I was a literature major at university and graduate school. My focus of interest was two-fold: Medieval English Literature and English Restoration Drama. Of course the more restrictive education policies of the 1960s focused my studies on time-honored literature and literary theory but I embraced many misdirections and biases in my reading: a poor regard for American literature, a violent disdain for best-sellers, a preference for poetry over prose, an almost complete avoidance of anything considered “Victorian.”
That I didn’t decline into a career of tedious lecturing and tweed hunting jackets I owe to, in two words: Grove Press.
Now, fifty years later, I have been somewhat successful in overcoming these early biases. I have read Dickens and even Gissing; I am openly intrigued by postmodernism as well as Bizarro Fiction; I read mostly novels although my academic preferences continue to be for poetry and drama; I try to include a couple of contemporary writings every month and am often pleasantly surprised; but I still find Henry James unfathomably tedious.
One win for me: since the university restricted the number of credits in a major that would count towards graduation, I expanded my scope to Comparative Literature and started reading novels in translation from countries like France, Germany, Italy, Greece, Japan, Ireland, Russia, and Mississippi. This broadening of my literary experience has continued to this day and has made my life much richer than if I had continued to restrict my reading to the accepted Anglo-Saxon canon.
I was pondering my annual “best-of” lists and realized that they were being populated by too many classic works, works that a consensus of literate readers would acknowledge as being in the top twenty … even if there were thirty esteemed titles. So the first problem is how to eliminate time-honored works from the restrictions of ranking; or to expand the consideration: should classic literature even be ranked?
But the real tragedy of ranking classical works is that they force out many deserving contemporary works.
I know that contemporary literature may one day become classical literature, but it is much more likely to moulder in the remainder pile at Barnes and Noble on the slow road to oblivion. But what if I liked it, or at least found something about it to stop and consider? What if I want others to try for the same experience? Is it one of the best books I read during the year or is is not good enough to overcome the tyranny of the George Eliots, Gustave Flauberts, or Thomas Manns who clog the best-of list with acknowledged greatness?
I have decided that announcing to the world that Madame Bovary is a great novel is too obvious to be documented in my personal little list. I have always admitted that my rankings were highly subjective but that is too often diluted when my opinion aligns with the canon. It’s like saying pizza tastes good … well, duh. I know there are those who dislike pizza but the overwhelming majority will just wink and wrinkle their lower lips and still not know what I really like (pizza is best with beaucoup de anchovies).
Starting this month I am eliminating well-established, classical literature from the top twenty list. Which authors and titles are being un-considered? I don’t know; I’ll be purely subjective and highly biased. If a book is new, anti-establishment, or obscure, it might be a candidate, but only if it’s good!
Note: My three-star ranking system will continue as before: One star for stinkers I was sorry I read; two stars for almost everything I read; and three stars for outstanding or significant books I can unconditionally recommend whether they are classical or contemporary literature.