erotica.

But I won’t focus on that: there’s plenty of reviews out there pointing out the sheer awfulness of the prose itself, whether its Anastasia’s only line of ‘Oh my’ or the tiresome clichés that seem to follow the characters around in their own little world. What seems more interesting is the way in which these books have become so popular and what it means for books themselves. The Fifty Shades trilogy was originally Twilight fanfiction. That doesn’t sound appealing at all, admittedly, but it apparently filled a void for those Twi-hards who thought that there wasn’t enough physical action between Bella and Edward (basically, those who didn’t realise that the series was basically a big symbol for why abstinence is good and moral, based on Stephanie Meyer’s Christian beliefs). James posted her fanfiction on websites and after the content of her stories was questioned, began publishing on her own website.

It became a hit on book blogs and after a while word of mouth spread about James’ works, leading to her having a massive fanbase for her three works. The internet, it seems, did for James what it did for music: spread the word about new authors, even if it was someone whose prose style and vocabulary was questionable at best – though, if we’re honest, there’s plenty of mediocre bands who have built up huge followings through the internet in the same way. Secondly, James’ case exposes just how powerful the nature of e-readers are nowadays. Perhaps a woman (and we are talking women here – the majority of James’ readers are reported to be married women over 30) wouldn’t be seen reading a paperback version of James’ books ten years ago in a public place, leading to her having much smaller sales thanks to the ’embarrassment factor.’ But if you’re reading a Kindle, or a Kobo, or any other sort of reader (even a smartphone with a books app) then who’s to say what you might be gandering at? It could be James, but it could just as easily be Dickens or another classic.

Technology, then, might not be heralding the death of the book in the way that the industry predicted. Yes, it’s nice to have something more tangible in your hands with that new book smell but it’s also lovely to know that you can carry around a device that’s portable and that people won’t be secretly judging you on, particularly if it’s in the types of genres that James places herself in. Aside from that, viral marketing and the internet could well help launch a new generation of writers – I participated in NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago and it’s amazing to see the amount of people who are actually interested in writing their own novels. Publishing on blogs and encouraging feedback on forums could help create better prose style and spread word of mouth for writers who wouldn’t be considered through the usual publishing routes. The relatively cheap cost of books on E-Readers compared to paperbacks and hardbacks could also encourage publishers to take more of a risk on a younger, less-established generation of novelists who wouldn’t have been given a chance a few years ago.

So while I wouldn’t be interested in reading James’ work myself, I can appreciate the ways in which new media has turned her into a phenomenon – her books are an example of how technology can revitalise the book industry and bring new talent in. As long as they don’t litter their works with the phrase ‘Oh my.’

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