Jul 18, 2007

Top Tens, More Top Tens, and Yet More Top...

I noticed the publication this year of yet another book that ranks the "greatest" books, the rankings accomplished by one means or another. This particular book offers a ranking done by vote, in this case by the voting of a small set of purportedly authoritative professionals, so-called "writers." The book is entitled "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books" and is edited by J. Peder Zane, who also edited a recent collection about writers' recommendations of excellent, often overlooked books entitled "Remarkable Reads."

"The Top Ten" claims to be "the ultimate guide" to the world's greatest books. The authorities it employs to the task of selecting these books are such writers as Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Stephen King (come again!), Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Margaret Drabble, Michael Chabon, and Peter Carey. Some of these writers have, in my judgment, a measure of literary skill, knowledge, and wisdom, others less so -- some quite a bit less so. Each writer names the ten books that have "meant the most" to him, as the promotional literature puts it (even though this criterion is quite different from a selection of the greatest books). The purpose is to help readers understand the greateness of books they have always loved and to discover great works that might be new to some.

"The Top Ten" includes brief summaries of 544 books, each of which is judged to be among the ten greatest books ever written by at least one "leading writer." As well as each writer's Top Ten List and the summary list based on a simple descending point system, the same sort of system used in college sports polls, the book offers a few other top ten lists tabulated from 544 picks, such as:

• The Top Ten Books by Living Writers
• The Top Ten Books of the Twentieth Century
• The Top Ten Mysteries
• The Top Ten Comedies

It's interesting to me that this practice of ranking works of art and making lists of the greatest works (and greatest among many other sorts of things) has become so common in our time, in the last 20 years or so. Yvor Winters was often vilified, when he was paid any attention at all, for ranking works of literature during his lifetime, but ranking has become commonplace, even among the most highly regarded writers and critics of our time. It feels like everyone and everything gets ranked nowadays, and "experts" choose the greatest and the "bests-of" for many classes of things by one means or another. Though the promotional literature says that "The Top Ten" has sparked debate, nothing in the lists is all that controversial. Here's the top ten works of liteature of all-time, as voted by its gaggle of writers:

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
9. The stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch, by George Eliot

There is hardly anything suprising about that list, except, perhaps, for "Lolita." Winters wrote little about any of these writers except for Shakespeare. He did say Proust was one of the three greatest novelists, but he never explained himself or made a case for the judgment (the comment was recorded by a fellow named Ashley Brown, who published it in an essay in the "Southern Review"). Janet Lewis, Winters's wife, praised Nabokov's style and skill in an interview some years back, though she didn't specifically mention "Lolita" that I recall offhand. Though Winters studied American literature in depth in one of the seminal, though sadly overlooked or disregarded, critical studies of the subject in our history, "Maule's Curse," which was reprinted in "In Defense of Reason, " he hardly mentioned Twain in his essays. I suspect that he considered "Huck Finn" to be negligible, or at least susstandard, not up to snuff with the finest work of Melville, James, Hawthorne, and even James Fenimore Cooper -- the judgment of Cooper would have stunned and amused Twain, eh?

My main point is that the work of ranking goes on, and people interested in such things, as I am, should pay more serious attention to Winters's once derided and controversial rankings of the greatest -- as well as, more importantly perhaps, to the criteria he used to judge the greatest works of literary art. Some fairly highly regarded literary figures are taking part nowadays in the practice of ranking. In most of these rankings, what I call the "Standard Canon" gets approved and re-approved and re-approved yet again. What would Winters have said about these lists? Would he have approved of voting by descending points, as in a sports poll? It's hard to believe that he would have, though it seems possibly of good sense. But then how else should "greatness" or the "greatest" be defined and adjudicated? Would Winters have approved of writers voting and having their votes tablulated? Would he consider such writers authoritative? Would he have considered these particular writers, Mailer, et. al. authoritative? I can guess the answers to those last two questions more easily. He probably would have found writers of the sort taking part in Zane's vote to be of no significant merit in deciding true literary exellence and probably would have considered these particular writers, almost across the board, to be unqualified to vote for a list of the greatest literature.

On a side note, a fascinating development is that Stephen King has come in recent years to be seen as "literary," a serious writer. King was long regarded, justly, as no more than a pop writer, little more than a hack. But then the "New Yorker" began publishing him and some critics began writing about him and his standing began to rise for some reason that I have been unable to makes sense of, for his writing style and stories remain rather undistinguished. Now, in various venues and for various purposes, he gets consulted as one of our "fine" writers, as a serious literary author. I doubt Winters would have agreed.

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