This evening I was browsing Barnes and Noble (which, like Starbucks, should buy an ad here) and happened to look up and see this sign exhorting me to “Discover Great New Writers.”
I harrumphed to myself as I passed on, thinking, “If they are new, they are not great.”
Which, I realized on another level — the level that listens to everything I say and holds it in scorn — is irrational prejudice. It’s me thinking like a medieval man, thinking that all greatness occurred in the past, and if we see a distance, it was only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Which is irrational — but, let me hasten to add, no more irrational than the idiotic modern idea that each generation is greater and wiser and more virtuous than the last, the foolish idea that just because our technology is smarter, we ourselves are. I utterly reject that modernist prejudice, and should do the same with its complement.
After all, great writers were all new once.
Still, I am hard-pressed to name a living writer of, say, fiction whom I regard as great. I tried, as I walked through the bookstore.
Patrick O’Brian, I thought. But no, he is dead, although his life did overlap mine. Ditto with Douglas Adams. Now, you are wondering that I consider those great, but I do. Matter of taste. O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels are not only, as other reviewers have said, the greatest historical fiction ever, they rank high among all fiction in my estimation. And Adams was the funniest writer of novels since Twain, again in my own necessarily limited estimation.
There is one living novelist I regard very highly, as you can tell from this recent post — John le Carré. But the last of his books that meant much to me was The Night Manager, and that was published in 1993. Although I did think The Constant Gardener was quite good. I just wasn’t as fond of it as of his earlier stuff. (Also, it seems to me that as he gets older he gets… preachier, in a predictably political sense. Is it just me?)
I look around me and other people seem to take great delight in current authors. Back when I started an effort to get Columbia to read a book together years ago, we stopped after the first one, because the others on the committee that formed were enthusiastic about getting the sorts of authors who might be induced to come visit and speak. The committee had gone along with me on Fahrenheit 451, but after that they wanted writers that I, reactionary philistine that I am, had not heard of. Some of it, I think, was that they wanted writers who were less male, and white, and mainstream, but mostly they wanted authors who were less dead. And I wasn’t having it.
Now, Belinda Gergel’s somewhat more successful bid to have the same sort of program is picking books more like what my committee had wanted.
But are they great books? Well, that’s in the eye of the reader, isn’t it?