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Literary quality?

I am in the process of writing a review of a collection of dystopian stories (Brave New Worlds edited by John Joseph Adams), and there is something that is not going to make it into my review because it is really tangential to the subject, but which I still wanted to draw attention to.

At the back of the collection, Adams has included a reading list, ‘For Further Reading’ compiled by Ross E. Lockhart. Nothing particularly controversial in that, a good idea in fact given how much dystopian literature is out there. But someone, presumably Lockhart, gave in to an insane idea which is encapsulated in one sentence in his introduction: “Titles notable for their high literary value are marked with an asterisk.”

The following are the titles that have been singled out for an asterisk:

The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood
The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi
Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
The Sheep Look Up John Brunner
The Parable of the Sower Octavia Butler
The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick
Neuromancer William Gibson
Lanark Alasdair Gray
Make Room! Make Room Harry Harrison
Brave New World Aldous Huxley
It Can’t Happen Here Sinclair Lewis
The Iron Heel Jack London
The Road Cormac McCarthy
Nineteen Eighty Four George Orwell
The Gold Coast Kim Stanley Robinson
Liberation Brian Francis Slattery
Player Piano Kurt Vonnegut Jr
We Yevgeny Zamyatin

Not a bad list. I am familiar with practically all of these titles and am quite happy to ascribe literary value to nearly all of them.

But then, these are some of the works that do not qualify for an asterisk:

Einstein’s Monsters Martin Amis
Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood Margaret Atwood
In the Country of Last Things Paul Auster
Crash J.G. Ballard
Hello America J.G. Ballard
My Melancholy Face Heinrich Boll
The Jagged Orbit John Brunner
The Shockwave Rider John Brunner
A Clockwork Orange Anthony Burgess
The Wanting Seed Anthony Burgess
Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said Philip K. Dick
334 Thomas M. Disch
Ape and Essence Aldous Huxley
Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro
The Lathe of Heaven Ursula K. Le Guin
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub Stanislaw Lem
Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
Paradise Toni Morrison
Invitation to a Beheading Vladimir Nabokov
And Chaos Died Joanna Russ
Snow Crash Neal Stephenson
Earth Abides George R Stewart
Love Among the Ruins Evelyn Waugh
The Time Machine H.G. Wells

Suddenly the questions arise. I would rate the literary quality of the second list higher than that of the first list. How can you count one Atwood novel but not the other two? How can you rate The Sheep Look Up by Brunner but not The Shockwave Rider, which is in literary terms at least a superior novel (and, come to that, how can you miss out entirely Stand on Zanzibar, which is better than either of them)? How can you not ascribe literary quality to Amis, Auster, Ballard, Boll, Burgess, Disch, Ishiguro, Le Guin, Lem, Mitchell, Morrison, Nabokov, Waugh or Wells?

Obviously the whole thing is subjective, obviously there is no agreed standard for what counts as literary quality, obviously there was an agenda going on here (though what agenda?). But you do wonder.

I don’t mind offering a reading list like this; the list as a whole is a good list. But why do we insist on trying to mark off the literary from the non-literary, the good from the bad, the quality from the also-rans, when we have no real and objective standards by which to make such distinctions? The only possible response to such an exercise is ridicule.


14 thoughts on “Literary quality?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Really, there needs to be less distinction between what is “literary” and thus worthy of our attention and library shelves and what is “genre” or “pulp” or “commercial” fiction and therefore, lesser work. How can one PKD be literary and another not? Or the Atwood novels you mentioned. I think this list would have looked a lot better if they would left those stupid asterisks off and just mentioned titles that were worth pursuing. (And he left China Mieville’s PERDIDO STREET STATION off of here too. How about King’s THE STAND and/or DARK TOWER series, McCammon’s SWAN SONG, and Matheson’s I AM LEGEND…etc.)

    1. The full list (far longer than I could have included here) does include Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and King’s The Long Walk and The Running Man (none of them with an asterisk), but not the other titles you mention. It is, in many ways, a very curious list.

    2. The reason the one PKD is “literary” and the other isn’t is that High Castle is Dick’s most realist SF work (at least until Scanner Darkly), while Flow My Tears is loopy as all get out (and, in my estimation, a better book, although I do enjoy High Castle). In other words, you can read High Castle and forget (mostly) that you’re reading a hastily-written pulp novel, whereas Flow My Tears smacks you over the head with that fact every sixty pages or so: a character disappears, plotlines go nowhere, Dick repeatedly changes his mind as to what the book’s ontological reality is—all of which go a long way toward making it the unsettling masterpiece it is.

      Curt, as usual, nails it below, although I’d pick slightly different terms than the ones he uses.


