My deep-seated, gut-level cultural conservatism

New Year 027

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 postJohn 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?

29 thoughts on “My deep-seated, gut-level cultural conservatism

  1. Steven Davis

    One thing I hate about the bookstores that have turned into libraries… you have to go to the middle of the stack, like selecting a slice of bread out of a loaf, to get a book or magazine that hasn’t already been read at least once.

  2. Phillip

    “Greatness” ultimately is tested by time, so in a sense you are right, it’s just so much advertising hokum simply to assert that such and such is “great.” It’s hard to say whose work will really still be read in 100 or even just 50 years’ time. I’m not particularly widely read in contemporary fiction (still trying to catch up on classics) but I think there are some pretty good candidates for “greatness” among the living: Roth, for one, Cormac McCarthy comes to mind, Margaret Atwood, Naipaul, Rushdie, Coetzee. And are you counting non-English writers, for whom we must depend on translated versions? Saramago, Murakami? It seems to be a pretty rich time for novelists, and I was interested to see that in the NYT’s 10 best of 2011, among the 5 fiction works were two by first-time novelists. Encouraging.

    As for the One Book One Columbia thing, I think they’re trying to keep a regional focus with the selections so far, which is fine. Obviously the South has a tremendously rich literary heritage and is still producing good writers; anything that helps us remember that is a positive.

    Great? who knows, not for us to say ultimately. I’m just glad some people are still out there reading books.

  3. Steve Gordy

    No writer can survive long enough to be considered “great” in your book, Brad, unless someone takes a chance on them. Are the only great political, business, or religious leaders all dead?

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    Well, Brad, given that you have far more experience with a handful of not-new writers and very little of “new” writers….

    Amazon sends me books by mostly new writers to review (not like some fancy reviewer, but like an average reader who wants to know will he or she like this book), and I have found that most are excellent (there is a huge sorting process that takes place before books become part of the program, so this does not mean that new writers on the whole are better). I suggest that BN has to select which new writers to feature, so there is a similar process. I believe, and I’m not the first, that often, first novels are a writer’s best shot, and contain the most “truth.” You seem to prefer more formulaic, genre works (nothing wrong with that–you are reading for entertainment). I enjoy fiction books with a lot of “truth” in them and find that new writers often hit the nail on the head.

    On the other hand, I am quite conservative in my musical tastes–though I have taken the trouble to listen fairly widely within classical and jazz genres. My poor piano teacher has a devil of a time getting me to learn pieces composed after 1791….

  5. doug ross

    All those supposed “great” books are so great that the only way you can get anyone to read them is through mandatory requirements in the schools where someone else has to explain how great they are – no matter how dull, obtuse, and pretentious they may be. James Joyce, Flannery O’connor, The Great Gatsby, Dickens, The Scarlet Letter…ad nauseum. Blech!

  6. Jesse S.

    Steven, I hate to break this to you, but you actually contracted cooties at the age of 8, when you refused to take your cootie shot.

    I’m sorry to say -it’s terminal. Medical science doesn’t know when, but some day. I’m sorry, I really am.

  7. Brad

    Phillip writes, “I’m not particularly widely read in contemporary fiction (still trying to catch up on classics)…”

    Yes! Absolutely! I could have written the same words myself!

    Life is so short. I don’t have enough time left to read all the greatest literature that’s out there (especially because of my penchant for reading the stuff I love over and over), so I feel like I’m throwing away precious time when I spend it reading something new and relatively unproven.

  8. Brad

    And Kathryn, I do NOT “prefer more formulaic, genre works.”

    That’s exactly the kind of prejudice that needs to be dispelled when referring to le Carre and O’Brian. You have to read them to know what I mean.

    So many people of the sort who delight in being up on the latest writers, who pride themselves on their discerning tastes in literature, would disdain spy novelists as being like mystery writers, and O’Brian as a writer of the literary equivalent of “costume dramas,” but I submit that such people have not read le Carre and O’Brian, or, if they have retained them and still harbor such prejudice, they are lacking in discernment.

    There is much familiarity in O’Brian’s novels that arise from the well-regulated nature of life on a sailing ship, and in fact the routine of such ships — certain activities at certain times of the day, menus rigidly set according to the day of the week — is like a character in the novels, a character that soothes the deeply conservative souls of the characters, who tend to like certain things simply because they are used to them.

