Oct 31, 2006

Best Novel Lists and Winters's Three Great Novelists

There was a bit of fanfare in the New York Times for A.O. Scott’s article about the Best Book of the Past 25 years (best novel, that is), which appeared over the summer in the Times (search on google for the article if you wish to see it all). Though Winters was much decried among the “High-Cult” critics of his day for having stubbornly insisted on the practice of ranking and rating poems -– and, worse, for setting out what appeared to be a new canon of poetry -- the ranking and rating of books, and the making of best-of lists of literature, has become a widespread practice in American literary culture, as least in the “Mid-Cult” publications (to use the terms Dwight Macdonald proposed a couple decades ago in a famous and highly useful essay on “levels” of artistic enculturation).

Scott points out in his article that there has long been a desire in American literary culture to identify the one greatest novel, the single magnificent work that gathers in or sums up or rises above all other novels, that achieves a status similar to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Did this desire to isolate and coronate the “Great American Novel” play some kind of role in Winters’s thinking as he strove throughout his career to discover and champion the very best works of literature, that is, those very few works he wished to designate as “great”? That is worth pondering. I think it might have.

Here’s a long, interesting passage from the Scott article:

It is perhaps this babble and ruckus -- the polite word is diversity… the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We -- Americans, writers, American writers -- seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy -- even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books.

To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply -- or not really -- to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here [in the Times poll]. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject. They are -- the top five, in any case, in ascending order -–

American Pastoral, Philip Roth, with 7 votes
Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian 8 votes and
Updike's four-in-one Rabbit Angstrom, 8 votes
Don DeLillo's Underworld, 11 votes
Toni Morrison's Beloved, 15 votes

The list of voters obviously was small (the Mid-Cult elite?), and they were all from that guild Macdonald would have called “Mid-Cult” (though some of these writers and critics surely aspire to being considered part of “High-Cult” or believe that they already are in or close to it). I think this list of “great” novels is worth thinking about for Wintersians. Not a one of those top-five novels (considering the 4 Rabbit novels as one) achieves “greatness” in my judgment, in what I understand to be Yvor Winters’s sense of the term: a work of such distinction and near artistic perfection that it can serve as a model by which to judge all other works of narrative literature. It would be interesting to hear what Wintersians think of these novels and what they would propose as their own greats in fiction from the last 25 years, if any -- or greats of all time in American literature, for that matter. Choosing the great novels, in Winters’s sense of “great”, is a worthy project for the near future, a much-needed way to build upon Yvor Winters’s critical work, now that he has been gone for so long (he died in January, 1968).

The Times’ list of recent eminent novels calls to mind Winters’s relatively unknown judgment of the greatest novelists, a subject which he had little to say about in his published criticism. Turner Cassity, poet, professor and one-time Winters student at Stanford, reported briefly on Winters’s judgment of the greats of narrative literature in his reminiscence of Winters published in the excellent 1981 Yvor Winters issue of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford. Cassity recalled that Winters told a student, who had asked him who he thought are the “great” novelists, that Cervantes, Melville, and Proust are the three greatest novelists. Does anything listed in the Times top-five come close to the finest work of these three?

Note, however -- in contrast to Winters’s commonly bewilderingly eccentric evaluations of individual poems and poets (which garnered him so much scorn in literary culture) -- that there is nothing the least peculiar in the choice of those three writers. They all now rank high in the Standard Canon, though Melville was not highly regarded until about 70 years after Moby Dick was published and Proust is a modern who started high and has been on the rise for the past 50 years. Cervantes’s Don Quixote recently made the very top spot, Number 1, in a list of the greatest literary works of the millennium (I can’t recall off hand where that was published or who was involved in the selection). Melville inspires practically a churning literary industry of his own in the US, though Britain and Europe are beginning to catch Melville fever, too. And Proust is generally regarded, alongside only Joyce, as the world’s greatest novelist of modern times, with dozens of books being written about his seven-part A la recherche every year.

There’s something a little disappointing in Winters’s judgment of the great novelists for me. Isn’t one of the chief joys of reading Winters the making of discoveries? Who can forget, if one is a Wintersian, those great lost works Winters guided us to, such as to that first reading of Ben Jonson’s long neglected “To Heaven”; or to Herbert’s astonishing and mostly forgotten “Church Monuments”; or to the haunting power of Stevens’s late poem “The Course of a Particular”; or the depth and brilliance of Tuckerman’s “The Cricket,” which was almost wholly lost to oblivion? All those great, truly great poems that the keepers of the Standard Canon entirely missed! That was one of the great joys of first reading Winters, those moments of discovery that came like bolts of illumination from some other realm, some higher plane that Winters alone seemed able to reach and traverse.

But there is little to be discovered in the threesome Winters chose as the greatest in narrative literature (though Winters did make a couple of stunning discoveries in prose literature, a subject which I will come back to in the near future in this blog). Winters, apparently (judging from how Cassity tells the story), was sure that there was something daring or extraordinary in his choice of these three greats, for he added to the student, according to Cassity, “And what do you think of THAT!” Well, nowadays, there is little in his judgment that is surprising at all.

