Friday, July 17, 2009

Which Novels Would You Kick Out of the Literary Canon

Noah Millman at The American Scene has an interesting twist on the usual desert island question. He asks which books you would vote off a desert island. The rules are quite simple. The novels should be generally well-regarded and should not be a minor work by a major novelist. So, while Midnight's Children would be eligible, The Moor's Last Sigh would not.

Here's my list:

1: James Joyce- Ulysses

I am not including what is widely considered to be the greatest novel ever just to be a contrarian. I have genuine difficulty getting past the first 50 pages and I must have made at least half-a-dozen attempts. I even took a class on Ulysses at college but dropped it after a week.

I'm a huge comic-book fan and when the Watchmen movie came out a lot of friends borrowed my copy. Most came away disappointed. I would explain to them that to appreciate Watchmen they needed a solid grounding in superhero comics, needed to understand just how much the quality had dropped by the 1980s and understand the conventions of the genre. Watchmen was an act of revolt against superhero comic strictures and to make that the first comic you read is akin to trying to make sense of the French Revolution without knowing anything that came before it.

Fans of Joyce have made a similar argument about Ulysses. They argue that Ulysses was a successful to redefine the novel and throw off its shackles. I even read a piece calling it (and this was meant as praise) an act of terrorism against the novel. If that is the best case that can be made for Ulysses, I just don't buy it. Superhero comics needed to be reinvented in the 1980s, the novel was doing just fine in the 1930s.

I'm humble enough to admit that the fault must lie in me. I may even attempt to read Ulysses some time in the future and hope I have become smart enough to get it. Until then, I'm chucking it in the ocean. I might add that the only reason One Hundred Years of Solitutde isn't on the list is because I have exactly the same objections to it as I do to Ulysses.

2: Ayn Rand- Atlas Shrugged

I doubt this will be a controversial choice. Very few people above the age of 16 (other than right-wingers with the mental faculties of a 16-year-old) defend the literary merit of Rand's novels. She has only two stock characters: strawmen and the caricatures who take them apart. John Galt may be the worst example of this. His speechifying bears no relation to language as spoken by human beings. Plot exists only to further her political propoganda. instead of using characters towards whom she is unsympathetic to further our understanding of human impulses and emotions, she merely categorizes them as The Looters and is done explaining their motivations.

3: Jack Kerouac - On the Road

As the legend goes, Kerouac banged out the novel in a six-day frenzy. It shows. There are passages of lyrical genius, but one has to wade through too much pointless dreck to make it worthwhile. There really isn't much to say about On the Road - which in itself is a indication of how ordainary it is. On the Road has often been compared to improvisitional jazz, something else I that sounds much better in theory than practise.

4: F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

I actually quite like this short novel but am including it on the list because it is vastly overrated. The plot wouldn't be out of place in a soap opera and the character's actions seem driven by plot needs. Yet, the final sentence ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past) is so perfect it lends what came before it a gravitas it doesn't deserve. Never before had such brilliant writing been wasted on a story so thin and unsatisfying.

5: Herman Mellville - Moby Dick

If you just removed all the dull ocean and whaling tutorials, there's a decent adevnture story hiding in there somewhere. Good luck finding it though.

Over to you guys. Make your lists in the comments and explain why I'm such a dumbass.


Asfandyar said...

Salinger's Catcher In The Rye.

What a load of absolute toss.

Anonymous said...

The End of the Affair -- Graham Greene

Ayn Rand

Lara said...


A Passage to India -- E. M. Forster

Majaz said...

You'd chuck Ulysses because you didn't get it?

Maybe all the time in the deserted island is exactly what one needs to get it. :P

I'd chuck some Russian drivel. Anna Karenina or War and Peace probably. Too much lovemaking and war. Too little time for literature.

Having said that.. I think it's kinda grandiose to chuck major works of literary fiction out in the sea just because I don't like em.

Just a thought.

Ahsan said...

I think I've blogged about this before, but I never got through/found funny "Catch 22".

bubs said...

Afandyar: I think Catcher in the Rye is overrated because of the mystique surrounding Salinger but I still liked it.

Anon956: Love Graham Greene.

Lara: Agreed. I was very close to including Passage to India on the list.

Majaz: Never had the courage to read War and Peace.

Of course I don't mean literally chuck in the sea. Just want their reputations to be diminished.

Ahsan: You did, and I remember being very shocked in the comments.

Asad said...

