Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lists

Over at the Random House Modern Library website, there are two lists of one hundred books. Random House calls them the "100 Best Novels". I understand the lists are quite old but I'm going to write about them anyway because there's an awesome picture I want to post.

The first list contains 100 novels selected by "the board"; the second list is 100 novels selected by "readers". "Readers", in this case, seems to be a particularly generous term. Obviously Random House doesn't want to alienate their target market - i.e. semi-literates - but a quick glance at the Top 5 suggests to me that something has gone terribly wrong in Literary Land. It's like American McGee's Alice accidentally got out and infected the whole library.

Fucking awesome.

First up on the list is Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's inescapable quasi-philosophical novel. I haven't read it and don't want to, even if the Wikipedia entry does make it sound relatively palatable. I just can't quite get my head around the fact that out of over 200,000 people, the majority of them consider Atlas Shrugged the greatest novel of all time. Of course, the sinister "board" naturally voted Joyce's Ulysses - a book, I do not fear confidently stating, that nobody, least of all any sort of editor, has ever read to completion - Number 1, so probably we can ignore both lists altogether.

But what did the readers vote for Number 2? Surprise surprise, another Rand book: The Fountainhead. I haven't read this one either and Wikipedia gives the impression of it being fairly annoying. I get most of my information about books I haven't read from Wikipedia - try it!

Bored already with this post, Number 3, as voted by 217,520 readers (probably from New York, but certainly from America), is L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. Holy shit. Battlefield Earth, according to 217,520 people, is the third greatest novel ever in the history of the world.

The Reader's Top 10, incidentally, features a further two books by Rand, and a further two books by Hubbard. 1984 slips in at Number 6 but I reckon that was a problem with the ballot machines. Orwell would have murdered himself before he was seen in such company.

Oddly enough, the list gets a little better the deeper you go. Robert Heinlen comes in at 15 and 16 (and 62), The Worm Ouroboros at 32, Lovecraft at 45. Still, Nevil Shute appears three times, for some reason, and Stephen King appears twice, and then some other shit happens. The "board" says that The Magnificent Ambersons by somebody called Booth Tarkington is the 100th best novel of all time. I've never heard of this book and my guess is the only reason it's in there is because the "board" had only read 101 novels between them, and near the end, it was a toss-up between The Magnificent Ambersons and the adapted screenplay for Anus Magillicutty.

Conclusion: Everybody but me is a god-damned moron.

Fomented by this Metafilter post.

Bonus feature: More Metafilter goodness - Smoking the bath. Probably one of the best things ever. When the wife isn't about, I pour a good bath, and throw myself in there with a beer, some smokes, and whatever I'm reading at the time. It's fantastic. I also smoke in the shower, which is doubly awesome and not as hard as people like to think it is. Drinking beer in the shower isn't something I've ever tried but maybe I'll give it a whirl tonight. I'll let you know how I go, since you're probably keen to find out.

34 Comments:

At 5:00 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I've read Ulysses all the way through, which is to say, I've read all the words, though not necessarily all the sentences ...

Ayn Rand is virtually forgotten now, except amongst some right-wing groups, mostly in America. Heinlein was also known for being closer to the authoritarian right than the liberterian left. Sounds like that list was hijacked by some of these groupies!

There's a hilarious send up of Ayn Rand's philosophies in The Simpsons, where Marge is perfoming in a musical and Homer takes the whole family along to see her. He leaves Maggie at 'The Ayn Rand Childcare Centre', where their methods are, shall we say, rather authoratarian. I think there's a poster on their wall that reads, 'DUMMIES ARE FOR THE WEAK.'

 
At 5:06 PM, Blogger TimT said...

When the wife isn't aboutt ...

Where does she disappear to?

 
At 5:13 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Ha! I remember that part in The Simpsons, and I remember getting it, even though, as you see, I'm only superficially familiar with Rand.

Heinlen is certainly a tricky one. I mostly like him for the spaceships, and he's got a neat imagination. Happily I've yet to derive any of my politics from fictional novels, so lefties and righties are all the same to me as long as they tell a good story.

The wife works as a manager at Max Brenner's Chocolate Bar in the city. Being a cafe-type affair, she generally works some pretty odd hours, like weekends etc., which leaves me plenty of time to mess the place up before she gets home.

 
At 5:33 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Here's to the wife and her ability to put up with your messing up the place.

If I ever have the privilege of meeting her, I think I'll address her as 'The Wife'. Or maybe, simply, 'Wife'. I'm sure that will go down well ...

 
At 9:23 PM, Blogger Tim said...

There's an amusing scene featuring Ayn Rand in Tobias Wolff's Old School. She seems scary.

