Saturday, 24 July 2010

Finally, a Top 100 list that I like

Rarely do I agree, when talking about novels, with the top of any kind of list or chart. But is this just my rebellious nature, or a function of my peculiar tastes? If it's the latter, does that mean my own writing will be neither literary, nor popular?

Take the bestseller charts, for instance, According to Amazon, their novel sales chart for the last decade is headed by two authors, JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, who, in fact, populate the top seven slots. Khaled Hosseini (with two) and Audrey Niffenegger round out the top ten, so there is representation for well-written novels at least. Another phenomenon bubbling under is Dan Brown and his Robert Langdon novels.

What Rowling, Meyer and Brown have in common, apart from swelling bank accounts, is, in my opinion, an inability to write prose - the text on their pages appears to me to be a word-jumble. I'm not the only one who thinks this; other commentators have commented on the writing abilities of Rowling, Meyer and Brown. This is not the authors' fault; after all, they don't self-publish. What's unforgivable is publishers’ lack of editing intervention with authors who can't write. Many commentators mourn the loss of editing skills, and I'm on board with that sentiment

What these authors have done, however, is sense zeitgeists (or jump start one in Rowling’s case), and engineer parallel universes in which readers are prepared to invest their money and time. Rowling professes to have spent the best part of a decade creating Potterworld, and it shows. Her plots are complex, reaching across all seven volumes, and she inhabits her characters with the strength of knowing exactly what each would do in any given situation. Her approach is most uncommon; but it should not be. Meyer has been less creative but blended the eternal lure of vampires with teenage angst. Brown struck gold with his own blend of conspiracy theory and puzzles.

Second Stage Lensmen - EE Doc Smith: Grafton

So, the common reader is able to transcend the literary shortcomings of these authors, as well as their characters’ lack of depth, and escape into an alternate existence. I've done the same with what would be considered to be pulp science fiction, written sixty or seventy years ago (ah, EE Doc Smith), but I still can’t read these authors. So, have I become a literary snob?

Far from it. Many Man Booker prize-winning tomes I've bought in good faith have become pristine condition bookends for novels that have seriously creased spines, or worse, act as coffee table decoration advertising my own literary ambitions. I was proud of my efforts to reach page 122 (of 521) of the Blind Assassin. I was a little less pleased with my meagre thirty-one page effort on Atonement, despite McEwan’s much vaunted position at the top of Britain’s literati. I find that some of these high-brow novels have no sense of pace, or more accurately, no pace whatsoever. Now I’m not demanding a Clive Cussler ripsnorter that can be devoured in one sitting, but the languidity with which some prize-winning novels plod on gives me the desire to reach into my own abdomen with my bare hands and pluck out my spleen.

All of which is why I am pleased with the Times’ Top 100 Books of the Decade (no longer available at the original site due to The Times' ridiculous requirement for paid subscribtions).

Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth: Pantheon Graphic Novels

Firstly, any list that recognises Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth is a list worth reading. Chris Ware’s comedic-yet-poignant graphic novel is clever and disturbing - and unforgettable. But hold on, another graphic novel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, sits at #2. As different to Jimmy Corrigan in style and content as it’s possible to get, it yanks all the same emotions while educating us.

Non-fiction also takes pride of place in the list’s upper echelons with the intriguing connectivity of Freakonomics, the oh-so-digestible Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point, and the brilliant marmite-covered Richard Dawkins and his deity-busting The God Delusion. Sure, Rowling, Meyer and Brown all get a mention, but how can these phenomena not?

So, what was #1?

The Road: Dimension Films

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: easily the best novel I’ve read in the last few years. On the face of it, the story shouldn’t work. A man and a boy walk along the remains of a road in a post-apocalyptic USA. Sometimes they find shelter; sometimes they find food; sometimes they hide from the few other survivors. There are no wizards, vampires or cryptologists (?); there are certainly no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’; no-one - definitely no-one – saves the world.

In fact, hardly anything happens at all; The Road sounds like a combination of all the things I dislike about bestsellers and prize-winners. So, why did I forego nutrition, hydration, and companionship to finish the book? Well, I’ll be rereading it this summer with my critical eye switched on, and I’ll post my findings.

Of course, I don't write like Cormac McCarthy, so the fact he tops the list doesn't help. However, one skill a writer requires is judgement, and right now I feel that my own judgement is worth a bit more than it used to be.

Happy reading.