    But against that background, ANYTHING can happen. The plots are as unpredictable as the sea itself, and every one of the novels is strikingly different from the rest. In fact, rather than repeat, they complement each other, and critics tend to speak of them as one, extended, remarkable, even unique, work.

    The life aboard ship is cyclical, but the characters move and develop in a linear fashion from one book to the next.

  9. `Kathryn Fenner

    Ah, brad, but what if you are overlooking a writer or genre you might like even more?

    @ doug ross (are you the same person as Doug Ross?) — Sorry you don’t like or weren’t adequately assisted in liking such accessible classics as Flannery O’Connor (A Good Man is hard to Find seems like something you *would* like) and The Great Gatsby (but the rich are not like you and me, are they?). James Joyce is pretty inaccessible, as is the first chunk of the Scarlet Letter. Dickens is over-rated, imho.

    Perhaps if you tried some now, you might find you enjoy them. Perhaps you’re just not a fiction reader.

  10. Brad

    Writing that, I get to thinking about one writer I like who IS formulaic — Martin Cruz Smith. He is also, it should be noted, a writer of mysteries.

    To begin with, his stories often follow the standard pattern of detective stories (even when the protagonist is not technically a detective): The protagonist is ordered or coerced into investigating a crime. He is deeply reluctant to do so, not least because the case is a political minefield; anything that turns up can be very dangerous to him. But then he gets hooked on the case, and starts pursuing it with obsessive intensity. This happens just as the powers that be tell him to back off. He ignores this, and plunges forward, very nearly to his own destruction. His survival in the end is amazing.

    You’ve read this book many times. Or seen the movie.

    Within that structure, there are familiar characters: The protagonist himself, who is a deeply cynical misfit. The sharp-witted and sharp-tongued woman who has an adversarial relationship with the protagonist, but with whom he becomes sexually entangled. The assistant he does not want, who deeply respects authority and is shocked by his cynicism, to the point (sometimes) of turning from admirer of the legendary protagonist to bitter enemy. The rather large woman, a manual laborer, physically strong as a man but with a very womanly tenderness, who steps in to save him at a critical moment (and actually carries him to safety in two novels I recall). The powerful, athletic adversary who could easily beat the protagonist to a pulp (and inevitably does, at some point), but whom the protagonist can’t stop himself from antagonizing.

    And yet, the books are wonderfully written, and each has a uniqueness — which arises from the setting. Take the Arkady Renko books, for which he is best known. In the first, Gorky Park, he vividly paints the world (then mysterious to Western readers, during the Cold War) of a homicide investigator in the Soviet system. In the next book, the detective has been banished to be a laborer on a fishing factory ship in the Arctic regions. In the next, he finds himself in Munich, dealing with Westerners in the final days of the Cold War. Then, it’s Cuba. After that, the radioactive wasteland around Chernobyl.

    In each one, the unfamiliar (and most remarkable) character is the highly detailed world in which the protagonist finds himself, and you read on because of that.

    And they are beautifully written.

    But that’s the only favorite writer I can think of who is, book after book, truly formulaic.

  11. Scout

    I am a fantasy junkie and I make no apologies for it. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of historical fantasy.

  12. Lora

    I had to go to my list for you Brad, because, as you now, I’m totally wrapped up in Trollope right now. Though not new, Neil Gaiman and Maeve Binchy are favorites. To me, the best writers not only offer up a good story, but also engage their characters in great conversation. That’s why I’m such a fan of Austen and Trollope.

  13. Phillip

    @Doug, one of the great joys available in life is to discover that some of the stuff that one’s teachers merely averred was “great” (as opposed to illustrating its greatness, or somehow bringing it to life) really IS great in spite of the boring way it was presented at the time, or perhaps more accurately, reveals something different to the person in midlife as opposed to a twenty-year-old. Doesn’t have to be just literature, either. Anything: the natural sciences, languages, music, visual art, etc. And the great thing about arriving at that stage is that one does not have to simply accept a work’s greatness but can judge according to one’s own taste…so maybe you don’t like this one but that one somehow speaks to you more personally.