The Modern Library list doesn't seem too bad. These things are always meaningless, but there are some very good books there, including some less well-known stuff. It's not completely obvious, is what I'm saying.

I noticed late last year that some lit bloggers were putting together their own lists of 100 (or 50 or whatever) favourite books, the rationale being that if you're going to read a list of books, it might as well be a list you agree with.

 
At 8:37 AM, Blogger TimT said...

Apparently she was the sort of philosopher who gather about her a whole school of sycophants and worshippers. Didn't like people who disagreed with her.

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger JPW said...

...and now she's dead.

 
At 10:47 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

The Australians had a crack at coming up with lists of their own, a year or two ago. Instead of becoming a ballot-stuffing pissing war between the Scientologists and Randroids like the Americans, it became a ballot-stuffing pissing war between Falun Gong and fans of Col Stringer. They both made the top ten of the most popular books in Australia, so I guess you've read them too.

When the Modern Library list came out, someone noticed that most of the listed books by one-shot authors had been made into movies better known than the books they are based on. The Magnificent Ambersons is the most obvious example of this. So maybe the board members haven't read even 100 books.

twgdovd!

 
At 5:53 AM, Anonymous martha said...

Ayn Rand IS scary, and a crappy writer to boot. I think this list must be self selected in some way, or else I exist in a separate reality than these people. Because that list? Is unbelievably, ridiculously sucky. Oh-- I used to read Robert Heinlein, and really enjoyed him as a kid, but when I tried to read his stuff as an adult, I couldn't get past the politics, and his serious sexism. Because I'm female, and I'm not an idiot.

 
At 4:55 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I read two Heinlein books in my late teens, but didn't like them much.
The politics of an author doesn't bother me too much; I'm interested when I find out about their politics and personality, but it doesn't always impact on their work. Case in point: Woody Allen. He is - to say the least - lacking in moral fibre, but he writes brilliantly.

The thing I most like about it is how the Scientologists have hijacked it to put Battlefield Earth at the top of the list. I mean, that's got to be it, right?

 
At 8:04 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Do a Google on "'Random House' + Scientology" and it would appear that Random House has something of a monopoly on Scientologist publications, which probably means that Scientology has Random House in its collective pocket.

 
At 8:27 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Wasn't James Joyce was a Scientologist?

 
At 6:08 AM, Anonymous martha said...

I can get past the politics when a novel is well written. Heinlein has a great imagination, but I find his politics exasperating, especially the gender stuff. When you read a novel with a male protagonist, you tend to identify with that protagonist, and when you are female you are put into the peculiar position of viewing your own gender through really disparaging and contemptuous eyes. And you kind of go along with it because you have allied yourself with the storyteller. I'm able to distance myself from that as an adult, but I read a lot of Heinlein's work as a kid, when I believed pretty much everything I read, and I bought into a lot of that stuff. Maybe my irritation with his work comes out of that experience.

 
At 9:34 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I suppose that, not having any experience being a female, the problem wasn't as apparent to me as it was to Martha, but I agree that it is there. 'The Green Hills Of Earth', which I just finished, has a good example of it in the first story.

Tim: I think James Joyce started it.

 
At 5:08 PM, Blogger TimT said...

James Joyce was worse than a Scientologist - he was a Modernist. And a Jungian Modernist, to boot.

It's not just in Heinlein this anti-woman thing happens - it's in a lot of classic science-fiction. You don't notice it so much when you're a boy reading it, but it's pretty apparent to me now. Like I said, though - I'm not really familiar with Heinlein's take on gender politics.

 
At 5:43 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Just out of interest, Tim, what is your criticism of modernism, Jungian or otherwise?

 
At 7:51 PM, Blogger TimT said...

A fair question. I can't claim to dislike modernists, just all the ones that readily come to mind. Joyce? A skilled writer whose work became increasingly obscure and self-referential. Eliot? His work was always obscure and self-referential, and he is always so depressed (it's like he had a traumatic childhood, and never could work out the meaning of words like 'happy' or 'cheerful'). Pound? Again, obscurity.
Auden, as a poet, I like, but I'm not sure that he could be considered a modernist (he's more of a neo-classicist, considering the way he revived so many forms and his fondness for classical/enlightenment verse). I like nonsense writing, which is probably even more difficult to understand than modernism (if not impossible), but it doesn't share the same obscurity (it's much more popular, and relies on humour and ideas and themes which are well-known).

