Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The greatest debuts

In English-language prose fiction, that is. Here without much further ado or explanation is the list of the twenty-five greatest literary debuts, which I posted to Twitter earlier today. John Wilson of Books and Culture asked me to put the list in one place, and so.

As Darin Strauss recognized, the list is something of a jeu, recklessly tossing together great books that happened to be first books along with books that defined (and, in some cases, foreshortened) a literary career. (A couple of changes have been made to the original list, removing Charles Portis’s True Grit—in actuality, his second novel—and Joyce’s Dubliners and including Invisible Man, which I unaccountably overlooked the first time around.) At all events, the titles on this list are characterized as much by splash as by merit.

  1. Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)
  2. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
  4. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
  7. Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836–37)
  8. J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  9. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)
10. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
11. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
12. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
13. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
14. Thomas Pynchon, V. (1963)
15. Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
16. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)
17. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)
18. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
19. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
20. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
21. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
22. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
23. Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)
24. Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
25. (tie) Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
       (tie) Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1982)

Update: Honorable mention (that is, suggestions from readers)—Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847); Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1920); James Jones, From Here to Eternity (1951); Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961); George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970); Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987); Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000); Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (2000); ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003); Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (2011).

Update, II: Patrick Kurp’s additions (in his order): Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper; Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy; Philip Larkin, Jill; Herman Melville, Typee; Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men; Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall; Tobias Smollet, The Adventures of Roderick Random; Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pastors and Masters; and Henry Green, Blindness.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Bibliographing the ’sixties

You might say that my bibliography of ’sixties fiction has been a lifetime in the making. The first hardback book that I ever bought with my own money was Allen Drury’s 1968 novel Preserve and Protect, the fourth and last volume of the tetralogy about American politics that Drury had begun with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Advise and Consent. (Spoiler: Drury never duplicated the mastery of that first volume.)

By the next year I was bolting down Portnoy’s Complaint and writing a celebration of it for Ramona High School’s literary magazine. (The faculty adviser rejected it on the basis of its sensational subject matter and even more sensational language.) I came of age on the fiction of the ’sixties—Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Stanley Elkin, Wright Morris, Walker Percy, Peter De Vries, J. F. Powers, Mark Harris, Evan Connell, Thomas Berger, E. L. Doctorow, Maureen Howard, Wilfrid Sheed, R. V. Cassill, John Barth, Joan Didion, even Madison Jones. These were the writers who lined the bookshelves of my early self-education. I filled my head with useless details about publication order and publishing houses and copyright dates. Sitting down to compile my bibliography four decades later, I found myself doing much of the work from memory.

One reason I wanted to compile it was to leave a record, even a testament, to my useless literary learning. I am struggling against self-pity when I say that learning is no longer considered the sine qua non of the scholar, especially not in English departments. At one time, as J. V. Cunningham wrote in a 1964 Carleton Miscellany symposium on graduate education in English, bibliography was numbered among the specialized disciplines of literary study—that is, every literary scholar was assumed to be a capable hand at it, if not an adept. Now, however, what is prized in English departments is theoretical sophistication, interpretive cunning; being up to the minute, but not necessarily knowing “the impervious facts/ So well you can dispense with them” (to quote again from Cunningham), is what is sought in the bright young hires.

No one will ever again accuse me of being bright or young. As a dinosaur, though, perhaps I am in a good position to watch the meteor of an unsustainable economic model wipe out the last of my species. As Clay Shirky wrote in a brilliant essay last Wednesday, “The [university] faculty has stopped being a guild, divided into junior and senior members, and become a caste system, divided into haves and have-nots.” And nothing distinguishes the haves from the have-nots except for tenure—certainly not learning and not even theoretical sophistication. The idea that American society will go on indefinitely subsidizing an elite caste of low-responsibility intellectuals, who demand the leisure to teach advanced subjects while underpaid assistants perform the hard work of educating most of the undergraduate students in a university, is absurd.

Dedicated only to preserving its leisure and elite status, the university faculty has betrayed the ideal of learning. The “higher education bubble” (as Glenn Harlan Reynolds calls it) will burst. The university caste system will be swept away, along with the last subsidies for the last remaining scholars. At that point, scholarship will operate on the model of the blog—it will be a gift offered to an indifferent world in the hope that someone else might value it as highly as I myself, for example, value the fiction of the ’sixties.