(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)
So yes, it's true, last week I finally reached essay #50 in my massive, ongoing "CCLaP 100" series, in which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "literary classics" then write funny yet informative reports on whether or not they deserve the label, a project which I had originally thought would take me two to three years, but at this rate will take a full five (sigh), so I thought I would mark the occasion by writing a new mid-project essay on all the things I've now learned. Because don't forget, the whole reason I took this project on was as a form of self-assigned homework in my new role in life as book critic; after all, it was actually photography I studied in college and math in high school (back when I was planning on becoming a computer programmer), so my personal history with the "canon" of great books is woefully lacking in relative terms to other critics. And this actively affects the quality of my current reviews; because after all, if you don't know what came before, how can you possibly provide a deep analysis of what's happening now?
So that's why the selection of titles in this list might seem odd at points (for example, like reading Alice Through the Lookingglass instead of Alice in Wonderland), because of me having already read certain undisputed classics many times in the past, while this project itself is ultimately an attempt to learn more about what I don't already know. And indeed, as I said in my introductory essay to this project, this was a big surprise I learned about this subject even before doing any reading at all, of just how much disagreement there is over what makes up the "classics" in the first place, with me for example coming up with an overwhelming 400+ final choices for what to include in my own list, merely by consolidating five other well-known lists that already exist (specifically, the list of Pulitzer winners, the list of Hugo winners, Project Gutenberg's top 100 downloaded authors, the Everyman's Library 100 Essentials, and the Modern Library's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century). And in fact, if we're to look at the surprises I've also come across since starting the series, this would probably be the biggest one, of just how relative the entire concept of "classic" seems to be from one generation to the next, not the static etched-in-stone decree that we often think of when thinking of a portentous title like "Greatest Novels Of All Time," but rather a fluid list of hotly contested suggestions that rise and fall from one decade to the next, depending on the mores of that particular age.
And even further than this, if you look at the history of literature from our days roughly back to the Renaissance, which for the most part (with a few exceptions) is where the CCLaP 100 starts, you can even see a relative similarity to what the people of any generation thinks of the books that have come before them -- how novels less than 25 years old tend to only be loved by the young and transgressive, how ones roughly 25 to 75 years old are intensely embraced by academes and make up the bulk of that generation's "classics" list, and how after 75 years or so in age, the number of "famous" novels tends to significantly drop, with those left more and more admired for historical reasons, or for being prescient looks at the new reality that particular generation is going through. And so that's why, to cite one good example, here in the early 2000s, John Updike is the big sweetheart of the professor crowd, although I predict will be relatively obscure in just another 50 years from now, much like how 50 years ago it was Theodore Dreiser who was the big hot darling of the ivory tower, but by now is barely remembered. And that's why it also seems like the fantastical novels of people like Robert Louis Stevenson, HG Wells or Jules Verne are right now going through a new resurgence in popularity, after being largely dismissed by 20th-century Modernist audiences as frivolous kiddie fare; because in our "Age of Sincerity" times, we are profoundly re-examining as a society what exact relationship exists between so-called "genre" projects versus mainstream culture, so of course we're naturally attracted to the Late Victorian artists who first blazed the way.
So what else has come as a surprise since starting the CCLaP 100? Well, the other big thing would be the realization of just how little the "novel" has been around in the first place as a distinct artistic form, when it seems sometimes anymore that it's always been the standard by which we judge all other artistic media; after all, despite a smattering of prototypes over the centuries, the idea of book-length single narrative fictional tales didn't really come into its own until the end of the Enlightenment, right at the turn of the 19th century, and even then was used almost exclusively for selling ridiculously melodramatic supernatural love-story thrillers to bored housewives (sigh, will times never change). And in fact, this too points to a more general rule you can make about the arts since the Renaissance -- that although the human need for hearing well-done stories is a constant that connects our species over history, the dominant format for conveying those stories has profoundly changed from age to age, due to a combination of technological innovation and society's various literacy rates (literate in reading, literate in media, etc). And thus in the 1600s, for example, did painting and poetry seem to dominate the mainstream arts, changing to orchestral music and non-fiction in the 1700s, then novels and plays in the 1800s, and then movies and broadcast media in the 1900s, just like I feel that the 21st century will eventually come to be dominated by the internet and narrative videogames, if history is any indication.