I have a lot of complaints about modernism, but in the end, I guess my complaint comes down to this: it needlessly complicates language, and it often doesn't communicate to an audience.
Not only does this seem to me to be a dubious way to write fiction and poetry, but I think it's contributed directly to some of the problems poetry and poets suffer from today: writers still consciously or unconsciously emulate the modernists, and write self-referential or obscure verse. When challenged, they often turn the challenge back on the reader, saying, 'well, you'll just have to work harder.'
In this way, the fictional and poetic experiments of the modernists have became a justification for sloppy and lazy writing.

May actually write a post about it sometime. We'll see.

 
At 7:41 AM, Blogger Martha said...

You should check out Jonathon Franzen's essay Mr. Difficult, if you haven't read it already. It's from the collection of essays How To Be Alone, and addresses this very question. A quote which struck me:

" In fact, the work of reading Gaddis makes me wonder if our brains might even be hard-wired for conventional storytelling, structurally eager to form pictures from sentences as featureless as "She stood up."

Coincidentally, I just wrote a post where I used this very quote.

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger TimT said...

Whoops. In the start of that previous comment, I should have written, 'I can't claim to dislike ALL modernists'.

Martha, thanks, I'll keep an eye out for it.

 
At 8:09 PM, Blogger Tim said...

I'd be interested to read a post on this subject, and perhaps debate a few points with you, although as a rule I try to avoid futile arguments over taste. I agree that many bad writers use some generalised notion of modernism as an excuse for their lack of talent, but surely this is one side of the coin, and that it is equally true that many very good writers have absorbed the lessons of modernism (or continue to confront the problems raised by modernism), and you can't really say "modernism is/was a bad thing for literature" unless you're prepared to dismiss a lot of good writing along with the bad. There's a lot of terrible writing that draws on (say) Romanticism, but saying that doesn't count as a criticism of Wordsworth or Keats or their ideas and methods, and the same is true of modernism or any other "school" of writing you'd care to name.

Anyway, as I say if you write a post on this I may have more to say.

 
At 8:02 AM, Blogger TimT said...

... or perhaps I could admit that I made a bad joke stereotyping all modernists ...

Nah, only joking. Seriously, I guess I am quite conservative in some ways when it comes to writing, simply because I know that whenever I've written, I've only really felt like I was going somewhere when I've used pre-modernist forms; and having consciously tried to write in forms like sonnets, fable form, etc, I know just how important they are. So conversely, when others throw away these forms in the name of 'self-expression', I get ... angry!

I was originally going to say I probably won't put up a post about modernism for a while, but yesterday on the train, I got thinking, and ... well ... something might be coming this way soon.

 
At 5:20 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Just wondering: could either of you define "modernism" for me? The whole notion seems just as vacuous and indistinct as "postmodernism", except, y'know, it came along earlier.

 
At 11:42 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Oh, there you go spoiling the conversation! Hmph!

Sorry about that. Um, I guess the loose definition generally applied would be 'literary movement that rejects traditional literary forms in favour of new literary forms, or reinterprets literary forms in new and radical ways.'
How do you define 'traditional literary forms'? Maybe 'forms that are not modernism'. Ah, circular definitions. Where would academia be without you?

 
At 8:57 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Okay, that seems to be a good textbook definition, but I remain unenlightened. "Traditional literary forms"? You mean like breaking the page up into paragraphs and putting quote marks around dialogue? I'll tell you now that if there's one thing I hate, it's cunts who write books and don't put quote marks around their dialogue. Lazy!

 
At 10:39 AM, Blogger TimT said...

That's one of them. Others would probably be:

- verse forms (ballad, epigram, quatrain, sonnet, ode)

- narrative form

- character development

Though none of these 'traditional' forms are easy to pin down. Like the 'quote marks' convention you mention - I don't think that existed in Elizabethean times.
In other words, before it was traditional, it wasn't!

 
At 11:15 AM, Blogger JPW said...

I suppose that's why the Elizabethans are such a dominant global power today.

I kind of get what you're talking about, but sadly I'm one of those people who regards as supremely irrelevant notions of stylistically classifying works of literature. Genres are a different matter, of course, because they inform your target readership, but filing something under "postmodern"? Fucking rubbish. It certainly doesn't help chart the evolution of literature because while certain styles were certainly more prominent than others during certain periods, there has never been any period where any particular style has been all-encompassing. At least with dinosaurs you've got your Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous, etc., and they follow a straight line, so when somebody says something is Jurassic you're immediately all across it and know what's going on.
But something like modernism? Going off the Wiki entry (yeah, I know), apparently you can break it down into "precursors to modernism", "the beginnings of modernism 1890-1910", "the explosion of modernism 1910-1930", "modernism's second generation 1930-1945", and, finally, "modernism after WW2 1945- ". Notice they've left it open. Which leads me to believe that modernism is continuing to this day. But we've also got postmodernism. And then there's poststructuralism, which I am told "overlaps significantly" with postmodernism. If the overlaps are so significant, why have two different categories at all? And who is all this lip-flapping really helping apart from pinheads who have built their professorships out of attempting to define a notion that is entirely manmade? Imagine scholars standing around for decades, scratching their chins and arguing with one another over the true meaning of a tin of soup.

