Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE GREATEST AMERICAN NOVELS, #7, #6, #5

SURVIVOR POOL: Congratulations to co-champions Kenny Weisman and Dan Lurvey who navigated the rocky shoals of a tough NFL Season to finish 15-1 (one week all four survivors lost, so everyone continued.)

GREATEST AMERICAN NOVELS. 
Now it gets tough. Little Women?  Uncle Tom's Cabin? The Human Stain? Of Mice and Men (A personal favourite). Their Eyes Were Watching God? The Big Sleep? The USA Trilogy? The Jungle? The Good Earth? Rabbit, Run? The Bell Jar? One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?  We could make a case for each of these novels to be on the list. 

#5. The Naked and The Dead, Norman Mailer.  Mailer wrote the Naked and the Dead, based on his personal experiences of combat in the Philippines in WWII,  while in Paris in 1948, after the war, at age twenty-five, in a remarkable fifteen weeks. Every morning Mailer would read a section of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and then suitably inspired, would sit down and write. The Novel has it weak points, which Mailer inspired. It shows an immature writer. The extensive characters are often predictably stereotypical, a product of Mailer's immaturity as a writer. For instance, there is a white,  Liberal, Harvard educated sergeant (Robert Hearn), a smug Jew who believes himself superior to his comrades because of his education (Roth), an anti-semetic man of Irish descent (Roy Gallagher), a big-ol southerner with a happy-go-lucky nature (Woodrow Wilson).  
The war novel is the prototypical Great American Novel, because our last two centuries were shaped by massive wars (the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam) and writers write about such things. We choose Mailer's novel precisely because it was his first novel and precisely because the novel suffers from the juvenile shortcomings of a new writer. Because beyond those criticisms, the novel provides a brutally clear view on the dehumanization of combat soldiers. Compared to Hemingway's war novels, this novel more realistically confronts the reality of war. Men defecate in their pants from fear. American soldiers murder Japanese prisoners of war in cold blood. Power, love, death sex, misogyny,  and homosexuality are all at least touched upon. A remarkable first novel and a remarkable novel.   

6. "Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible, might restore our appetite for the fundamental realities. The predominant note will seem one of bitterness, and bitterness there is, to the full. But there is also a wild extravagance, a mad gaiety, a verve, a gusto, at times almost a delirium... "Anais Nin. 

Nin wrote the above as a preface to Tropic Of Cancer, by Henry Miller. But Miller, an American wrote Tropic Of Cancer in 1930-34, while living in Paris, and the novel is mostly about Paris.  The novel broke ground in the use of sexuality, and it was banned in the United States until 1961.  In 1939 Miller wrote a sequel, entitled Tropic of Capricorn, which was narrated by a "Henry V Miller" and was set in New York City. This novel was also banned in the US. 
 Because Tropic of Cancer was written in Paris and is about Paris, we included Tropic Of Capricorn, which was written about New York, as a dual selection. 

Tropic of Cancer centers on Miller's early struggles as a writer. iIn the novel, Miller uniquely explains what he is up to:

Up to the present, my idea of collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature. My idea briefly has been to present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human being in the stratosphere of ideas, that is, in the grip of delirium.

 Both novels use graphic and corse language to explore sex, and recount  Miller's sexual conquests. But beyond the sex, the novels represent an exploration of humanity- madness, death, dance, music, homelessness, hunger, anger, sadness, love, lust, despair. 

Miller and Vonnegurt represent our inclusion of novels with grounding breaking writing styles and subject matter. We expect these selections, grouped together as #6, will be the most controversial on our list. 

7. Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegurt. The toughest pick for us. Spots one, two, and three, were relatively easy, and four, five, and six, also fairly clear. But in this spot the choice was a classic, like some of those we mentioned above. But we decided to include an author who was a startlingly new voice when he first published.  Slaughterhouse Five was fueled by Vonnegurt's experiences in WWII. His intimate familiarity with the death and destruction and horror of war (The Dresden Bombing) fuel this novel which examines the disturbing condition of humanity. This is the only "modern" or more precisely, "post modern" novel we have included. The writing technique was unique. The novel follows no time line as the narrator Billy Pilgrim believes he can time travel. Death is everywhere and knows no boundaries as the horror of Dresden vis a vis a man put to death for a small theft make the 
incomparable, comparable. "And so it goes...."  Has there ever been a fictional character like Kilgore Trout? We needed a modern/post modernist novel, and Vonnegurt, whose style is distinct makes the list for creating a branch of American literature all his own. Like his narrator, Vonnegurt was ill suited to be a solider and like his narrator, Vonnegurt was captured by the Germans at the battle of the bulge and like his narrator, placed in an abandoned Slaughterhouse (#5) where he and his fellow POWs and German guards survived the firestorm bombing of Dresden by hiding in a deep cellar at Schlachthof Fünf. 

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I liked The Shadow novels by Maxwell Grant. The Shadow knows!

Anonymous said...

I am the commenter who wants to see a woman's novel in your top ten. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I suggest you consider Great Gatsby.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Wharton's House of Mirth appears in the top ten of lots of GAN (oat) lists. Some of the lists are actually GEN (English Language) (oat). For those, if you take out the British/Irish books, Mirth rises to top ten.

Anonymous said...

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Anonymous said...

Lurvey is cute

Anonymous said...

I like Spy vs. Spy.

Anonymous said...

I like Slaughterhouse Five but I don't like your constant trashing of James Joyce. It seems like a straw man argument, since Joyce was far from American even though he has had an incredible influence on American writing (including William Faulkner, who I notices was on your list) and American culture in general. Joyce was like the Jimi Hendrix of literature--nothing was the same after him.

Anonymous said...

Where does Stan Lee fall on your list?

BTDT

Anonymous said...

Ok, can we move on to a more fun topic?

Anonymous said...

I want to wish you all a happy new year.

With all the b.s. and politics we see at MJB, we still have a bunch of us who really care about people and that's what really matters. I care. Many of you do too.

Let's all do what we can to make OUR community a better place in 2014!

Anonymous said...

Maybe in 2104 judge liefman will sit in a coutroom and do what we pay him to do.....rule against us!

Anonymous said...


The fact that Anais Nin liked Miller doesn't disguise the misogynistic character of this selection. I've read both books. As a young woman, I liked them a lot. But I ultimately thought that enjoying them entailed a shrinking of my personality. If you've read Nin's journals, you'll see she had a similar problem, a cringing submissive personality, maybe from conforming to conform the misogynistic milieu of Parisian artistic society of the time.

Although I recommended Nin to my teenaged (now grown) daughter, I didn't recommend Miller. Would you recommend these books to your daughter?

Rumpole said...

I would recommend Miller to my daughter at the appropriate time. I don't discount his misogyny, nor that of author #5 Norman Mailer. Yet, their voices have a place in literature and even if their ideas of sex and women are outdated and down right wrong. From a sexual and not social standpoint, what Miller wrote was what he experienced. And thus it was true. His writing can be no less discounted then a writer who doesn't like Van Gogh. or a writer who writes about a racist sheriff in the deep south. If that's what the writer sees, feels, experiences, and then writes about, then the writing as fiction ( as opposed to a political or social treatise) is genuine.

I don't think for one instant Miller was promoting his feelings of sex or his feelings towards women,. Contrast that to the racist film Birth of a Nation based on the novel The Clansman. The later is sub-political trash. The former is important fiction.
At least in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Rumpole,

This is your blog and your list reflecting your taste. I'm alerting you to the probability that women with whom you practice don't share it. Furthermore, they may find your hierarchy of values offensive. I know you intend no offense. I believe the quote from Nin is your way of saying you intend no offense. (Btw, Nin was Miller's lover; that, in combination with her submissiveness generally drains her endorsement of worth.)

It isn't a question of your listing PC novels rather than genuine classics. It's a question of understanding that your list reflects a set of values, by now means superior and by no means universal, and has an impact on your readers.


