Thursday, October 20, 2005

Time's novel ideas


So is October "National Top 100 List Month" or something? Two days, two lists. This time it's Time Magazine's All-Time 100 Novels (by "All-Time," they mean "since Time Magazine has been published," not "all-time").

These lists are seemingly designed to make the average, or even above-average, reader feel unlettered. I generally plough through 3-5 books a week (more when I'm carrying a lighter workload), at least two of them novels ... and I've read 11 of the "top 100."

And, of course, the lists are also designed to elicit indignant retorts. Here are mine:

- The Sun Also Rises? Gimme a break. If Hemingway only gets one work on the list, it should be For Whom the Bell Tolls.

- If Margaret Atwood makes the list at all -- and I think she should -- The Handmaid's Tale is a much better selection than The Blind Assassin. No, not because it's more political. Because it's withstood the test of time -- it's still relevant after 20 years. The Blind Assassin has only been in print for five.

- Naturally, science fiction got short shrift. Nothing against William Gibson, and Neuromancer certainly rates, but I expected at least a nod to Ursula K. LeGuin (The Dispossessed), Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land or perhaps The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) or Frank Herbert (Dune). The only other sci-fi picks that aren't considered more in the vein of "high literature" are Ubik by Philip K. Dick (that's right -- not Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, not The Man in the Hight Castle, but Ubik) and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

- Speaking of Stephenson, confession: I haven't read Snow Crash yet (I'm waiting to come across a used copy, or to remember it when my Amazon gift certificate balance is flush). I'm told -- by people whose judgment I trust -- that it's good but not as good as the obvious pick, Cryptonomicon. True, the latter has only been around a year longer than the Atwood selection, but by Time's standards that's sufficient ... and it's secured its place as a masterpiece, albeit not a straight science fiction novel. I have no doubt that all three volumes of his "Baroque Cycle" (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) will stand the test of time as well.

- Nothing by Leon Uris. Nothing! What's up with that? Trinity, Exodus and especially Mila 18 would have all been worthwhile selections, and more importantly more worthwhile selections than many which were actually made.

- I didn't expect Ayn Rand to show up, but I might as well whine about it. Atlas Shrugged was incredibly influential. The Fountainhead was important. We the Living was, well, good.

- Yes, I know, Stephen King. He was robbed. Like it or not, he's the most influential novelist of the late 20th century. It's not like they had to pick Cujo or Firestarter. He's written some stuff that's just as heavyweight as anything that made the list (The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis -- although it might be considered a collection of novellas, I guess -- the several novels in the Dark Tower cycle, etc.).

Overall, I had to feel that Time's selection committee was splitting its ticket between the obvious nods to conventional wisdom (Lolita, Herzog) and the purposely, snootily obscure (the definition of infallible proof that someone's lying is when they try to convince you that they've actually made it through Gravity's Rainbow, let alone a second Pynchon novel -- The Crying of Lot 49 made the list as well). So, I clicked over to the description of the selection process and found out that the committee was comprised of ... two guys.

Two guys? To put together a major news magazine's list of the top 100 novels of the last 82 years? Whaaaa??? Two guys???

Now I understand. The guys (Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman), of course, are critics. I don't hold that against them (much). But even among critics, doesn't this seem like a rather shallow sampling for such a major undertaking?

In my estimation, Time's "100 All-Time Novels" just became "100 books recommended by two guys." A lot of the recommendations look worthwhile -- I'll be bookmarking the list and checking out some of the works I'd not gotten to (and the one or two I hadn't heard of) eventually, but how about truth in advertising? Let's do the real thing. You two -- pick the five books by living authors which you believe most worthy of inclusion. Then get those five authors (and maybe me) to select the other 95 books.

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