Perhaps I am only truly irritated by these concepts not just because I find them supremely useless in my own self-education, but because I don’t understand them, and as legend has it, people either fear or hate that which they do not understand. But those few forays I have made into the investigation of notions of “modernism” and “postmodernism” have informed me that the apparent experts are as entirely clueless as I, and yet they wake in the night in a cold sweat, apparently with some form of revelation, which does not solve the puzzle, but merely adds another curious and incompatible piece to it, which they then try to force into place and, failing, nevertheless go on to announce that the very nature of postmodernism makes it impossible to define. In that case, postmodernism is like God: invented by humans, yet unexplainable. Further evidence of our genetic stupidity? I submit that it is. I just don’t find any value in it, not even academic value. Calling something “modernist” does not enhance my understanding or appreciation of it one iota. We keep building on it, adding theories to it, but unlike theories of science, these literary theories can never be disproved, and so modernism or postmodernism just keep growing in scale and in mystery, like junkheaps of ideas. Pisses me right off.

 
At 12:31 PM, Blogger Tim said...

It's not so much a stylistic classification as a broad definition (although the word "modernism" is really little more than a short-hand term) of an attitude towards literary form and representation. Dismiss it as academic nonsense if you wish - although discussion of modernism is by no means limited to the academic realm - but modernism is a very real and historically determinable phenomenon of enormous influence.

It certainly doesn't help chart the evolution of literature because while certain styles were certainly more prominent than others during certain periods, there has never been any period where any particular style has been all-encompassing.

Of course there hasn't, but it is true that particular styles do develop and/or dominate in particular periods, and aesthetic and intellectual notions of art and entertainment vary. Speaking about "the explosion of modernism" does not imply that every single writer of the period subscribed to some monolithic theory, rather it refers to readily identifiable trends amongst certain writers of the period.

We keep building on it, adding theories to it, but unlike theories of science, these literary theories can never be disproved, and so modernism or postmodernism just keep growing in scale and in mystery, like junkheaps of ideas. Pisses me right off.

You could say the same thing about any non-science subject. Does that mean we shouldn't analyse history or art? Theories are attempts to explain phenomena, and yes it is a truism that theories of art cannot be proven in the same manner as scientific theories. That doesn't mean that all theories of art have no value or that broad phenomena like modernism can't be identified and discussed.

 
At 12:49 PM, Blogger JPW said...

But how, if we happen to decide that something is "modernist", is our understanding of it enhanced? Do we appreciate the art any more? Do the colours become richer, the language more poetic? Since art is a wholly human invention, and since proper art comes about solely because the artists wishes to express something, it seems to me rather silly that we should attempt to analyse it beyond its message, or, at a stretch, beyond the capacity of the author for fine language. Is this truly such a superficial way of living? While I am by no means of above average intelligence, I am certainly not quite stupid, and I am curious about many things, with a strong desire to improve and broaden my knowledge, but when terms like "modernism" and so forth are bandied around, my mind shuts off. Nobody has been able to define them satisfactorily, and when attempts are made, they generally employ further equally nebulous language – as TimT said, circular definitions. I call it an Oroboros of wank. Not because I do not believe that, beneath the muddied waters, there is some grain of useful truth, which may be employed to the betterment of the art (or item, or concept, or product) under examination, but because instead of letting the sediment settle, people insist on splashing about, or throwing in stones, further burying the secret. Despite my efforts, I remain mystified. Perhaps these things are enigmas, or perhaps there is simply nothing to them. (I also trust that neither of you are taking this as any sort of attack against your fine personages.)

 
At 5:17 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Of course I take it personally. My grandfather died defending Modernism against the Bourgeois Realists in the Not Particularly Great War of 1930. You have besmirched his honour with your craven attack, and I'm afraid I shall have to call you out!

 
At 5:26 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Ho ho! Banjos it is then!

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger TimT said...

And who is all this lip-flapping really helping apart from pinheads who have built their professorships out of attempting to define a notion that is entirely manmade?

Maybe the only notions that we are really able to define are manmade notions, anyway ...

 
At 6:36 PM, Blogger JPW said...

The notion of gravity isn't mandmade, but we have been able to define it.

 
At 6:47 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Your argument about gravity has some weight ...

 
At 8:29 PM, Blogger JPW said...

Stop punning!

 

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