(Every month, the Classics Club creates its own meme by giving its members a question to answer. I’m relatively new to the club, so I’m beginning here with Question #31. I may go back and answer some past questions at some point in time.)
This is a tough one. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few discussions with friends and family members about “The Decline and Fall of Great Literature”. The majority of these discussions have revolved around the question, “What, if anything, written since 1950 will people still be reading 100 years from now?” The answer can’t really be “nothing”, as tempting as it is to say that, because, of course, some books will survive, just as they have through all the different eras. Still, I’ve had a hard enough time with that one but can come up with works like 100 Years of Solitude, as well as books by the likes of John Irving and Anne Tyler, if we’re looking at American writers.
Here, though, the Classics Club, always willing to challenge us in new and different ways, tells us to forget the 20th century. I can’t fall back on The Cider House Rules. I have to come up with something written post-1999 — an era in which we’ve witnessed “The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Industry”, when publishers decided to do such stupid things as providing companion web sites to books and toying with the idea of letting readers write their own endings to books (as if any Real Reader ever wanted to put down a book to go explore a web site or to have to write an ending. The latter is what writers are paid to do, not readers). It’s also been an era of shoddy editing and proofreading (because, of course, publishing companies have to pay to create web sites, and a great way to do that is to lay off such inessential staff members as production editors, outsourcing their jobs to people for whom English is a second language. Notice all the typos and grammatical errors in my blog posts? We writers — even those of us who were once editors — need good editors, because it’s so hard to edit our own stuff), so if you’re someone with an editorial mind, you find yourself driven crazy by the most basic typos and grammatical errors that show up in so many published books these days.
It’s been an era in which we’ve seen many trends embraced by authors, not the least of which is “my clever version of post-modernism.” This means you’ll be hard-pressed to find a book that doesn’t play around with narrative voice, leaving the reader wondering, “Who the hell is speaking now?” or tense, leaving the reader wondering, “When did this happen? Yesterday? Right now?” And it’s been an era in which authors (or is it their publishers?) have decided that the “freshest” thing to do just might be to mix media. Let’s see what happens if part of this story is told via Excel spreadsheet! Let’s tell this story via alternating chapters of prose and collages made from magazine images!
Finally, we also must try to trick the reader and have some huge, unforeseen plot twist halfway through the book. You thought that was eleven-year-old Sarah, the oldest child of the family telling the story? It’s actually Sarah the Dog, and her younger brothers are Bill the hamster and Thad the cat. You thought Rob was waxing poetic about his wife Kelly? He was actually going on about his husband Kelly. You thought you were right there along with Detective Solvit, trying to figure out who’d tortured and mutilated the beauty queen, only to discover that the reason he’s so efficient at piecing together the crime is that he’s not Detective Solvit at all. He’s the psychopathic murderer.
Yes, I read this stuff (I’m a librarian after all), but I so often find myself needing to return to Trollope or Twain or Chandler, if only to escape all the typos and grammatical errors. This means my knee-jerk reaction to the fine folks running The Classics Club was “Nothing.” Again, though, that’s a ridiculous answer. Certainly, some of the books being published today will be embraced by future generations, to be studied, read, and loved. We have some authors who are taking hold of post-modernism and post-post-modernism and doing them right. We have new genres that are working, and some writers who are turning old genres into new classics. In fact, when I began to go back through the works I’ve read, I began to discover I’ve read quite a few of these future classics. I found it hard to choose just one, which means that this book curmudgeon is going to give you more than one (I hope that’s not cheating the meme). I could probably give you ten, but I will stick to five. Here they are, alphabetical by title.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Say what you will about Stephen King. He will be read and studied by future generations. He’s a man who brought the horror genre to whole new levels in the late 20th century, and he’s also a great candidate for “books into films” studies. 11/22/63 was a different sort of book for him — more sci-fi/fantasy than horror (although those three often overlap), but it was the book that got the snobbiest of critics to acknowledge (however grudgingly) that King was worth our attention. For my part? I’ve always loved King for his imagination and scare factor, and I was skeptical of this “un-horror” story, but I fell right into it, loved every minute of its “what if” challenge.
& Sons by David Gilbert
The late twentieth-century saw a decline in WASP literature and rightly so. We needed to make room for all the fabulous multiculturalism that’s been introduced to us since 1970, but we need not throw the baby out with the bath water, no matter how fond Americans seem to be of doing so. It was about time someone gave us a new spin on the WASP novel, and David Gilbert was the man to do it. This one is a fine example of such (with a nod to J.D. Salinger, since it features a Salinger-like writer). This love letter to New York City is also a 21st-century exploration of the father-son relationship, a hot topic in literature since, well, forever. There’s a bit of a sic-fi twist thrown in for good measure, which I enjoyed, but what kept me reading was the whole question of what makes and breaks father-son bonds. I’m quite sure Gilbert is going to go on to publish other important works.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway
I was impressed by the pure poetry of this novel, the way Galloway interwove music with words. It was not an easy read, as the topic is devastating, but it was a powerful, historic one. If you’ve forgotten all about Sarajevo, you need to read this book as a reminder of what it was, how horrific it was, and as a reminder of the power of the arts to redeem us all. The fact that it gave us a female soldier, a rarity in literature until recently, is another reason it will survive (as an early example of such characters).
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Full disclosure, I haven’t actually finished reading this one yet, so I may change my mind, but, thus far, I am extremely impressed. Mitchell has proven that there are some writers out there who have turned post-modernism into an exact science. He’s an incredible writer, able to give a fresh voice to so many tried and true writing methods. He’s clever, not for the mere sake of being clever, like so many writing today, but rather, I gather, because he just can’t help himself, and also because he applauds us readers for being who we are, relishing our enjoyment of reading.
Fun Home by Allison Bechdel
This one will go down in history as an early example of graphic memoir. I loved it both for Bechdel’s drawing style and for her writing style, not to mention her interesting story. She has proven here that there’s a reason for the graphic art form –when the right pictures really can do a subject much more justice than a long page of prose, especially when combined with a few words. She’s also proven that sometimes blending media, when it isn’t forced or being used to demonstrate how clever someone is (or thinks she is), can work beautifully. This one will also probably make history for being one of the first memoirs to look candidly at homosexual relationships.
So, there you have it. Five classics for you to get reading now, so that in 40 years you can say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that one was going to last.” In the meantime, tell me what future classics I ought to be reading now.