      1. I think High Castle is not so much a more realist work as a more coherent work. I rate it as one of his best books, but I still think Flow My Tears is head and shoulders above it. (And Scanner Darkly is even better – which raises another question: why on earth wasn’t Scanner Darkly on the list of recommended dystopias?)

        1. Yes, “coherent” is a better term than “realist.” High Castle stands out from most 60s Dick in that it doesn’t unwrite itself, page by page (well, not anywhere near as much as the others do).

          But that unwriting—that total ontological destablization that Dick gives so freely—is one of the things I value most in his writing. Nothing—and I mean nothing!—in High Castle compares to Jason Taverner’s realization at the top of page 179 of Flow My Tears (Vintage edition)—which remains one of the flat-out scariest things I’ve ever read in any book!

          (My favorite ’60s Dick remains The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of the trippiest novels I’ve ever read—and which anticipates so much of the culture that followed it…)

          Isn’t every single Dick novel dystopian?

  2. Paul: This is just more of the same for the last 30+ years, since Am. pomo was ground beneath the heel of Moral Fiction, Minimalism, and the “new” realism associated with Gardner and Carver. It’s just the petty extension of a very unforgiving literary politics over the question of what social institutions will have the power to say what will count as literature. Anthology makers are part of that. Whoever this fuck is that edited the book, he’s just happily playing that game. I mean, it’s a joke. William How-Do-You-Write-a-Sentence Gibson is literary and Nabokov isn’t? Grotesque in its stupidity. What is really being left out, with a smirk, is not simply modernism and post-modernism but the aesthetic reason of the random/play going back to Laurence Sterne and his great advocates in German Romanticism, Schiller and Schlegel. Schlegel hated the “empiricists,” the early realists. He loved Sterne, and Cervantes, and Rabelais. Lem is playful. Nabokov is playful, and open to eruptions of the Random in his beautiful novels. That, apparently, will not be tolerated again until the next Romantic uprising, as we (or I, at least) experienced in the 60s. And that, my friend, is a goddamned agenda with teeth, and you don’t have to waste your time wondering about it. We should know it well. Curt

    1. Hey! I kinda like Neuromancer. It’s a self-erasing novel: I find that no matter how many times I read it, I can never really remember what happens in it. I have only a vague impression of the action. How Gibson accomplishes that has remained a mystery to me. Although of course it’s ridiculous to call that book “literary” and the others on the second list not.

      You know me: I am opposed to these kinds of rankings. I mean, I’m all for people saying “these are my favorite books” or “I think these books are better than these books (and here’s why).” Long live such debates. But to say some group of books are “literary,” and another bunch are not—what nonsense! All books are literary, even the shitty ones—they’re just all literary in different ways. There’s value to be had in Gibson; let’s us critics describe what that value is. Meanwhile, there’s a much different value to be had in Nabokov. There are different values to be had in PKD’s Man in the High Castle than in Flow My Tears; personally, I prefer Flow to Man, and therefore recommend it more frequently to readers new to Dick—but Man is certainly a tremendous book, with great value,

      Were Gardner and Carver ever really that realist? I know they claimed to be, and Gardner could be a real prick about it—but their work tells a different story. Why oh why can’t people just recognize that realism is just a style, is many styles? It has no more claim to reality than any other style. It may even have less! (I know you know that, Curt. I mean other people.)

      Many cheers,

      1. Curt, Adam, thanks for these comments, and YES!

        I think the really problematic word in Lockhart’s introduction to the list is ‘value’, as in ‘high literary value’. What exactly does value mean? My personal take is that it means one of two things: these are the books I like, or these are the books I’ve read as opposed to the ones I’ve just heard about.

        I always describe myself as a relativist, simply because I abhor the absolutist stance that such lists prescribe. Yes there are good books and bad books, and I can go into long discussions as to why any particular work might fall into one camp or other (I’m a critic, that’s my job). But most books are not wholly good or wholly bad, even the greatest literature has horrors in it, even the worst crap has some redeeming feature for some reader or other. So any attempt at such listings is inherently grotesque, as you say, Curt.

        I mean, I like Gibson (or some of Gibson), but to rank him above Auster (even one of Auster’s weaker novels) or Ballard or Wells, to take three very different literary approaches, is simply meaningless.

  3. This seems completely arbitrary to me. It’s bizarre. Why would anyone do this? And forget every other writer–to have Nabokov on a list and not say ANYTHING of his has literary value is beyond galling. I mean, seriously. I don’t even know how that could happen. (And I think Flow my Tears is MUCH better, too. High Castle, in a lot of ways, is kind of a mess, I think. The last half at least.)

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