tiaras optional

"My only argument is with those who do not view the world as cynically as I do." Michael Korda

Friday, May 26, 2006

What Is It with Me and the Dead White Guys?

A couple of weeks back, a friend sent me the New York Times list of the best American fiction of the past 25 years. I glanced at it and noted, somewhat to my dismay, that I had read very few of the books. This week, Jordan Baker wrote a very interesting post about the list, and it got me thinking about the list in a bit more depth. Of the 22 books on the list (I’m following their somewhat flawed logic in counting four John Updike books and three Cormac McCarthy books as one book each), I’ve read only two*. I’ve heard of the majority of these books and authors, and I like to think of myself as fairly well read, so what gives? If you look at the Modern Library list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, I come out much better (although still not as well as Lord Kissington, but that’s a marital bone of contention I won’t drag you into). And when I found a list of Booker Prize winners and runners-up**, I realized that I had read a decent amount of them***. I also checked the Pulitzer Prize winners (have read a few) and the National Book Award winners (have barely heard of many of these). Looking at all these lists made me realize something: My favorite books tend to be by dead white guys, particularly dead white British guys. I also read stuff by women authors, but they’re pretty much all dead too.

My favorite writers include F. Scott Fitzgerald (dead, American, male), Thomas Hardy (dead, British, male), Evelyn Waugh (dead, British, male, despite the name), Nabokov (dead, Russian, but wrote his best works in English, male), James Joyce (dead, Irish, male), Marguerite Duras (dead, French, female), Nancy Mitford (dead, British, female), Jane Austen (dead, British, female), John O’Hara (dead, American, male), Alice Thomas Ellis (living, British, female), Don Delillo (living, American, male), Ian McEwen (living, British, male), and John Banville (living, Irish, male).

I also have some favorite books, but I don’t feel that I can put their authors in the above list because I’ve only read one book by them and it doesn’t seem quite right to rank them among my favorite authors yet.

Independent People, Halldor Laxness (dead, Icelandic, male)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (dead, British, female)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte (dead, British, female)
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (dead, British, male)
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (dead, British, male)
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (dead, American, male)****
I, Claudius, Robert Graves (dead, British, male)
The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (dead, American, male)
Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence (dead, British, male)

You can see a trend here. Not so diverse, unless you consider an Icelandic author to be an example of diversity*****. Why do I not read more contemporary living authors? Do I somehow feel that death legitimizes a writer? Or is it that we have 50 or 100 or more years of criticism to tell me that these books are the ones to read? The lack of contemporary Americans on my list might have something to do with this vague feeling that I’ve always had that American writers are trying a little too hard. British writers have been on top of the English language writing world for so long that they don’t have anything to prove. And maybe their colonial brethren are a little sensitive about that? I dunno, but I’m totally buying a copy of Beloved this weekend. Since Toni Morrison is living, female, American, and not white, I’ll be branching out all over the place. And since, according to the New York Times, it’s the top book of the last 25 years, I’m guessing it won’t suck.

*I’ve read another book by Denis Johnson, so maybe that gives me an eighth of a point or something?
**I really wanted to somehow use “shortlisted” as a noun here since it’s a term I lurve, but shortlisters didn’t quite work.
***Which is sort of interesting since I am always complaining about how a lot of Booker Prize winners aren’t “all that.” I think sometimes the jury favors beautifully written but ultimately cold books (see Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth).
****To be honest here, I have read other books by Hemingway, I just didn’t like them very much.
*****I’m guessing that the most famous writer (and one of the few translated into English) from a country populated by tall stunning blue-eyed types isn’t going to earn me a lot of diversity points.


  • At 5/28/06, 1:18 PM, Blogger JordanBaker said…

    One of the reasons I made the giant leap from medieval British to Contemporary American was because I was sick of not knowing who new writers were when people brought them up in conversation.

    Well, that and I figured my mediocre critical talents would be better appreciated if they weren't held up against hundreds of years of established scholarship.

    Well, that and I was failing Latin.

    But more on point: Toni Morrison may be living and female, but according to both academia people and bookstore people, she is also a stony bitch to work with/for. You never hear that said about Jane Austen.

  • At 5/29/06, 8:24 PM, Blogger schadenfreude said…

    same problem. and yes, it is because they've stood the test of time and I can be assured they're worthwhile on some level. limited number of books a person can read in one lifetime, don't want to waste time on mediocre books.

    and I never knew you were a fitzgerald fan. huh.

  • At 5/30/06, 9:30 PM, Blogger Lady Tiara said…

    jb: i am sick of not having heard of things, so i'm making an effort to change this. and everything i've heard about jane austen makes her sound like a lovely person.

    schadenfreude: this is a good point. i want some kind of stamp of approval before i waste my time on it. i love fitzgerald, particularly the great gatsby. my mother is completely obsessed with f. scott, and when i was in high school, she made me visit his grave with her (it's right off rockville pike, so it's not like we had to go far).

  • At 7/23/07, 3:52 AM, Blogger Professor Batty said…

    ... offered in the hope that my comments are better late than never; Halldor Laxness wrote several great novels, I especially recommend Fish Can Sing and Salka Valka. Salka is a rare book in English- its been out of print for over 45 years, but well worth the effort to get it. "Iceland's Bell" is also tremendous, although it is a "historical" novel and a little ponderous at times...


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