And yes, the history of novels can also be re-defined in relative terms to show the natural progression and maturation of any of these major art forms just mentioned, if for example you state it in the following generalized way...
--For its first 75 years as a distinct art form (say, 1775 to 1850, the first half of both Romanticism and the Victorian Age), novels were essentially dismissed by the mainstream as frivolous entertainment, fit only for bored women and violent children;
--Then for the next 75 years (or 1850 to generally 1920, the end of World War One), you saw more and more children of that first era turn in weighty and complex novels here and there for the first time, defining the rules by which that format would eventually be known, even as the format grew in those same years to become the most commercially lucrative area of the arts;
--Then in the 50 years after that (say, 1920 to 1970, the entire length of Early and Mid-Century Modernism), novels finally became eagerly embraced by the academic community for the first time, which is when you first saw a profound jump in analysis-worthy experimentation, as well as the establishment of most of our modern literary awards and MFA programs (and best-of lists for that matter);
--And then in the 40 years since (1970 to the present), you've seen novels become the victim of the academic community instead of its beneficiary, with the biggest books of the industry eventually becoming so obtuse and insular that it literally drove away the mainstream, right into the hands of the next artistic format to become the new mainstream.
It's a blueprint, I've come to realize, that you can layer on top of just about any major artistic medium and get a surprisingly exact match to what actually happened, depending on the age of that particular medium; for example, everything I just mentioned and more has already happened in the history of painting, while you might count television right now as just starting to hit level three (the rise in daring experiments and a broader embrace by academes), while videogames in the early 2000s are just now breaking into level two, with certain titles making their fans breathlessly declare, "This is art, maaan," while the academes still largely roll their eyes, even as the industry itself is now making billions and billions of dollars a year in an era when almost every other artistic medium is taking a giant hit.
In any case, I look forward to examining a whole new series of fascinating books over the next two and a half years and presenting you with my findings; and I'm of course surprised and grateful that all of CCLaP's readers have made this essay series easily the most popular thing the center does, as well as a perennial favorite over at such literary social networks as Shelfari, LibraryThing, and Goodreads. (And don't forget, the first 33 essays of the CCLaP 100 are also available as a free downloadable ebook; volume two will be coming out at the end of 66 essays, or in other words next summer.) I thought I'd leave you today with some best-of lists, because best-of lists are always fun; but since we're only discussing a portion of the total books that will eventually be reviewed, I suppose I should make these "top 7" lists instead of the usual top-10s, each of them presented with their titles in chronological order. So without further ado...
Top Seven Pleasurable Surprises
1) Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: This medieval classic is still hilarious and ribald to this day, not only the first English "bestseller" after the invention of movable type, but the one title that most helped define the modern language.
2) Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: This anti-slavery melodrama is unexpectedly violent and powerful, given what a bad reputation it's picked up since the civil-rights era.
3) Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island: Still a thrilling Victorian tale full of legitimate surprises; what a shame that Stevenson died in his forties before writing any truly brilliant works.
4) Bram Stoker's Dracula: No wonder it's sparked its own subgenre; this Late Victorian horror story is still surprisingly erotic and heart-pounding.
5) Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence: Writing at the top of her game, Wharton tells a tale of 1870 in 1920, using the Victorian "New Woman" to speaking complexly and metaphorically about Modernist flappers, much like how the Korean War movie M*A*S*H is actually about Vietnam.
6) Albert Camus' The Plague: Turns out that this 1940s Existentialist primer is not nearly as hard to understand as its reputation has it, and meanwhile is one of the best symbolic stories about the Nazis ever written.
7) Toni Morrison's Beloved: A powerful story about black women that helped usher in the Late Postmodernist era, its controversial use of "ebonics" turns out to be no harder to understand to modern ears than frilly Genteel writing from the 1800s is.
Top Seven Disappointments
1) Sun Tzu's The Art of War: Although it can certainly be seen as metaphorical at points, this ancient Taoist strategy guide is more literal than expected, with big parts only of use to his fellow horse-riding shoguns from two thousand years ago.
2) Henry James' Washington Square: It's hard to know where exactly to start with the work of James, with his early novels being epic family-drama doorstops and his later ones almost unreadable experiments; but it turns out that instead of his short work being accessible introductions, they're mostly lackluster appetizers.