Anonymous said...

Where is the confederacy of dunnces? It must be in the top 5.

Anonymous said...

I suggest for number two: Huckleberry Finn.

But for number one, the great novel that catches the essential American experience of being the outsider looking in, which is true for all of us immigrants, all who settled the west, all who rose from lower roots to higher: The Great Gatsby. Daisy is the American Dream, our great not-quite-requited love.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was an intelligent well read person but this list is making me feel intellectually inferior. Besides having only read 2 of your six so far, (and not many one of the ones you reference but haven't included) I never seem to get such deep thoughts and revelations from my reading the way you and some commenters do. I don't consider myself a shallow person but I just don't get such profundity from reading some of the books on this or other GOAT lists.

Rumpole said...

8:16 am. I appreciate your comments and your criticism. I have often reflected why I generally don't like women authors. No real reason I can discern. I like PD James and Agatha Christie. I like Ayn Rand, but she was an exceptional difference.

I don't know a whole lot about Henry Miller's life. I know more about Norman Mailer and Mailer was a jerk to say the least. I admire his writing, Oswald's story for instance is very underrated.

I am not sure what you can discern from MY hierarchy of values. I haven't discussed them.

I have discussed the way I evaluate fiction. Admittedly, as a man, perhaps I have a different understanding of Miller's writing. But only to a degree. I am white, but racist writing affects me. I know Miller was a controversial choice. If I do this again. he is most likely to me replaced.

I would also ask to be judged on the full list, and not just 10-6.

Finally, I am not an authority in this field. Just well read with an opinion. The point of the list is what you are doing: discussion and debate. The last thing I want is 50 comments that agree with me. Boring.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

Anybody gonna do best and worst judges list for County and Circuit???

Anonymous said...

Best Murphy circuit, altfield county.

Anonymous said...

Rumpole,

You write: "I am white, but racist writing affects me." You don't write: "I am a man, but sexist writing affects me." Your list reflects sensitivity to racism. It doesn't reflect sensitivity to sexism. That's what I meant by saying your list reflects your values.

Anonymous said...

Rumpole,

At 11:46 am yesterday, you wrote "I have often reflected why I generally don't like womene authors." It may be for the same reason a lot of women don't readily like male authors -- their protagonists are men engaged in activities that tend to be interesting to men. You say you like PD James. Maybe that's because (in addition of course to her spectacular writing) her protagonist (Adam Dalgliesh) is male. As for Agatha Christie, I can't imagine, except that maybe you like crosswords, etc. and her books can be fun in the same way.

When I said women don't "readily" like male authors, I don't mean we don't or can't come to like them. We are made to read them in school and can and ofen do learn to like them. We could dismissively say 'that's a guy writing about a guy doing guy stuff' but your female blog readers were (for the most part) raised to get good grades and please authority. When it comes to reading authors like Melville and Faulkner (and of course many others), I'm grateful I was made to stretch enough to accommodate their consciousness/experience. (On the other hand, I think it's difficult for a woman to read Miller and not identify with his sexual conquests, an experience we're probably better off not absorbing.) If you had been made to read more female authors presented in school with the same reverence as Hemingway, you may have gotten over the consciousness hump and learned to love them.

I'm the same reader who, months ago, asked that you consider not posting sexist comments (e.g., 'if your fat middle-aged ass wants to bang a 20-year-old Latina, here's whatcha do.') I felt those kind of comments were hostile to your female colleagues (as it would be to your daughter/mother/wife/sister), in the same way racist and homophobic comments would be hostile to your gay or black colleagues. Because you clearly exercise some control over comments, I felt your publication of the sexist ones implied an endorsement I knew you didn't intend. I was real impressed and grateful that you took the request seriously.

I'm impressed and grateful that you're engaging in this dialog about your GAN choices.

Rumpole said...

4:57 AM : I wrote "I have discussed the way I evaluate fiction. Admittedly, as a man, perhaps I have a different understanding of Miller's writing. But only to a degree. "

By that phrase I was (poorly) communicating that while I had some insight as a man into Miller's thoughts, and thus some acceptance, it was only "to a degree" and beyond that degree I am affected in a negative way by sexist and misogynistic writing, thoughts, speech, ideas.

