THINK OF the lauded American novels of the past as placed in a box. A relatively small box, when it comes down to it. Imagine that box hanging alone in space—against the vastness of space.
Inside the box will be the usual suspects. I note that the Guardian came out recently with one of their “100 best” lists—in this instance supposedly the best novels written in the English language, as selected by a Robert McCrum. Prominently displayed among the titles were American novels such as The Great Gatsby, Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye, and Lolita. One can assume the list also includes works by Harper Lee, John Updike, and Carson McCullers. Maybe even duds from Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos. What can be said about most of these titles is that they’re minor works.
Minor, when compared with the immensely complex civilization they represent and are ostensibly about.
What are the aesthetic standards of critics like McCrum? They never give them. Their lists invariably are a mish-mash of opinions handed down to them—taught to them in school—and their own unexplained personal tastes; with a heavy dash of political correctness thrown in. Are all their selected novels really the best? Are they the best we can come up with?
My stance is that the small box full of the “best” isn’t good enough. The world we live in becomes every day more complicated, heavy, and chaotic. Yes, a novel that provides a simple escape from the noise and complexity can be a relief—but in no way should we designate that small, polite read a “great” novel. The only designated great American novel which lives up to the critical billing in scope, excitement, and meaning is Melville’s Moby Dick.
A novel which should be near the top of every list is Frank Norris’s The Octopus. Its relevance continues to this day—as we can see with the rancher standoff in Oregon. The novel contains sweeping narrative movements, compelling characters, strong emotion and at times tremendous excitement. It carries great meaning, but is also a terrific reading experience.
Shouldn’t that be the chief criterion when judging works of art—the artistic experience they provide? Combine this with form, influence, and meaning and you have the beginnings of a more true assessment.
One American novel which never makes establishment “best” lists is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This exposes the narrow viewpoint, the constricted personalities, of these critics. Politically the book is beyond the pale—it gives much for almost any reader to disagree with. That’s what I liked about the book—that along with its relentless narrative force, it’s full of ideas. Unfamiliar ideas. Ayn Rand presents the reader with a radically different way of viewing our world; providing the “shock of the new.” Apparently too shocking for our official not-very-confident-in-their-own-ideas literary critics. Love it or hate it, the novel provides an amazing read—and is truly “novel” when compared with the same-old same-old.
(Another highly intelligent American novel which never makes the lists, and should, is Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens.)
Are we still looking at our small box of musty books hanging in space? The task of writers and critics alike is to operate in the space outside the box—to have the ambition to move swiftly beyond that box. To create or discover novels truly large enough in relevance and meaning to match the world we live in now.