Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Favourite (English language) Novelists: an agonised Normblog poll response

Gah, choosing 'favourite' English language novelists is tough.

For a start, there are all those writers who fall more easily into the category of short story writers: with some heartbreak this means no place for Dorothy Parker.

Next were my thoughts on how many books someone had to have written (as novels) to count: for example, I adore and regularly re-read Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. I hardly know if he has written more novels -- checking up there is The Whalestoe Letters (an adjunct piece related to one of the House of Leaves narratives) and more recently Only Revolutions (which I haven't read). His debut is certainly a favourite novel, but does he count as a favourite novelist on the basis of a single text? What about Mark Gatiss, whose two Lucifer Box novels have proved so enjoyable? What about the likes of Robertson Davies? A Canadian author, his Cornish Trilogy on art, myth and academia brought me to friendship with the lovely Rita (soon after I had finished reading it, we were on a plane together and I couldn't help but spot she was reading the same book... a Transatlantic friendship was born). But I haven't had chance to follow up on more of his writings - could this fondly re-read trilogy of novels allow me to include him?

And what about friends, whose novel writings I have loved and enjoy re-reading? Clare Sudbery and Marie Phillips could easily claim a place on a similar 'favourite novels' list and I so love their writing styles that it seems churlish to feel so ambivalent about whether they would 'qualify'...

I have to admit that despite reading plenty of fiction by women, I was a tad mortified by the (gender) imbalance of my eventual list. Sure, plenty of favourite women authors were excluded on the grounds of them being short story or essay or memoir writers. But I can almost hear the cries of horror at their being no Edith Wharton (though I did really enjoy The Custom of the Country), no Virginia Woolf (I have to proclaim in honesty that I am not awful fond of her writing beyond her essays), and - waits in terror for the real backlash - no Jane Austen... certainly I have enjoyed some of each of their works, but favourites? My favourite Austen is Northanger Abbey and though I have liked and admired her other works I don't think I can honestly say I would choose her writings above certain others as 'favourites'.

I toyed with Charlotte Bronte (and in the end compromised by a certain inclusion on the final list in honour of Jane Eyre). I pondered on included Toni Morrison for Beloved, a work that still astonishes me on each re-reading. I considered the (over?-)prolific but facsinating Joyce Carol Oates. Though not re-read recently I also fondly recalled Marge Piercy whose works I continue to recommend. And what of Angela Carter, whose shorter works and non-fiction are my favourites of her writings (though The Passion of the New Eve is a novel I often re-read)?

Mind, in thinking of the women I excluded I also thought hard about all the male authors who I may like and admire but whose work doesn't necessarily make me 'sing', bring me to delight or make me feel anything much beyond a disengaged awe. Pynchon, Updike, DeLilo, Ellroy (though I do like selected of Ellroy's works)... none of these really 'touch' me to think of them as favourite no matter how much/little I may read of their works. As you well know, despite many attempts and even requirements (I really should have read more for my PhD), I remain disenchanted by the prose of Henry James excepting Daisy Miller an early-ish shorter work and - funnily - The Golden Bowl (his finale). Phillip Roth I admire more, but I really have to be in the mood for his writing as much as certain friends of mine rave continuously over his works (and whom I love to hear conversing about him). I feel similarly about Paul Auster (and again I will duck from the firing of friends in their rage) - I can truly admire and be enthralled, but favourite? Alisdair Gray is an acquired taste for sure and I do like his works a good deal - but would be take a place on my list?? What of the frothy, safe-on-his-writing-patch, flights of Kinky Friedman?? What of Ian Rankin? (and yes, Alex, I know that George Pelacanos hasn't got mentioned here but so far I have read too little of his works to properly comment -- though if the majesterial 'The Wire' counted as novels his contributions would surely be in with a shout...)

As the list I finally chose felt frothy enough I reluctantly dropped Eoin Colfer, despite being so addicted to the lovely Artemis Fowl works (and others by this enjoyable author). I also thought long and hard about ommitting George Orwell, despite 1984 and Animal Farm. Again, it came down to what I liked the writing for and it was chiefly the essays despite the influential power of those two key works.

After all that the final list came out as follows: it feels very arbitrary, but also a reasonable reflection of recent or continuous reads. And barring one selection, there is limited doubt that each can lay claim to the role of novelist. Tommorrow, as ever I may have changed my mind about several of my inclusions and exclusions...

In alphabetical order:
Kelley Armstrong - though her most recent works have fallen a little from the heights hit by Bitten, her writings remain fun and great page-turners. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and her characters.

Lawrence Block - the Matt Scudder novels are amongst my most favourite series of novels in the crime genre. Wonderful.

Christopher Brookmyre - for being just the most wickedly hilarious writer of Scottish based narratives

Charles Dickens - shockingly I think my only heavyweight author, but for his overall oeuvre and the pleasures his works have provided he had to have a place

Arthur Conan Doyle - the one I felt most ambiguous about including, but he is too much a favourite writer to exclude

Jasper Fforde - after a long promotion via friends I have recently gotten into this most enjoyable author. And The Eyre Affair seemed to make up for my excluding poor Charlotte Bronte.

Neil Gaiman - though still best known for his graphic novel opus The Sandman (10 volumes, count 'em), Gaiman is such a fine writer of the novel form that he truly warranted a place here.

Alison Lurie - it took me a long while to realise when I first started reading Lurie's works (a) how old she was and (b) when many of them were written. Some may say they are 'of their period(s)' but I have always found them enjoyable portrayals of the world into which I can slip.

Phillip Pullman - if he had only written The Dark Materials trilogy, that would be sufficient despite all my previously raised caveats for choosing. That the Sally Lockhart novels are so fine makes his work a treasure.

Dorothy L Sayers - she's probably almost totally out of fashion now, and some of her characterisations are less than comfortable for modern readers. But there is a verve to her Wimsey novels that never fails to draw me in.
[apologies for the decrease in provided links - my tummy rumbled for food!!!]


AnnaWaits said...

Amazing post... I think I should have elaborated a little bit... glad you're a Wharton fan! I did The Children on my course and absolutely loved it. Bronte got onto my list because of Jane Eyre and Villette combined. I shall have to look into the novelists on your lists who I haven't, to my shame, even heard of!

Ms Heathen said...

Great selection!

You've not only got me thinking who would go on my list, but also given me some interesting recommendations to follow up on.