You have essentially said that I am not as acutely aware of such writings and thoughts as I am to say racism. You may well be right. But my slowness in response, my dullness to your acuteness, should not be seen as acceptance. Do I believe silence=acceptance? Yes. Do I believe failure to act against evil is almost as big a crime as evil itself? Yes. So I have some growing to do. But this is a very fine line here. I equate Miller with serious and superb fiction. I take it that you do not.

It is not my dullness or deafness to Miller's words that are at issue here. It is my interpretation of them, and that is a different kettle of fish.

Rumpole said...

10:31 AM. Thank you for recognizing some positive attributes. I must however confess a male-centirc attitude in reacting to what I considered the silly, fantasy writings of men and their unlikely sexual exploits with young women-
As I recall it was a MALE reader who complained to me that HE had daughters that age and the comments offended HIM.

I greatly believe in the power of self examination and introspection. And in reviewing what caused me to recognize the complaints and act upon them, it was, a man and a male's perspective. I write this as a method of critical self examination and acknowledgment that the female perspective affected me less. In other words I was deaf to complaints from female readers.
WOW. I am sad to see that in myself, but grateful for the learning opportunity. Failure is the greatest teacher, which is why I modestly write that I do not lose trials anymore.

I will say that in some cases I published the comments because I thought I was exposing the underside of lawyers. As a lawyer I have personally represented clients that were propositioned by prior lawyers. There is one DUI lawyer in particular that made a habit of doing that, and he knows who he is. I don't as a practice handle such cases, but refer them to an associate, but over a period of years his name came up repeatedly. So aware of this problem in our profession, I thought I was exposing it, but in reality I was not.

Anyway, I greatly appreciate your criticism and please do not hesitate to call me out when you think I need it.

HR.

Literati said...

Not sure I agree with Slaughterhouse Five but great choice with Naked and the Dead . Incredible to think that someone could write something like that at 25.

Anonymous said...

@1031 am comment reminds me of the scene in bull Durham where Annie savoy has nuke tied to her bed posts and proceeds to read Walt Whitman to him, to which he responds "are we gonna fuck or what?"

Anonymous said...

Who called the Shumie on 2013? And more importantly, when?

Anonymous said...

Rump your comment at 7:14:00 AM.You have a daughter?

Rumpole said...

Not necessarily. I was responding to what I considered the hypothetical question of whether I would recommend Miller to my daughter, assuming I had one.

Anonymous said...

Rumpole,

Your openness to my point of view has opened me to yours. I have decided to re-read Tropic of Cancer. If I find it to be as, well, cancerous as I did the last time (that was my second time, having liked it a lot the first time), I won't force myself through Capricorn again.

It's interesting to think about what an author means by his writing, what you mean by publishing it, and what your reader takes away from reading it on this blog.

I tend not to care much about the author's intent: as far as I'm concerned, the work is a found object, I can make of it whatever I want. (I protect myself this way from having to think badly about something I like. I recently saw Pacino on Broadway as Shylock, and experienced the play as brimming with compassion for the status of Jews in Venice. I think it's a defensible reading. But my resistance to knowing what Shakespeare meant is pretty childish.)

With regard to what you mean by publishing a work on your blog: Your GAN list contains by definition your enthusiastic endorsement. Your publication of comments (at least in the absence of express editorial critique or disavowal) implies endorsement, because you've made it clear you don't publish everything. So when you used to publish misogynist swill without critique or disavowal, it implied your endorsement. That may be unfair to you, and it's not a necessary reading, but it's a natural one given your editorial control over comments.

What the reader takes away is real subjective. A guy might have liked misogynist comments because he thought they were funny or even useful aids to sexual conquest. Someone could have read them as a useful expose, as you say, of the bar's skanky underbelly. I didn't. I reacted to them as if they were growling gargoyles guarding your blog against female invaders. And I know that's not what you meant. That's why I wrote to you about them. (FWIW, first time I've ever posted a comment on a blog, and of all those I read, yours is the only one to which I post comments.)

