Monday, May 22, 2006
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What's the best mass-market paperback novel of the past 25 years?
So the New York Times polled the literary best and brightest to determine the greatest novel of the past 25 years (It's Beloved, for those who don't want to click through). They've also got an interpretive essay by A.O. Scott, and an online discussion forum with novelists Jane Smiley and Michael Cunningham, critic Stephen Metcalf, a critic, and professor of English Morris Dickstein.
I must make the following confession upon reading the top five on the list: I haven't read any of them. Jonathan Demme ruined Beloved for me with his execrable film version of it, though if Stephen Metcalf's assessment in Slate is accurate, I'm not sure how much I'd like it anyway:
What Beloved does feel grounded in, and firmly, is a repudiation of everything that exerts a soft but nonetheless unpleasant authority in a young person's life. In place of the need to master hard knowledge or brute facts, there is folk wisdom; in place of science, animism; in place of the strict father, the self-sufficient matriarchy, first of Baby Suggs', and later Sethe's, house; and finally, in place of a man's world, the hallowed sorority of women, especially women of color—though on this last, Morrison does not insist too heavily.Why don't my tastes overlap with the New York Times Book Review? There are a couple of possibilities.
First, when I flash back to the books that really grabbed me over that span of time, I find I think first of non-American novels -- Salman Rushdie' The Moor's Last Sigh, Milan Kundera's THe Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tibor Fischer's Under the Frog, or Alan Bennett's The Clothes They Stood Up In.
Second, the American books that come to mind -- Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls, Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe, Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods -- don't have the sweep of Beloved or Rabbit Angstrom. Meghan O'Rourke -- my latest intellectual crush -- makes this point in her Slate essay on the topic:
The notion that "small" novels are unworthy of high critical esteem has been especially pervasive of late. Somewhere along the way, the critique of the small novel got bound up with a critique of the well-crafted novel that proliferated with the rise of MFA programs. Even as Gatsby, Lolita, and Rabbit Run (all short novels) entered our canon, the "small" novel became inextricably linked in critic's minds with domestic and generally female novels of the sort that Gail Caldwell, the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, indicted in a 2003 interview, when she lamented the dire state of American fiction. "There are a great number of contemporary fiction writers who go for the myopic sensitive-heart rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel," she complained, announcing her love of "big brilliant novels" and praising the panoramic skills of Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon. In 2004, after the National Book Award nominees were announced—in an act of apparent rebelliousness, the judges had chosen five short, lyrical books by women, leaving off Philip Roth's Plot Against America—Caryn James wrote in the New York Times that the real problem with the finalists was not that they were unknown, but that they did not write "big, sprawling novels."There is a final, possible reason: I like potboilers more than I like highbrow fiction. If I was strapped to a polygraph and had to confess which novel moved me the most in the past 25 years, I'd have to cop to Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs.
So..... the hardworking staff here at danieldrezner.com encourages it's readers to submit their choice for the greatest mass-market novel of the past 25 years!! [How is that defined?--ed. Any novel that was popular enough to eventually be released in a mass-market paperback.] My choice is Silence of the Lambs -- let me know yours.
UPDATE: Ah, this post is perfectly timed to coincide with pulp fiction week at Slate!!posted by Dan on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM
Neal Stephenson - Snowcrash might be a good choice. Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench gang (though this might have come out before 1980). Don't know if those are mass market enough, but they ain't hoity-toity enough for the NY Times...posted by: Pork Chop Lover on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy. (Think Ellroy does the psycho killer thing better than Harris, Dan, though his writing gets increasingly unreadable)
I have been reading less modern fiction over the years, as perfectly respectable potboilers from the past are available for far less than the $9.00 one has to pay for paper backs these days. I'd take Wilkie Collins No Name or Armadale (or The Moonstone or Woman In White) as page turner fiction over almost any of the mass murder books one encounters these days.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Though published 27 years ago and only the first book in a five-part trilogy, these qualities surely distinguish it from its worthy competitors in this category.posted by: PD Shaw on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1986.
