Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words.

Having previously done the top 1000 "must hear" albums and the top 1000 "must see" films, the Guardian have now produced their list of 1000 novels "everyone must read".

Yes, they couldn't bring themselves to dare to say "best books" in the thing itself, but note that the words are embedded in the URL. Hmm. Meanwhile a capstone article from the series editor protests that they didn't want to produce a "best books" list, merely a list of 1000 really important novels. Hmm. Have a browse round the pages while you're there, by the way, if you have the time - it is worth reading through the full articles.

If you do check out the little write-ups of each book in the articles, you'll notice that an absurdly large and frankly unrealistic proportion of the 1000 novels "everyone must read" is made up of obscure Victorian novels you'll never have heard of. (Well, I say that - the one and only person I know who's even halfway likely to have read some of the really obscure ones is the august Dr Pittard, and I doubt even he'll have read all of them. I'd be interested to know if they really belong on the list, though, Dr P.) The series editor claims in his afterword that they didn't want to put together a populist list of best-sellers (naturally), but neither did they want to produce a list full of wilfully obscure books for the sake of looking highbrow, so they chose a middle path. And yet the list is still stuffed with what I, in my middlebrow ignorance, can only describe as wilfully obscure books. Smells like filler. I would have thought that a valid third way would have been simply to pick 1000 f*cking good novels, but then that's why I'm not an editor, isn't it?

Naturally it's not The Definitive List, nor would they have intended it to be - I would assume its chief purpose is to start a debate, to get the literate masses talking, and it's certainly done that. There are comments a-plenty on the Guardian's website. Personally I'd rather just rant right here. I see problems with the list, and the obvious one to point out first is that it's restricted to novels. No Marlowe or Chaucer, no Shakespeare if that bothers you, although my first thought on the matter was that the SF/fantasy section could have benefited from the inclusion of Edgar Allan Poe and Clark Ashton Smith. But naturally widening the criteria out like that from "best books" to "best authors" would have made compiling the list a lot more complicated and more time-consuming for the editors. Then again, it would have saved them the time of picking specific novels.

The use of genre-like sub-sections poses its own problems. They're a pretty odd selection in themselves - grouping together stories about war and stories about travel? Trying to categorise all the non-genre-specific novels as either "Family and self" or "State of the nation"? Yes, it breaks it all up into small, manageable (and importantly, publishable) sections, but perhaps it might have been fairer to the books simply to class them all as "Fiction". There's also some very odd placing of titles within sub-sections. Some of these are arguable cases where a book could reasonably be put into more than one category, and to space them out a bit more the editors have simply opted for the less obvious choice - Kafka's The Castle could just about be classed as comedy, in an existential kind of way, and of course Nineteen Eighty-Four does really belong in SF, although non-fans might prefer to see it under "State of the nation". But some of them are just plain wrong. Does Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men belong under the heading of "Crime"? By what definition are the purely psychological tales Fight Club and (so The Lovely Jo tells me) Beloved SF or fantasy? As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Was Thursday, I wouldn't stretch to calling that SF either. And pray tell, which of "War and travel" does Black Beauty qualify as?

The editors have also made some odd decisions about allowing authors more than one entry. You might not baulk at finding more than one Joseph Conrad or John Wyndham on the list, although six PG Wodehouses and six Evelyn Waughs under "Comedy" must be stretching it a bit, surely. And six Jane Austens under "Love"? All of them - her entire oeuvre of completed novels? Really? Even the ones even ITV won't touch? It seems more like they just couldn't make up their minds. (Or they somehow, unbelievably, just couldn't find 1000 worthy novels and needed some filler. But then they had all those obscure Victorian novels for that...) Compare and contrast with the way Terry Pratchett's entire Discworld series is listed as one item - I'm sure even people like Jo and myself, untrained as we are in the gentle arts of editing, could pick out two or three stand-out representatives. And isn't it cheating to include the 2000 Molesworth omnibus rather than an individual book or books?

