Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What's Your Favorite Novel?

I was having a discussion the other evening about what were out favorite novels. The truth is, I'm not sure I could pick just one. I'm not even sure it's a valid question.

One criterion for choosing one's favorite novel is: How many times have you re-read it? For example, every two or three years I get the urge to re-read Raymond Chandler; I think The Long Goodbye is a great novel, and I often re-read that one.

A contrasting criterion, however, is to choose a novel one reads, thinks very highly of, enjoyed the style and content and would recommend that others read, but one doesn't feel the need to re-read it often, if at all. For example, when I pick up Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, which I think is a great novel, I usually only re-read a favorite section or two, not the entire work, cover to cover. I thoroughly enjoyed James Joyce's Ulysses, but I don't feel the urge to re-read it very often.

How is one to choose a favorite novel, therefore? I'm not sure I can.

I could provide a long list of many novels I've enjoyed reading over the years. That list would contain as much science fiction as it would mainstream literary fiction (which is itself a genre, even though critics claim it is the non-genre by which they define, and usually dismiss, other forms of "genre fiction"). The list would also contain books by a select group of mystery writers, from whom it would be hard to pick one best novel out of the overall oeuvre; for example, Raymond Chandler (again), Tony Hillerman, Dana Stabenow, Dashiell Hammett. The Maltese Falcon is a great novel, very well-written, that I re-read less often than Chandler.

I could compile a long list, therefore, but it would be impossible to pick one novel out as my favorite novel. There are too many favorites, almost all of equal regard. I don't think I could pick just one. And it would be a very long list, as I'm an avid lifelong reader, with an unschooled knack for reading relatively fast and retaining most of what I read. (I can still remember the smell of the paper, and the breeze coming in my bedroom window, and the color of the sky, from one day the summer I was thirteen and read my first Isaac Asimov novel.)

The urge to compile lists of "Best Novels" is an urge that is mostly useless. It's a fun game, but it's also a subjective one. Hardly any two readers, or literary critics, would agree on all choices.

I'm not even sure I could pick one favorite writer, and his or her works, as my favorite. Different writers give me different pleasures.

For example, I thoroughly enjoy reading Arthur C. Clarke novels such The Songs of Distant Earth for his dry wit, his scientific imagination coupled with a cool humor regarding human foibles. I enjoy reading Isaac Asimov because of his characters and ideas; he has been called an intellectual writer, but he has a knack for making the reader care about those ideas his characters are tied up with, in novels such as The Gods Themselves or stories like "Nightfall." Kate Wilhelm has summoned in me an atavistic terror, a fear for my survival, because she gets me so involved in her well-depicted characters and the threatening situations they find themselves in; I can still feel the gut-impact of her novella "The Gorgon Field" just by thinking about it. Thomas Merton activates in this reader a living, active contemplation of world, self, and spirit; I think about my place in the world, my purpose, even as Merton describes (or photographs) what has moved him to feel that same way. I periodically re-read Ernest Hemingway's "The Nick Adams Stories" because these compiled stores and fragments are some of his best, most compelling writing; I've often thought that Hemingway shined brightest in story rather than novel form; and the Nick Adams stories are semi-auotbiographical, many of them in northern Michigan, my home state as well as Hemingway's, and thus the stories carry a special resonance for me, right down to my experiences summering in the some of the very same locales. (I've also visited Hemingway's home in Key West, and have a feeling for his work set in those locales, as well.)

In providing examples, I'm already making a list. My reading tastes are all over the map. I go for good writing, I don't care what "genre" it falls into.

One of the typical arguments I have with mainstream iiterary critics is their stubborn insistence on dismissing "genre fiction" when in fact much of writing in genre fiction is as good or better than one finds in mainstream literary fiction (again, a literary genre even if it claims not to be)—which these days is often bland, tepid, self-involved, and contains a lot of characters it's hard to have any empathy with. One of the reasons I find certain famous living authors over-rated is that they haven't managed to make me give a damn about their characters, stories, or quality of writing. A good story, well-written, is what makes for a great novel; mere style alone cannot sustain interest very long. Nor can the writer's fame alone make me want to read their new novel, if I found their previous novels uninteresting. People tell me I'm supposed to like and revere Philip Roth and John Ashbery; try as I might, I never have been able to.

