Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Two Views on the 100 Best Novels

Thanks to John Lewis for offering these two lists.
One is compiled by the experts and the other by ordinary readers. The experts rate Joyce’s ULYSSES first, and the people Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. I find both those books more or less unreadable. The people confirm the controversial judgment of candidate Romney on the excellence of L. Ron Hubbard’s fiction, and so that might be grounds for hope that his tastes and habits will resonate with the voters. The experts more or less go along with the birthday assertion that Fitzgerald and Faulkner are the best among the Americans. But I never said that was my view. Let me reveal my feminist side by asserting that a powerful case could be made that the most penetrating American writers of fiction are Willa Cather and Flannery O’Connor.

Discussions - 17 Comments

My goodness, the top two from the Reader's list were from Ayn Rand. Who were these "Readers?" High school girls experiencing their first pseudo-philosophical crisis?

Both lists are heavily skewed to the particular point of view represented by their respective class -- academics who favor that which separates them from the ordinary people; science fiction buffs and libertarians who see deep significance in insignificant things.

I'll grant Catch-22 ... I enjoyed reading that.

The heavy presence of Ayn Rand's and L. Ron Hubbard's works suggests a concerted effort by that class of readers to "game" the vote. Reminds me of baseball all star voting when the Cincinnati fans picked all their home team players! I read and enjoyed Rand's novels 40+ years ago and was grateful for an alternative to the gloomy existential garbage that made the English majors' hearts flutter. For me, fortunately, Rand turned out to be a step toward political philosophy rather than dead-end libertarianism. There is a lot of overlap in the two lists as you go through it, which is somewhat encouraging. The high rank of Orwell is even more so.

The enduring appeal of Rand to certain youth looking for something beyond the politically correct is interesting, and not all bad.
Now: to jump on Peter's feminist bandwagon, let me nominate: Marilyn Robinson, for GILEAD. I think this is one for the ages, friends -- I wouldn't have dared to say it on my own authority (I can't claim to read all that much fiction), but I have chanced upon two friends who teach literature who are equally enthusiastic about this exquisitely thoughtful and unobtrusively reverent work.

Let me heartily second Ralph's vote for Marilyn Robinson's "Gilead". It's to be savored. (Jeff Hart's review in NR begins: "Great prose makes things happen....") And, during a drive from the Mountain West to the Midwest early this summer, I took a detour full of 90' turns to visit Willa Cather's hometown of Red Cloud, NE. Wonderful museum there in her honor, with some unexpected "finds" of books and DVDs. And the sandwich shop next door serves a mean milkshake. Worth the lengthy detour off I-80. Alas, the books rest on my window sill, accusing me silently, and asking when they'll migrate to the bedstand.

As Ralph's friendly neighbor to the north, I third his endorsement of Marilyn Robinson, both of whose books, Gilead and Housekeeping, are stylistically beautiful and very interesting. We may even be on to a theory here, gentlemen, about the superiority of women as writers of fiction. Women excel at understanding relationships, human psychology, and the subtleties of emotion; between Cather, Robinson, O'Connor, and Austen, we have some of the greatest novelists; the male novelists are often much more abstract, preachy, and theoretical, which makes them interesting (especially to men), but lesser novelists.

Tony, I like your observations about the manly and delightful prose of Ambrose, McCullough, and I think there may be something to your suspicion that many would-be manly novelists have inclined today toward non-fiction. Still, I have some manly candidates for you: first, Mark Helprin and John Steinbeck. Helprin, of course, is more contemporary than Steinbeck--but Steinbeck writes about the 20th century (not that long ago!) and has not been mentioned yet. Besides, Tortilla Flat is one of the best novels I have ever read for its development of male characters and their friendships. I would also add Larry McMurtry to the list (esp. Lonesome Dove) and perhaps, also, Cormac McCarthy and Norman Maclean. There's certainly plenty of the Godly in A River Runs Through It and I don't think it is at all mocked.

My computer just crashed which you folks can count as a blessing, since you will be deprived of one of my longest rants ever. Some things I explained...the cannon. Why the humanities was really facing a meltdown...why Ayn Rand was right and how she was wrong in The New Intellectual and how you guys are apparently clueless in recycling her arguments in discussions of moral decay. I also explained why Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto is superior by a long shot to almost all the other views on art. I explained why Ayn Rand is not a libertarian and her differences with Von Mises, along the lines of the New Intellectual vs. the subjectivist strain/premise of Human Action/Austrian Economics/modern Libertarian thought...all this was linked to difficulties inherent in the simplification that must occur to accept the New Intellectual premise. I accomplished all of this in five hours...LOL. But I guess I will repost the following links: On why Ayn Rand's art is best

But this is working backwards... I actually started by giving another list

I then threw down the gauntlet at academia in general and humanity departments in particualr for snobishly attacking the reading public and attempting to tell it what could be meaningful/influential. I called them lawgivers without the force of law. It was rather cute and clever...I am sorry you were all deprived. I endorsed all the novels on the top 10, including Gone with the Wind. I talked about how Ayn Rand represented Harper Lee's to kill a mockingbird represented John Stuart Mill's dominion on the american mind...and I concluded by talking about how Tolkien represented fotenotes to Plato...I digressed into a discussion on the ring of gyges and then transitioned into Allan Bloom I took some cheap shots and some quite accurate...I quoted Atlas Shrugged where Francisco is caught studying engines and is rebuked for not which he replies that the junkyard is his library. I ended with some quotes by Twain and Ortega y Gasset and my message was quite poignant. Of course a lot of it was nonsense...but in my opinion no more than my fair share among all that passes for argument in the humanities...