The Unberable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

Bits of great writing in a story that is just impossible to care about.

Another one of those highly overrated ones.

JJY said...

Asad, calling a book highly overrated because you didn't care for it seems just a little bit obnoxious.
That being said, I have no desire to read Ulysses. Tried it once, failed, and have happily closed that chapter.

karachi khatmal said...

i am appalled that catch-22 made it in this list. appalled. same goes for 100 years of solitude, though to be fair i appreciated it much more once someone explained the lietmotifs to me.

but ullyses, hell yeah. i mean its impossible. then again i could never go through russians or kafka either, so i'm not the best judge.

bubs said...

Karachi Khatmal: Catch-22 wasn't on my list; it's Ahsan who didn't care for it. I think it's brilliant although some parts don't work.

Give Kafka another try. Especially The Trial. Failing that watch the Orson Welles movie adaptation.

nb- said...

The Great Gastby almost made me cry because of the brilliant writing -but moreso because of the incredibly faggoty storyline in comparison. I still might sometime take it along on an island though, for Fitzgerald's writing.

I would chuck out
The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

somethingrichandstrange said...

ahsan, you didn't like catch-22? sigh, i've lost a little of my respect for you.
bubs, agree vehemently with your choice of ulysses. i don't approve of your inclusion of atlas shrugged, for the simple reason that it is so obviously mere drivel. there are so many contenders. i wouldn't include marquez's one hundred years of solitude only because of sentimental reasons: it was my first boyfriend's favorite book, and the writing sounded beautiful when he read it aloud to me. i have no such qualms about 'love in the time of cholera' though. i would dismiss marquez based on these two books, but many of his short stories are brilliant, and i'm really partial to 'of love and other demons' too.
i would include rushdie's 'satanic verses'. what a shitty book. some of his other stuff is brilliant, but he is a tedious writer and it shows a little too much in verses.
i would put a.s byatt's possession on this list. and i'm slightly ashamed to say that i would chuck toni morrison's beloved. and achebe's things fall apart.
guys, don't hate on kundera, or the russians, or roy. it makes me sad. asfandyar, read franny and zooey by salinger, you might appreciate that more. and you might just be moved enough to read his short stories.

somethingrichandstrange said...

oh and i would also chuck everything ever written by faulkner.

bubs said...

NB: I didn't think anyone rated God of Small Things any more.

somethingrichandstrange: Your boyfriend read out novels out you? It's guys like that who give guys like me, who wouldn't even read bedtime stories to our kids, such a bad name.
I didn't get Satanic Verses either. But since I limited it to an author's most highly regarded works Satanic Verses wouldn't qualify.

nb- said...

Doesn't matter, the book pisses the hell out of me.

and I am not the NB from this blog, just clarifying that, neither did I steal the pseudonym.

hemlock said...

a suitable boy - vikram seth.

arataster said...

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. That man makes my blood boil.

Laila said...

this is going to anger a lot of people but can I please vote for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I know its supposed to be brilliant, innovative, blah de blah blah, and I really believe that books are better than movies, but in this case I feel like the movies suffice just fine. Oh and the hobbit too. that book is seriously quite boring.

bubs said...

Hemlock: The trial stuff in A Suitable Boy can get a bit tedious. I think you have to love Russian literature to love Vikram Seth.

Arataster: To make the steam rise, check out Paulo Coelho's Twitter feed.

Laila: I'm actually surprised Lord of the Rings is as popular as it is. Books with dense mythology tend to be cult favourites rather than massive commercial successes. Oh, and you made me sad rather than angry.

Laila said...

well what can I say, I guess I just prefer my fantasy novels to be in the shape of a 17 year old wizard bearing lightening scars on his forehead.

Also most people get disillusioned by reading A Suitable Boy, but Vikram Seth has another novel that is absolutely amazing, An Equal Music. Hands down one of my favourite books. And a whole lot more interesting than A Suitable Boy.

zeyd said...

If you wanna 'get' Ulysses, then just read ''Ithaca'', the penultimate chapter. It's basically Joyce having a Q and A session with himself, about the novel, it's purpose, direction, and relevance.

And then feel free to move on to Molly Bloom's soliloquy which is feminine stream of consciousness at it's finest. I think there are about 7 fullstops in 30 odd pages. The continuous female affirmation ('Yes') provides the launchpad to Finnegan's Wake where Joyce indeed becomes a woman.

Crazy motherfucker.