Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Best ... so far ...

Following Rohan Maitzen's link at Novel Readings, I found two lists of novels labeled by the Millions as the "Best of the Millenium (so far)". One list was compiled by a panel of writers, editors and critics and the other list was compiled from suggestions of readers who are fans of The Millions' Facebook page.

The concept of "best" is always difficult. Certainly I am not qualified to judge whether a "best" novel is worthy of the accolade. I usually suspect that a list of "best" novels is more about the novels that the list-maker enjoyed as opposed to the particular artistic merit of the novel, whatever "artistic merit" might mean at the time. This doesn't mean that I think the list would be different if the list-makers focused only on "artistic merit" and not enjoyment. The fact that a novel has "artistic merit" probably makes it more enjoyable for a group of writers, editors and critics to read.

I have no definition of "artistic merit" but I imagine it has something to do with a certain standard of excellence. However, as one of the contributors at The Millenium admits, the fact that a novel ends up #1 on the list "may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence."

It is interesting to see where the Professional List and the Amateur List (as I think of them) overlapped. For instance, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections is at the top of the Professional List and also #8 on the Amateur List. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, was at the top of the amateur list and was #11 on the Professional List.

I haven't read either of those novels. I keep meaning to read The Corrections. In fact, I keep meaning to read any of Franzen's novels. Franzen was raised in Webster Groves, Missouri, an inner suburb of St. Louis not far from where I live and where I spend a lot of time, so there is a certain "home town boy" aspect to reading his novels. But I just haven't gotten around to it. The Diaz book hasn't been on any of my lists, but maybe it should be. In fact, that is my primary interest in the lists: to find novels that I may not have heard of that I might be interested in reading. And to nudge me into reading novels I've been meaning to read but haven't gotten around to actually reading.

At first I found myself surprised that I haven't read many of the novels on these lists. I used to read quite a bit of new fiction and I still think of myself as doing that. But, on further thought, I realize that, after September 11, I stopped reading fiction for a time and focused on non-fiction, especially political non-fiction. It has only been in the last year and a half that I've gone back to reading almost exclusively fiction.

The few novels that I've read from the lists are: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (#6 on the Professional List, and #5 on the Amateur List); Atonement, by Ian McEwan (#14 on the Professional List and #6 on the Amateur List); The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (#12 on the Amateur list but it didn't make the Professional List). I also tried to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (#20 on the Amateur List) but gave up about a quarter of the way into it.

I wonder if I would put The Road on my own list of "best" novels of the Millenium. I didn't enjoy it, in the traditional sense; I found it too dark. Actually, it gave me nightmares. I can't even imagine watching the movie version. But it remains vividly with me and I sometimes find myself thinking about it.

Atonement was more my idea of a "best" novel. It was daring; it took chances. McEwan went out on a limb and didn't fall off. I read it twice and thought about it a lot. I really liked how McEwan played with the expectations of the reader. I liked how it began as a typical country house novel and then ... slowly disintegrated into a modern novel just as life slowly disintegrated through the war into modern life where we found out that some of what we believed may have been an illusion . At least, that's how I looked at it.

I'm sure I wouldn't put The Kite Runner on my list of "best" even though I thought it was a good read. I made my way through it with ease and, I suppose, I learned something about Afghanistan along the way. But I haven't given it much thought since.

The lists contain other books that I've meant to read (Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides; White Teeth, by Zadie Smith) and books that I've not been interested in reading (Empire Falls, by Richard Russo) and a number of books that I've never heard of. And, as the editor remarks:

Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed.

I've wanted to read Cloud Atlas but have not wanted to read 2666. Now I feel that I need to read both. I'm hoping that other bloggers look at these lists and comment on novels that were left off because then I'll get even more ideas for reading.

Rohan Maitzen made her own list and I've read quite a few of her choices (although she decided to go back to 1999 rather than start at 2000). I too would put Jonathan Safran Foer's, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on my list of "best" novels. It may not have been the first novel to combine graphic aspects with traditional novel form, but it was certainly the first that I found worked for me and added to the experience. Others that she lists that I've read are: Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime; Yann Martel's The Life of Pi, Ian McEwan's Atonement and also his Saturday. I would definitely put The Life of Pi on my list of "best" and, in fact, I find it surprising that it wasn't on either of The Millenium lists. She also lists novels I've wanted to read, like Sarah Waters' Fingersmith and Ann Patchet's Bel Canto.

Looking at my own reading lists I realize that most of what I've been reading during the last decade (at least in the way of fiction) was written before the last decade. Of the "new" novels I read, the only one I would put on a "best" list was almost completely ignored by reviewers: Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears.

There are new novels that I've read that I would enthusiastically recommend but that I don't think belong on a "best" list. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell is one of those. And Mr. Pip by Lloyd Jones. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (yes, I'd recommend that over The Blind Assassin, which I remember as an easier read but don't remember much else about. In comparison, I still think about parts of Oryx and Crake.) Why wouldn't I classify them as "best"? Probably because I don't see any of them taking the same kind of risks that, for instance, McEwan does in Atonement. But I still enjoyed reading them.