Friday, December 26, 2008

Best American fiction, 1968–1998

Haven‘t posted since Xmas Eve because I‘ve been working on a longish review of Francine Prose’s Goldengrove, which I liked a lot. None of the reviewers so far has got it.

To take a break, I whipped up one of those Amazon lists. In my case, a list of the best American fiction, 1968–1998. Perhaps you’d be interested. At all events, here it is.

It’s a good rule not to read a novel before ten years have passed and the novelty has worn off. Here are the best American books of fiction from the post-Vietnam period, excluding “meta-fictionists” like Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, and displaying a clear preference for novels (in Larkin’s phrase) about ordinary people doing ordinary things. In order of publication.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

The list author says:
“[T]he novel that inaugurates a new period in American fiction.”

2. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

The list author says:
“After Portnoy, the deluge (of sex). Still the funniest and most daring American novel on the theme.”

3. Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

The list author says:
“A Holocaust survivor versus the counterculture. Bellow’s best. Or second best.”

4. The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow

The list author says:
“Doctorow’s best, before he became mannered. The new Left comes to grips with the old Left. Perhaps the best fictional treatment of the sixties.”

5. The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin

The list author says:
“Elkin’s best, perfectly suited to his talents. A marvelously comic anticipation of the talk radio craze.”

6. The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

“The best storywriter of the past six decades.”

7. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The list author says:
“A historical novel of Gettysburg. Clears away the ‘fog of war’ and leaves a striking image of the battle in under 350 pages.”

8. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

The list author says:
“Or maybe this is Bellow’s best. The definitive treatment of the postwar literary scene, the poets, the writers, the critics, the hangers-on, the New York intellectuals.”

9. The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris

The list author says:
“Out of print. Where are the New York Review Classics when you need them? Why hasn’t Michael Chabon pitched his ex-teacher? The astonishing tale of an attempt to reach the North Pole via balloon ca. 1897.”

10. The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The list author says:
“Yates’s second superb novel after Revolutionary Road (1961), and after everyone had written him off. A short novel that follows two sisters through life; unbearably sad, masterfully wise.”

11. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino

The list author says:
“A concession to fans of self-conscious fiction. This is the best of the type. A novel in progress is taken over by its characters.”

12. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The list author says:
“Posthumous novel by a New Orleans writer who died unknown. Title derives from Swift. So does the narrative method.”

13. Godric by Frederick Buechner

The list author says:
“A historical novel based on the life of the twelfth-century St. Godric after he has returned from his Holy Land pilgrimages to live as a hermit at Finchale. Told in his voice--a rollicking and crisp de-Latinized English.”

14. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The list author says:
“A wonderful late short novel. Two boys survive the deaths of parents--one by murder--in rural Illinois of the twenties.”

15. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty

The list author says:
“One of the four great storywriters of the second half of the American century. Never repeats herself; never fails to delight.”

16. Black Robe by Brian Moore

The list author says:
“Moore may not qualify for this list. A native of Belfast, he lived in Malibu for 25 years prior to his death in 1999. Black Robe is a novel unconcerned with political correctness on a P.C. theme—the effort by Jesuits to convert the Algonkins.”

17. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The list author says:
“The most successful American novelist to adapt the detective story to different and ‘more serious’ ends. You won't be able to decide whether you are in actuality or an alternative world.”

18. Wheat that Springeth Green by J.F. Powers

The list author says:
“The great chronicler of American priests on baffled efforts to separate Church and drek.”

19. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

The list author says:
“Full disclosure: Carver was my teacher. Still, is there anyone better at the details of the lower-middle-class dead-end life?”

20. Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

The list author says:
“Only partly a novel about the slave trade. Also a philosophical novel raising questions about identity, existence, and God. All in an articulate, yakkety, fast-moving style.”

21. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

The list author says:
“In 1906, in upstate New York, a young nun develops stigmata. A novel about the mystery (and possibility) of religious passion.”

22. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The list author says:
“In recent years, the question of sexual identity has been thrown wide open. No one is better than Eugenides at exploring that frontier. A novel told in the first person plural!”

23. Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley

The list author says:
“A satire on Washington lobbyists—in this case, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry—by a writer than whom no one knows Washington better. (Yes, he is William F.’s son.)”

24. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

The list author says:
“A late 19th-century entrepreneur—a hotel developer—who comes to believe that ‘his only error was to have dreamed the wrong dream.’ Not an anti-business novel at all. Rather, it is about the ambivalence of artistic fulfillment.”

25. The Complete Stories by Bernard Malamud

The list author says:
“Better remembered for The Natural and The Assistant. His best stories are far better. He takes up a stance at the edge of suffering, where it begins to shade over into fantasy. Or hallucination.”

26. American Pastoral by Philip Roth

The list author says:
“The greatest novel on this entire list. Both a technical achievement, fully justifying the Nathan Zuckerman persona, and a furious unsparing moral examination of American values and compromises since the sixties.”

27. Waiting by Ha Jin

The list author says:
“Odd how many excellent novels from this period are about something else. A novel about Communist China from the sixties to the eighties. Not a sweeping pageant, however, but ordinary people doing ordinary things—in a completely alien culture. Only in America!”

Understanding this for what it is—a list of recommendations in an online bookstore and not a mini-canon of American fiction for the period—I’d still bleg for additions and subtractions if I thought it would do any good.


Novalis said...

Thanks for the interesting list. So do you mean these were the ones you enjoyed the most, as opposed to those supposedly the BEST?

But no Marilynne Robinson? No Cormac McCarthy? And why allow Philip K. Dick and exclude "meta-fictionists?"

Anonymous said...

Eager to see what you have to say about Goldengrove. I can't say why I picked it up and read it in the first place -- probably because I heard Prose read at Bread Loaf. In the end, I couldn't tell if I was finding more in the narrator's infantilizations than is actually intended. What I mean is that the narrator is in her 30s but thinks and speaks childishly. Or is this Prose's take on a young adult novel? The book isn't promoted as a YA novel. Anyway, if you're interested, I reviewed the book a few months ago on my site.

D. G. Myers said...


Thanks for the comment. Yes, I know you reviewed the novel; I hope you didn’t think I was taking a swipe at you. My review is still in the works, and I don’t want to preempt it. What I will say is that Goldengrove is decidedly not a YA novel. I’m not sure, in fact, that I’d want a teenage daughter to read it. (My daughter is six months old. What do I know?) There is a good literary reason that Nico “speaks childishly.” I’ll try to explain.

D. G. Myers said...


I agonized about leaving Robinson off the list. As you may know, I am convinced that Gilead is a great novel—the first great American novel of the century. It just didn’t conform to my ten-year rule. And I am not a huge fan of Housekeeping.

The list, at all events, is sort of halfway between “the ones [I] enjoyed” and “the BEST.” Martin Amis says that everyone has his own great tradition. While neither a list of greats nor a tradition, that remark comes close to what I was trying to do.

Do you like DeLillo?

Novalis said...

The whole issue of literary taste is fascinating to me, and like you I am averse to fads and keeping up with the best of the current year.

But I also think of Tolkien, who considered English literature after Chaucer to be a relative disappointment. And I prefer the 19th century overall, whether poetry or prose, no matter the nationality. Forced to choose between rereading Keats, Emerson, or Dostoevsky for the twelfth time and reading anything from the past hundred years, I would choose the former.

Life isn't always either/or of course, but limited time forces priorities (particularly when literature isn't one's day job).

R/T said...

I recently discovered your list while digging through various archives at various blogs. Although I am wary of all book lists, there is something uniquely seductive about yours. At any rate, to cut to the chase, your list motivated to re-read DO ANDROID DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP. Sure, I read it in the early 70s (though I do not remember much from those years), and I had little memory of the book's content. Now, having finished Dick's bleak tale, I am convinced more than ever that our reading of literature changes over time as we change. (This is an important lesson that I try to share with the undergraduates in my classes.) The 20 something reader who first read Dick's dystopian novel (and vaguely recalled an fun-filled SF adventure) did not have had the same blood chilling experience that this 60 something just had with the book. As I press on to other books on your list that I have overlooked or forgotten, I hope for less traumatic experiences.