I was recently in the small town of Milan, Missouri, at the auction of my late uncle’s effects. I fell into conversation with a man who, after learning that I write, wanted to talk literature. I suspect he just wanted to chat me up, but it’s a topic that is fairly easy to engage in with a stranger. Not long after this, my friend Chris (you remember Chris–I talk about her a lot) mentioned that she was feeling sad about the recent death of Sir VS Naipaul, a Nobel laureate in literature. Her sadness stemmed in part from never having previously heard of such an interesting person, and in part that after “reading the titles of his famous works and the names of the famous writers who disagreed with him, I suddenly believe I have never read a book.”
Chris and my husband and I then engaged in a conversation about what literature is and what literary works are. Of course, most of us have been subjected to “literature” in high school and also, perhaps, in college, some of it painful to read and worse to analyze and dissect. Not to say some of them weren’t great. It’s just that school often isn’t the best way to meet some of these authors.
But what is passing for real literary accomplishment these days? I began to gather lists of works by Nobel laureates–Barnes and Noble and Goodreads have good ones. Librarything.com gave me a list of the “Best Literary Fiction Around the Last 30 Years.” It was somewhat gratifying to learn I had read quite a few of the books on both lists, so perhaps I’m not a complete illiterate. I figure if I’ve seen the movie based on the novel, I get half credit, but it’s not the same as immersing myself in the carefully created words of a great piece of writing.
In theory, literary fiction is introspective or comments on the human condition or in some other way has merit. The thing is, what is great literature can change over time. I have a large collection of the “world’s great literature.” Some of it is amazing and life changing to read; some, not so much. I was appalled to discover The Red and the Black by Stendhal is a soap opera. Ulysses by Joyce can be read, but wouldn’t you rather have all your teeth extracted without Novocaine instead? Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby just pissed me off. But who doesn’t love Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey? I mean, “Roadtrip!” or rather, boat trip.
On the list of modern literary fiction, it’s great to see that genre fiction has begun to get a toehold. To find Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman included is, to me, a triumph. A romance writer recently interviewed on NPR stood up for her genre saying Jane Austen wrote romances, and no one doubts that her works are among the greatest, most beloved literature. But, to be honest, genre fiction was created within great literature. Edgar Allan Poe wrote mysteries, horror, and science fiction–you can’t get more genre than that.
My opinion? Stretch a bit now and again, trying out the kinds of books you’ve never read before–something by a Nobel laureate, perhaps–but for the most part, read what you love. And never stop reading.
Image: Books by dead white guys. By Marilyn Evans.