One sometimes comes to the conclusion that the mainstream literary fiction (genre) one is "supposed" to adore is all about self-involved, angst-ridden New England urban dwellers; none of that speaks to my life or interests, dwelling as I do in Midwestern heartlands that most New Englanders neither comprehend nor want to. (I still laugh when a friend in New Hampshire was astonished by the fact that, out here in the Middle West, one can drive all day long and still only cross one state border.) Those of us who live in the "flyover" zone, who often live in smaller towns, or more rurally, than the literary denizens of either urban coast, often seem to live in another universe entirely. Even those who live in our large Midwestern metropolises, such as Chicago, Detroit, or Denver, have a different attitude towards life than those in Los Angeles or the New England megaplex. For one thing, the sky is simply much bigger out here. Under that big sky, it's easier to contemplate the horizon. One sometimes wonders if the reason New York City is so self-involved is because there can only see themselves reflected in their shiny glass-and-steel buildings, and can't see enough sky.

This may also be an aspect of my long list of favorite novels, many of which are weighted heavily towards novels that broaden the mind, that stretch outwards into the sky, that have a sense of wonder that is expansive rather than narcissistic and claustrophobic. Many novels on my list of favorites are novels that opened my mind in new directions, that gave me insight into cultures I never encountered or understood before, that explored ideas and relationships beyond those merely human-centered and social. This accounts for the large number of novels of speculative fiction on my list. It also may account for what attracts me to certain writers, while there are others to whose works I am unable to connect at all. E.F. Forster famously prefaced his great novel Howard's End with two words: "Only connect." And not only is that the theme of his novel, it's a good rule for living: only connect. Those people, real or fictional, with whom we are able to connect, all give us something for living. And connecting needn't be limited only to people like ourselves. Another reason I feel little connection with much mainstream literary fiction these days is that it has become very parochial; frankly, in my experience, writers from New York City are a lot more tunnel-visioned and parochial than writers from rural South Dakota (Linda Hasslestrom) or Michigan (Jim Harrison, a genuinely cosmopolitan writer) or California (a long list indeed).

Some writers we read for their content, their subject matter. I enjoy reading John Muir's diaries of his solo treks in the Sierras. Robinson Jeffers appeals to me as much for his creation-centered observational poems as for his writing style presented as an alternative to hermetic (obscurantist) Modernism. Both Hemingway and Harrison appeal to me because we're all Michigan boys at heart, although their appeal spreads out in many other directions, as well.

So I can't tell you what my favorite novel is. I don't know myself. There are too many available choices, potential possibilities, a long list of favorites. I could compile a list, but perhaps I already have, at least in part, simply by giving examples here as I meandered across the terrain of this topic. I might someday try to make a list. Yet list-making itself is something of which I am skeptical, veering as it does so close to canon-making. Such lists ought to be appreciative, not prescriptive: unlike most critics with an axe to grind or an ideological agenda to pursue, I don't insist that every other reader like the same novels that I do, even for the same reasons. A list of favorites would be only my idiosyncratic list, even if others agreed with me on many choices.

"Only connect." We do our best. But I think it remains better to connect out of love and common humanity, as Forster intimates in his novel, rather than out of an aggressive will to impose our social standards upon each other. So make your own connections, and make your own list of favorite novels. If we connect, thereby, that's all to the good.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

When Carrie and I were first getting to know each other we tried compiling Top Ten lists. As most of mine contained about thirty entries it soon became clear that picking my top anything would be impossible. We are moody creatures and, depending on my mood, my choice could change radically and you will be exactly the same. Like you my tastes are fairly broad although I veer towards literary fiction. There are certain novels that I have carted around with me for nearly forty years now and would hate to part company with – my copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Billy Liar for example – books I have an emotional attachment to. What I can say is that very few of the books I’ve been sent to review over the past few years mean much to me and I think that is perhaps a sad reflection on the current standard or writing. They’re mostly decent enough reads, some of which I enjoyed at the time, but although I get pleasure seeing them all on my shelves I am not sure there are any I would choose to read again although there are one or two of those authors whose new work I wouldn’t be disappointed to see drop through my letterbox. Yann Martel would be one because even a ‘bad’ book by him would be an interesting and thought-provoking read.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree, my list would change depending on where I was in life. this list would change in its details every few years, although some things would always be on it (like Chandler).

Solzhenistyn and Martel would never be on my list, though. I thought "The Life of Pi" was unreadable; it might have made a good novella, but I thought it was extremely padded.

9:24 AM  

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