    I guess what I am trying to say is there is such diversity within any art form across so much time, that my fondest hope for anybody would be not to paint everything too broadly with the same brush, and not to have their memories of the unexciting introduction they may have had to certain literature close them off forever from selected avenues of joy and discovery.

  14. Doug Ross


    Greatness should not require explanation. I’ve seen what my three kids have read in English classes thru high school and college. Most of it is stuff people wouldn’t read unless forced to.

    Give me John Irving any day over any of them…

  15. Brad

    Responding to Doug…

    Ah! But that’s my very point. I think if you looked at what kids are required to read today, it would be very different from the stuff we were required to read, and much closer to the sort of thing that book clubs are into today.

    Or perhaps you’re referring to the few canonical books still taught, such as the aforementioned Melville…

  16. Steven Davis

    Jesse S. – What are you talking about? I’m just stating that when I buy a book or magazine I don’t want to pay for a new book and get one that looks like it came from the library.

  17. `Kathryn Fenner

    @ Doug– I certainly required explanation to comprehend mathematics and many other great areas—and certainly benefited greatly from my education in English Literature at the USC Honors College and upper level courses. Just yesterday, another commentator in this thread explained something to me that significantly enhanced my appreciation for his area, although I have spent more than 40 years studying it.

    @ Brad– just because something is genre doesn’t mean it’s formulaic, or that being formulaic makes it bad–ever listened to any Classical period composers, like Mozart or Haydn–there is a certain formula, but the way they tweak and tease it makes it great. Heck, Wm.Shakespeare adhered to formulas–especially in the sonnets, and not many dispute his greatness–Doug Ross aside. Jane Austen perhaps wrote the first romantic comedies, and I just finished a hoot of a romantic comedy/farce by Sophie Kinsella that was surpassingly enjoyable.

  18. Jesse S.

    Just being silly.

    I think I’ve encountered maybe 2 or 3 book in a book store that were in poor condition.

    Magazines are a totally different story, I think I’m more annoyed with people who just leave them on the floor for others to use as a door mat than previous readers.

  19. Ralph Hightower

    Google “Randy Pausch”. He died a year or two before Steve Jobs did of the same pancreatic cancer.

    Randy wrote a book and gave a “Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon; the video is available at CMU and YouTube. He was a professor of Computer Science at CMU.

    One of Space Shuttle Challenger’s astronauts, Christa McAuliffe was fond of saying “I touch the future. I teach.”

    Sadly, the technology section at Barnes and Noble is lacking. There are plenty of books on how to use programs, like Photoshop, or use devices, like a DSLR or iPhones. But they lack books on creating programs or learning new technologies for development.

    It’s an age of consumerism, which is what Jobs promoted.

  20. Burl Burlingame

    I read Moby Dick in third grade. The reason is a typical military-dependent one. Our base library in Taiwan didn’t have a childrens section. All the books were in alphabetical order, and that was the only filing. The first book I ever read was “Treasure Island.” I skipped the whole Dick and Jane thing.

  21. Cotton Boll Conspiracy


    I think it’s important to consider that even if you go back, say, to when books began being written in the author’s vernacular, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy (around 1300), there are likely no more than 100 or 200 individuals whom would generally be classified by the large majority of people as great writers.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole group of near-greats or very-very goods, but it’s like the baseball Hall of Fame in that something like 12,000 men have played the game, all of whom had to be pretty darn good to get to the Majors, but only about 240 made it into the Hall.

    So it’s not surprising that you, or I, for that matter, would consider there to be few truly great living writers out there today. When they have to go up against the likes of Tolstoy, Dickens, Hemingway, etc., it’s pretty tough sledding.

    But that doesn’t mean talented living writers don’t exist and that their works aren’t worth reading.

  22. Steve Gordy

    Lately I’ve been reading Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn as research for my current book project. This is probably not a good thing for one who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder; the weather’s dark enough without my reading material making it worse.

  23. `Kathryn Fenner

    One thing to remember about the older Great Books–educated people were educated in different things than we are, for the most part. I didn’t study Greek or Roman literature to any extent in school, and certainly did not read Latin. Also, educated people had a lot less competing for their attention, so could delve deeply and take their time. We want to polish off a book while waiting for our airplane to take off or land….

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