I find it interesting that so many of Robert Heinlein's novels are on the reader's list. He certainly had a non-liberal view of government and individual responsibility.

Thanks, Julie. I have actually not read Helprin though I see him often on the pages of I'll also take a look at the Steinbeck novel - I have not (attempted) to read him since the first few hundred pages of the unfinished "Grapes of Wrath" several years back. I like A River Runs Through It and read part of Young Men & Fire recently but he's one of the only authors I can say that I thought the movie better than the book.

My previous comments notwithstanding, I certainly like female authors and they get men right occasionally. Atticus Finch is one of the manliest men around.

Why do you think Romney likes L.Ron Hubbard's dreck? Has he said as much? You're not confusing Mormons with Scientologists, are you?

Oh, sorry, never mind. I googled and see that Romney apparently does like that dreck. Odd that a Mormon would be attracted to another, totally different, non-mainstream religion. Or is there a connection?

Where are the manly novelists who penned the characters from Homer, Beowulf, and Shakespeare, & Co.

There are still some out there, and they do pretty well. Have you read Bernard Cornwell?

My computer just crashed ..

John, it sounds like it may have run out of space!

John, Yes well it did run out of space...The more I think about it...the more memory serves me...the more it seems that this "lost" essay was longer than Atlas Shrugged, as didatic and twice as unrelenting.

Tony, Atticus Finch one of the "manliest men" around? Hum... I was thinking Atticus Finch: John Stuart Mill's prototype...whom Nietzsche might not say is the manliest of men. But I like To Kill a Mockingbird. I suppose that one of these days I will get around to reading Harvey Mansfield's Manliness just so I can figure out what exactly it is that you folk mean by manliness...but first I am going to read Machiavelli's discourses on Livy...

What is great literature? Titles like these: "Ch.5 Where the Guard of Freedom May Be Settled More Securely, in the People or in the Great: and Which Has greater Cause for Tumult, He who Wishes to Aquire or He Who Wishes to Maintain." or this: "Ch.7 How Far Accusations May be Necessary in a Republic to Maintain It in Freedom." "Ch.10 As Much As the Founders of a Republic and a Kingdom Are Praiseworthy, So Much Those of a Tyranny Are Worthy of Reproach."

I have been shamefully absent, but I second in spades the accolades accorded Willa Cather and Marlilyn Robinson's Gilead, which I have taken to giving as graduation gifts to my students. Don't neglect Cather's Lucy Gayheart. Ralph McInerny has a lovely essay on Cather in his recent "Some Catholic Writers." And by the way, nota bene Andrew Ferguson's PERFECT takedown of Ayn Rand and Allen Greenspan in the new Weekly Standard.

Just re-read Tony's original comment above and I have to say that there is a lot in it worthy of consideration. Over the weekend I read Ambrose's book on Friendship called Comrades and what I liked about it was that his prose is observational and thoughtful. He sees something, he thinks about it, he chews over it and he reports his findings. That is what a good novelist should do. It is, I think, something that Tony is right to think lacking more in today's male fiction writers than among the females. The greatness they so desire has eschewed that "beaten path" and so they try to write epics of symbolism and modern theory. It is intensely boring. But the writer who most comes to my mind as I think about this kind of critique happens to be a female: Jane Smiley (who always draws great praise from all the "right" quarters). I read and rather liked one of her novels some years ago that attempted to be a kind of modern recasting of King Lear. But it fell short, to my mind, precisely because it was so caught up in the grand sweep of the thing that it neglected the most of the small things. The characters seemed to plop down from outer-space ready made. They were not developed or, it seemed, even fully understood. The "King Lear" of course, was a child molester. He did not kill his daughters, exactly, he raped them. And this made no sense in the context of the novel. It just was and we were asked to believe it as a fact without explanation. A novel is the building up of a big thing from the small things, not the reverse. It is one reason why I think that great fiction and great reporting are actually the hardest kind of writing to do. It is much easier to divulge your grand theory of the universe without the bother of accounting for detail.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL:

Warning: include(/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php): failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2007/09/two-views-on-the-100-best-novels.php on line 838

Warning: include(): Failed opening '/srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/sd/nlt-blog/_includes/promo-main.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/opt/sp/php7.2/lib/php') in /srv/users/prod-php-nltashbrook/apps/prod-php-nltashbrook/public/2007/09/two-views-on-the-100-best-novels.php on line 838