As I say, the work of Winters in redefining the canon according to the principles of Reason should continue in the area of narrative literature. I would be pleased to see this blog begin that work. To what bolt-of-lightning discoveries can the Wintersians lead each other? I wait and hope.


Shawn R said...

Hi Ben,

I, of course, do not know the context of Winters' remarks to Cassity, but perhaps Winters thought that what might be shocking to Cassity is that he believed that already highly respected authors were the top three.

We could also take this as a good sign in that perhaps Winters' literary theory is already dominant in literature. It also might be a telling comment on the difference between literary prose and poetry as respective media. Could it be that Winters' literary theory is already dominant in literature, but not in poetry?

Regarding disoveries, Winters' advocacy of James Fenimore Cooper in IN DEFENSE OF REASON has encouraged me to continue to read his novels and I am glad I am doing so. Winters strikes me as just right regarding Cooper's strenths and weaknesses.

Your being a Wintersian, I am interested in knowing who you consider the top three or five novelists.

Ben Kilpela said...

You're a positive fellow, shawn r, and I appreciate that a great deal. Perhaps the sort of classical ideas that Winters championed have more influence in fiction than poetry. It certainly appears to be so, on the surface. Few are the obscurantist nutty experiments in fiction (though there are enough), but the obscurantist nuttiness in poetry is ubiquitous.

You're right about Fenimore Cooper, that Winters is spot on with his critique of his work and almost entirely right in the various individual judgments he makes concerning his novels. It's long overdue for a few more critics and readers to start listening to Winters on the subject of that writer, who has been reviled far too often. I haven't read much JFC lately, but I have profited a great deal from reading him, much more than most modern novelsists I have read. I wonder how many people still interested in Winters agree on yours and my take on JFC.

You ask me about MY opinion of the great novelists. Give me a few days to ponder what I want to say in print, and then I'll post a reponse as a regular blog entry. Meantime, I'm just as interested in your opinions on great novels. That's the purpose of this blog, to hear from others using my weekly notes on current happenings or random thoughts as a springboard. I'll offer a few "great" novels, rather than novelists, believing, as Winters did of poetry, that the writing of one great poem makes one a great poet. Thanks for asking.

Shawn R said...


I wonder if literature, by nature, is forced to be less obscurantist because most often it is telling a story that must be intelligible for the reader. Readers of prose are a bit hard nosed in their demand to comprehend the tale. On the other hand, it does seem to me that people in general have accepted the vision of the romantic poet who pours out his self-expression in words and allusions only the poet himself clearly understands. While not equivalent, I think the case is analogous to abstract expressionism in painting.

Regarding Cooper, when I mention him to some colleagues of mine who teach English, the first thing they ask me is if I've read Mark Twain's essay on Cooper. I have, of course, and I think, while he might score some points, he is also almost slanderous in parts of the essay. The more I read Cooper, the more I disagree with Twain and the more I wonder if Twain's essay was partly motivated by the feeling that Cooper was still considered a grand old man of American letters and Twain was not.

I must admit that I am an amateur when it comes to reading literature. I do not think I'm well read enough to make any authoritative judgement regarding what I think are great novels.

I can, however, betray my limited spectrum of reading by listing novels that have been important to me or left a great impression on me. They are as follows:

F. Scott Fitzgerald THE GREAT GATSBY
Joseph Heller CATCH-22
A. Solzhenitsyn CANCER WARD

Also I wanted to mention what I do consider the most oustanding short story: Dostoevsky's "The Christmas Tree and a Wedding." It is short, but packs a tremendous punch on a number of levels.

Best wishes,

Shawn R

Ben Kilpela said...

You've raised a very important issue, Shawn R, that Yvor Winters did not adequately address and has yet to be adequately addressed by Wintersians in the decades since his death. It is the difference between a "great" work of literature (however that might be defined, either strictly according to Winters's ideas, some greater or lesser modification of Winters's ideas, or some other set of ideas loosely influenced by Winters's critical thought) and an "important" work of literature, one that has some powerful bearing on one's life or should have such a bearing, regardless of its artistic flaws or weaknesses. Winters often seemed to conflate the two, great and important, but the conflation does not seem justified to my mind.

People often read and study certain works of art because they have some sort of thematic, intellectual, or emotional importance. People often have a vague sense that these works have certain flaws, perhaps many flaws, but we keep coming back to them because of their "importance" to us, in one aspect or another. Winters implied repeatedly (though he didn't quite say this exactly) that a work of art that was not "great" in his sense of the term and according to his system of evaluation could not be important. But I disagree, and your own experience and the experiences of countless other readers suggests that many feel the tension as well, that there are works of art that meet some minimum standard of artistic excellence that are supremely important though they might be the greatest works of literary art. Conversely, many works that we might agree are great are not particularly important, in general or to each of us individually. Of course, Winters concentrated on making judgments about artistic excellence in his criticism, not on thematic study -- though he did plenty of interpretation of poetry and fiction along the way to making his evaluations, his main critical business.

I will be coming back to this question. Thanks for listing those five novels as choices for what can be considered "important" reading, without regard to the issue of whether they constitute "great" literature. When the two intersect, all the better. But we do not live in a perfect world, as Winters pointed out frequently.