I don't of course mean to speak for your women readers generally. I'm a little surprised that I'm the only self-identified woman who has reacted to your list. (Or to those comments. I don't mean to overlook anyone else who complained. I've been reading your blog for only two years, and obviously missed earlier complaints.)

It's highly probable that your other female readers have better things to do at this time of year than engage with you on the sexual politics of literature. But is it possible you don't have that many female readers?

Rumpole said...

Women flock to me. It's just one of the crosses of fame that I bear/bare.

Aside from that, that you bring up the Merchant of Venice makes my point. It is a great work by a great writer. I often cite the mercy speech in court during those rare times I have a client being sentenced.

But I also find the work anti-semitic and I don;t think you can read the language and find it otherwise. It perpetuates a stereotype. But I can read it for the time it was written in. I can work past the anti-semetic language and find value in the work and there is much value to find, and I can excuse the stereotypical portrayal of Jews and still enjoy the work.

I think however the Miller works are different. I am sorry to tell you this but Men (at least many men) go through phases where they fantasize or otherwise discuss women in such coarse ways. It's in some ways like lockerroom talk. Having been a college athlete, I can tell you women are portrayed that way and much worse. Now in my time, it was accepted. I believe today that the best coaches would not accept women to be discussed that way.

You have to admit that much like from shakespeare's time to today, from Miller's time to today the treatment of women has evolved. It is not appropriate today for a man to call a woman "honey" for instance outside of a close relationship. A man couldn't say that in a demeaning way to a woman in public that he doesn't know. So in that sense, I give Miller some room, having written in the 1920's and exposed through shocking language the way men thought of women, much like Shakespeare, innocently for his time, wrote about Jews.

But I hope you see that this is difficult for me. You are correct and in a way I was not. And I realized that I need to think more closely about how women are portrayed. But discovering my flaw didn't lead me to change my mind about Miller's works.

Anonymous said...

There are "evolving standards of decency" in literature as in sentencing (and everything else). One test of greatness in literature may be whether the work is so unevolved as to be irrelevant or ridiculous or destructive in the present. Every author is influenced by contemporary conventions. But the great authors seem to stand apart from especially pernicious conventions. That's one reason I like Edith Wharton -- living in a time when women were as brutally constrained by conventions as they were by corsets, she criticized the conventions through her characters' consciousness and conflicts without ever sounding pedantic. Fitzgerald does that. Tolstoy does that. Faulkner does that. (Dreiser doesn't; too pedantic for my taste.)

Even if you think Merchant of Venice is disfigured by unself-conscious anti-Semitism (I don't), we give Shakespeare a pass because of the qualities of his work as a whole. I think one thing that saves Merchant (or Othello for that matter), is what makes everything he does so great. It's real complex, psychologically subtle stuff expressed in peerless poetry; you never tire of hearing it and always find something new.

Unfair of course to compare Miller to Shakespeare, but the question is whether his unevolved view of women (whom he writes about in everything) ultimately disfigures his work.

I am naturally aware of the coarse ways in which men talk about women, having lived among you and under you and on terms of great intimacy with you all my life. Adolescent males (chronologically or mentally or emotionally) are the most likely to objectify women for reasons I get and even feel for, having represented many over the years. I don't find Miller's words or point of view about women shockingly coarse, just unevolved in an adolescent sort of way, demeaning enough to be disfiguring.

But I look forward to the promised re-read of Tropic. Paris is my favorite city. It will be fun to re-visit from a different point of view, one I may have unfairly discounted.

Anonymous said...

Nuria Saenz has been a judge for a while; she has never been at REG, doing mostly civil at South Dade Courthouse when she was appointed several years ago, and then at Coral Gables Courthouse.

On a side note, why aren't there term limits for judges? Once appointed or elected, many seem to think and ACT like they are all-knowing dictators!