Where the editors have restricted themselves to one representative novel for an author, they've made some odd choices. That's a natural reaction, of course - we're all going to disagree on which novel is an author's best (or most significant, assuming those are two different things). But even so... The one that leaps out at me here is The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks under SF - surely the correct choice is his second novel, The Bridge, because:
a) it's much, much better,
b) if you're looking for his most "significant" work rather than his "best", The Bridge was far more a breakthrough novel than The Wasp Factory, and more to the point
c) it actually has some fantasy content that would justify including it in that sub-section.
Similarly Consider Phlebas to represent his "M" output - I found it a disjointed trudge-fest, and I think even Banks fans who did enjoy it would agree that either The Player of Games or Use of Weapons would be a better choice. There are other examples, and here I'll stick to the SF section because it's familiar territory: Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss (Hothouse? The Helliconia trilogy?), Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds (why not the award-winning stand-alone Chasm City?), Under the Skin by Michel Faber (um, someone else's book. Seriously, what is this turgid thing doing on the list? That space could have been taken up by Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog, or Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair, or Cordwainer Smith's Norstrilia... Christ, anything). Meanwhile they've stuck Russian fantasist Victor Pelevin under "Comedy", and which novel have they chosen to represent him? The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Come ooooon! I've only just read that one, and it's poor! Damn poor! For god's sake, why didn't you pick Omon Ra - that's the seminal Pelevin novel!

Finally, I'd also question the inclusion of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. The contributor who wrote that one up claimed that it had to be included because it's "so influential", by which she merely means that everybody else keeps talking about it. It did occur to me that this year sees the 60th birthday of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that consequently MiniLit might have made the words "influential" and "derivative" interchangeable, but ultimately I think it's just one of those things. If you're looking for influential, the ur-fantasy series (The Lord of the Rings, of course) is also on the list, but I'm sure they could have found another one to take this spot. The Lovely Jo suggested George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and so did at least one comment-poster on the Guardian's website, and I'm happy to go with that.


Jo said...

Well, I'm quite pleased to say that I've actually read 103 of those books and tried to read another 27 (the overall % of those I've read goes substantially higher when I read through the Sf/F ones - 34 out of 149 is about 22%, plus another 5 tried). Though it might be a bit higher - I know I've read some Patricia Cornwell, and some Agatha Christie aside from "And then there were none", but as they all run into each other, and I certainly can't remember the titles, I can't say for certain.

Would Shakespeare count as a novel, as they were actually plays? (though given that they've put Asterix and Tintin on there, they do have a very loose definition of "novel") Disappointed that the Canterbury Tales isn't on there...

"Black Beauty" could come under "travel", as the horse does go round the country with her adventures, though I would have put it in as "State of the Nation" - it is very critical of the way that animals and people are treated...

John Toon said...

Well, that's my point about Shakespeare, and Marlowe and Chaucer - they wrote in verse, so they're excluded from this list. There's a bit of a grey area anyway about what constitutes a "novel" - I think I'm right in saying that most academics believe the novel litera-form as we know it only came into existence around the 17th or 18th century, which would exclude Chaucer on any grounds.

I'm still not entirely convinced about "Black Beauty". I can't quite see it as the equine "On The Road" - hitting the wide open blacktop with Sal Palamino and Dean Mustang. Hmmmmm. "State of the nation" might have been a better call.

And now I spend half an hour or so checking through the list for my own lit-cred quotient. Aaaaand...

Actually, now I come to look through the full list again, "The Little World of Don Camillo" is on there, and that's a collection of short stories if it's anything. All very borderline stuff.

Oh, it's embarrassing. I've only read 82, tried but gave up on a further 25. I'd hoped I might get a boost from some of the translated foreign items on the list. In my defence, in several cases I'd read one book by an author on the list but not that book. Pah. (I've read two books by Ousmane Sembene, dammit and neither of them was the one on the list!) There's also 8 books on the list that are waiting to be read on our shelves, so I could yet bump my score from 8% to 9%. Woot, woot.

Christopher Pittard said...

Such little affection for *Under the Skin*... yes, it does rather dribble away, but the first two thirds are really rather good. I hadn't read the article that went with the list, so my outrage that many of the titles aren't as great as they could be is mollified somewhat by the claim that they aren't meant to be. Or something like that.

John Toon said...

I'd say "you probably have to be a science fiction fan", but I read UtS on the recommendation of a science fiction *writer* - I just don't know what happened there. I found it obvious, flat, monotonous. It came across like one of those books where an author decides to use SF elements but without any *feel* for them or understanding of them - they're just window-dressing. They don't really add anything to what I felt was a very perfunctory vegetarian/animal rights fable.

Still, it wouldn't be the first time I've disliked a book that other people raved about. The G could have picked worse.