Monday, July 14, 2008

New Classics Meme

Ok, so I know I've got about 40 memes I've been tagged with and all sorts of teaching type things to update you on or ponder over plus I never did respond to Oso Raro and Dr. Crazy's thoughts on class and the academy (and that post is largely written!) but, because I am a bad blogger who never finishes anything or posts on what she claims she will post on, I'm jumping distractedly onto Horace's meme at To Delight and to Instruct and pondering Entertainment Weekly's list of "new classics" since 1983. (See here.)

First of all, what is a "classic," or even a "new classic"? Horace has a fun time pointing out how weird and inconsistent the category is, as it lumps "deep and meaningful" with "learning about the world" and "massive bestseller" or "full-on cultural phenomenon" (those are my categorizations, not Horace's). I'm a teensy bit more willing to give them leeway, as their subhead is "the 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008" --- but in that case I'd think they should just go straight-up popular lit. (and what is going on with the popularized nonfiction in there, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point? Eh? Oh whatever.)

Is a "classic" something that has a certain craft and density to its prose? Something that creates a transformative experience in the reader? Something that sates our inner desires or panders to our wishes? (I'm lookin' at you, Joy Luck Club.) It can't be something that has stood the test of time as, since it's a "new classic" (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), it has to be from the past 25 years. It seems to me that the more recent you go, the more visible the work of canon-forming becomes, as there is no way academics, other novelists, list-makers-who-work-at-Entertainment-Weekly, and reviewers could be up on top of all the work that has exploded into print in the last 25 years ---- particularly if you're being inclusive either geographically or along the fiction/memoir/nonfiction divide. So books that get favorably reviewed or shortlisted for prizes get read and picked up by more people and included into more classes than those that drop into print with little notice, and then this trend becomes self-reinforcing.

Plus, books that fill certain structural needs or desires get canonized more quickly ---- Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior explicitly focuses on Asian-American and female identity in a way that is both accessible and palatable for teaching in our classes, which means students can encounter it multiple times in English, Women's Studies, and Asian American studies classes and have that be their sole exposure to "Asian American literature." Or writers who do not pick up on "appropriate" themes of identity don't get taught. Which sorta makes sense: if you only have one shot at "introducing the culture," are going to go for something that hits on points A - F about race and racism and assimilation, or teach the difficult experimental work that never even discloses the author's race?

It's always Beloved that gets listed on the "Best Novels of the ______" and never any of Morrison's other work, because it came out and said Something Meaningful About Our Slave-Owning Past at a time that (mainly white) reviewers and academics knew they should be including authors of color in their canons. I have nothing against Beloved ---- it's brilliant and she is an amazing writer ---- but why do they never list, say, Song of Solomon or Jazz or Paradise? For that matter, why is "the" go-to African American novel everyone chooses the one about a former slave killing her own children, a long long time ago, and not John Edgar Wideman's Brothers and Keepers, an absolutely mind-blowing memoir/meditation about family and prison that was an incredibly transformative read for me. Not least because it indicts us on charges of both racism and classism ---- of just plain forgetting and self-centeredness ---- for what is going on right now with the prison system, not crimes of slavery that are safely in the past.

With all that prefatory blather, here is Horace's meme:

So anyway, a new meme: Best books of prose narrative of the last 25 years--that I've read. Which means that many exclusions can be chalked up to the fact that I haven't read them yet. We'll see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, the rules:
1. Read the Entertainment Weekly List of New Classics:
2. Make a list of 10 or 20 or 25 of the best books of prose narrative (which excludes things like Fast Food Nation, which EW includes) you've read written since 1983.
3. Put it on your blog.
4. Boldface the authors not appearing on EW's top 100. Italicize the authors who appear with a different book.
5. Tag people if you want.

(Me: Ok, don't forget my reading record is really spotty, so don't attack me for omissions! Also, don't read too much into the order here. Unless you like it and approve, in which case it's intentional.)

1. The Known World, Edward P. Jones
2. Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
3. Brothers and Keepers, John Edgar Wideman
4. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
5. Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
6. Fools Crow, James Welch

7. In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez
8. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
9. Monkey Bridge, Lan Cao
10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
11. Zadie Smith: White Teeth
12. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2004) (I liked Housekeeping better but it’s before the start date)
13. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
14. The Bingo Palace, Louise Erdrich
15. Jazz, Toni Morrison (just to be contrary here)
16. Mona in the Promised Land, Gish Jen
17. Krick? Krack! Edwidge Danticat
18. Dogeaters, Jessica Hagedorn
19. Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee
20. So Far from God, Ana Castillo

(Ok, anybody who wants to play, come on in! I had to stop at 20, though, because that was getting dangerously near my "I have read it" and not my "I thought it was wonderful" list --- obviously I need to go back to reading contemporary stuff again.)


Anonymous said...

Prose narrative... I had this idea while reading your list, actually: I am often struck by how much really high-quality poetry and genre fiction (SF, at least; I know less about other genres) gets written and published in the U.S. by small presses and small journals, and that that's been the case for the last 25 (or 35) years at least. But non-SF novels seem to struggle, and perhaps this is because there is no similar alternative outlet of the same artistic stature for publishing novels, and no similar community of readers willing to adopt the development of the form as an ongoing project. The novel is the most mainstream literary genre there is, and at the moment it is the most insulated against successful innovation, primarily because the barriers to publishing anything that does get written are so high. Novels are big, self-contained books, and we don't serialize them anymore. So novel manuscripts have to go through a series of gatekeepers who must determine whether or not these big, expensive books will sell: the gatekeepers aren't philistines, and most of them probably sincerely want to publish Great Important Books. But those books have to sell, at least initially, and they have to compete with all the other novels out there... kind of like literature job candidates, in fact...

I know I couldn't come up with a list like yours, or like the original lists... I just found myself wondering why that might be. One of the best recent novels I've read (2005) I read in manuscript; it never found an agent or publisher. So it goes. I have no solutions, obviously; I just want to encourage suspicion!

kfluff said...

Dude, kudos to you for taking this on. This is the kind of list keeping that brings out my worst anthopomorphizing (as in, "even if I didn't LOVE The Remains of the Day, it will feel bad if I leave it out!")

But I did want to add a big ol' AMEN to your comments about the work that the Joy Luck Club does, vs. The Woman Warrior. It seems to me like we're in a moment where the former is getting picked up more, because it's more "readable," but it's ideological bent makes me cranky. In other news, I taught WW recently, and the students HATED it. I wonder if it could stand to be retired for awhile?

Horace said...

What I love about the list is how much I haven't read on it. Both the Hagedorn and the Lethem have been on my radar for a bit, but needed a good recommendation for me to go out and actually purchase and read.

k8 said...

Interesting meme. I just did the other one about best classic I was forced to read, which classic to be put away, etc. I think this one would stump me because so much of what I read that is current is in children's and YA lit, and people tend to keep those titles separate. Of course, I don't necessarily agree with that approach so perhaps I will have to do this meme, too, and include those books in my list.

Anonymous said...

my only thought is...what a weird list. some of the books on there--the one's I've actually read, really--are just bad books. or nice but hardly classic.