3) George Bernard Shaw's Candida: Perhaps this will change when I read more of his work, but upon first reflection, the plays of the revered Shaw seem not much different than the average modern sitcom, easy jokes about middle-class foibles that are all neatly summed up by the end.
4) Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson: It seems that this slight absurdist comedy about Edwardian Oxford is only up for consideration in the first place in an attempt to not forget Beerbohm, much more famous in his time as a critic and essayist; but that's no reason to add a subpar book to a classics list.
5) William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: In my opinion, a little experimentation goes a long way, which is maybe why the Modernist Faulkner is much better known for his stream-of-consciousness short stories than for overlong full-length books like this one.
6) William Golding's Lord of the Flies: A case of misclassification, this should rightly be considered in the list of "best Young Adult fiction," if Golding hadn't been busy helping to invent the term in the first place; because as an adult novel, it is overly simplistic and predictable.
7) John Updike's Rabbit, Run: According to its fans, this book singlehandedly ushered in the Postmodernist movement, but maybe that's the problem -- it's mean-spirited, concentrates too much on pretty language instead of an engaging plot, and obsesses over irony and pop-culture, exactly the worst traits of literature in the 50 years since.
Top Seven Reflections Of Their Times
1) Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels: Witty, symbolic political satires were all the rage during the Enlightenment, and there's a reason this nearly perfect one is still read to this day, when almost all the others have fallen into forgotten obscurity.
2) Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey: This charming story of a late-1700s teenage girl with an overactive imagination becoming obsessed with Gothic novels not only exactly mirrors the pop-culture of its times, but complexly examines the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism in those same years.
3) William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair: If you want a microcosm of everything Victorian literature stood for, you don't have to go much farther than this bitterly funny saga about dysfunctional families and the British class system.
4) Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: A great example of how rural folk tales and the post-Civil-War Pastoral movement mixed with the finery of Victorianism in America in the late 1800s, making Twain a big star for the first time expressly for presenting a vision of the US that didn't really exist, but that people desperately wanted to believe in.
5) Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie: Branded as obscene when first released, this Chicago-based novel was simply reflecting its turn-of-the-20th-century times, including an increasing support among the general population for cohabitation without marriage, and of women having the right to their own careers (even as -- gasp -- big-city showgirl floozies).
6) JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: Perhaps one of the best records ever made of Mid-Century Modernist times -- including not only the mix of yearning and pessimism among post-WW2 audiences, but the quick rise of teens in the postwar years into their own important market segment, leading to the "generation gap" that would define the next half-century.
7) Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: If you're looking for just one book to most sum up what the countercultural years of Early Postmodernism were like, you could do worse than to pick this trippy science-fiction feminist classic, daring and experimental in both tone and content.
Top Seven Must-Reads
1) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A brilliant examination of early Romanticism and the growing fears about modern science, as well as one of the books to literally help create the horror genre and coin the phrase "mad scientist."
2) Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre: About as Victorian as Victorianism gets, this book seemingly has it all, from the Byronic hero to the mad woman in the attic, the crumbling Gothic mansion, an analysis of British colonialism and aristocracy, sexual tension you can cut with a knife, and a lot more.
3) Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary: Basically the very first novel in history to be written the same way we still do it now, this mid-Victorian character study to this day still inspires passionate opinions about its ultra-complex main hero/villain victim/manipulator.
4) Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: This fascinating and infinitely thought-provoking family saga is essentially the domestic version of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and will forever change the way you think of insightful thousand-page Russian epics.
5) Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Despite the negative reputation it picked up in the countercultural years, this masterfully dark thriller complexly warns of the hidden dangers, limits and ultimate downfall of the British Empire, a full twenty years before the events actually started occurring.
6) F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: Showing that hype is sometimes true, this might indeed actually be the greatest novel ever written, a nearly perfect combination of plot, character and theme that went a long way towards explaining the bitter, fatalistic, sex- and drug-embracing "Lost Generation" that emerged after World War One.
7) Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer: And speaking of the Lost Generation, this is a great companion piece, using the brand-new stream-of-consciousness technique to explain what happened to the jaded broke artists who stuck around Europe after the war.