It's still got me thinking.posted by: kwo on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
"Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card.posted by: Ben on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
My favorite, *The Name of the Rose*, by Umberto Eco, technically misses the cutoff by a year.posted by: Rachel on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Maybe it's all the kerfuffle about The Davinci Code, but I really really liked Foucault's Pendulum.posted by: Mitchell Young on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Does Tom Robbins' "Skinny Legs and All" qualify as "mass-market"?posted by: Bartman on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Dan Simmons duology Ilium and Olymposposted by: Mark Olson on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
For values of "greatest" approximating "most important," this is another vote for Neuromancer. Si monumentum requiris circumspice
Even though Count Zero is a better book.posted by: Doug on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I love the suggestions so far, looks like you draw a SciFi crowd, Professor. Let me add Clancy's Red Storm Rising, which apparently has the requisite length and scope to be considered good, but lacks metaphors.posted by: Farinata on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I would vote for Neal Stephenson's System of the World series, along with the companion Cryptonomicon as my greatest in the last 25 years. I know it's long and really just an action adventure series, but anything that can force me to think about early monitary and trade policy is a great work.posted by: Jim Mc on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Why is Jane Smiley given such prominence by the NYTimes? Puff reviews of her drearily tendentious novellettes plus frequent printing of her snarky letters to the editor on US politics. Is there anyone on these boards who has ever opened one of her books, let alone toughed it out to the conclusion?posted by: thibaud on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
What is really depressing about the list is the inclusion of Philip Roth's The Plot Against the America. A real-throw away.posted by: arthur on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Anything by Terry Pratchettposted by: han meng on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Blindness, by Jose Saramago. More fantastical than sci fi, vulgar in parts, but compelling throughout.posted by: apu on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Hm. "The Stand," in its original less-bloated version.
Just b/c it's not cited above. "Neuromancer" is another I've read to pieces. And what about "The Winds of War"?posted by: Anderson on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Perfume by Patrick Susskindposted by: Luke on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Anything by Allan Furst.posted by: des on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I think the greater condemnation of the NYT list is not how many of them you've read, but how many of those you haven't read you want to. I read Beloved for a class that dealt with "recent" Literature Nobel Laureates, and found it to be the worst book we read (Mahfouz's Children of Gebelaawi was my favorite).
I think the most important American mass-market PB of the past quarter-century is probably The Hunt for Red October, but my choice was the best is probably Cryptonomicon. Note, though, that this is an American list, and thus excludes The Publishing Juggernaut To Crush All Others, in which case I'd have to really think about it.posted by: Tom on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Neuromancer is not a bad choice, but I have to go with Han Meng above.
In no particular order:
Neuromancer - William Gibson - turned everything upside down.
Any of the Prey novels by John Camp, although I think Sudden Prey may be his strongest. Taken as a whole, the series is an awesome accomplishment.
Fire Upon the Deep/A Deepness In the Sky - Vernor Vinge...conceptually, though unlikely, the Zones of Thought are amazing, and, in some ways, perhaps the shape of things to come? I like to think so.
The Stand/It - The first for its evocation of the human spirit, the second for its evocation of mid-century middle America. Although it was Maine, everybody of a certain age grew up there before the world went mad.
Dreams of Flesh and Sand - W. T. Quick (Well, what the hell....)posted by: Bill Quick on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I have to agree with both "Ender's Game" and "Foucault's Pendulum", though the books are about as dissimilar as is possible in fiction.posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I'd vote for any of the Aubery/Maturin novels by Patric O'Brian (tho' Master and Commander was published 27 years ago, IIRC).posted by: BritAm on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Just to throw in some Canadian content, how about Barney's Version, Mordecai Richler's last novel? Funny and poignant.posted by: nee on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
The "Flashman" novels by GM Fraser, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (that one may be over 25 years old, but, oh well.posted by: Pilgrim on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Anything by Christopher Brookmyreposted by: chris on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I'll take Terry Pratchett, in the "The Truth" as one of the best mass market books.posted by: M. Thompson on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
For me. Call Of The Wild.posted by: FlsoridSteve on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
What's the Publishing Juggernaut to crush all others?
One more vote for Cryptonomicon and The Stand. I'd add Grisham's 'A Time to Kill' to the truly mass-market audience and 'The Cardinal of the Kremlin' to the Clancy list.posted by: Klug on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Dohh.... You said 25 years. Then... hmmm... Scalzi's latest Sci Fi would do it for me. Specifically "Old Man's War"posted by: FloridaSteve on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Mark Helprin: "A Winters Tale"...
I'd have to go with either Ender's Game or Robert Jordan's The Eye of the World.posted by: Donavon Pfeiffer on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Notice that many of these books, like the Flashman series, *used* to be mass-market but have since been upsized to trade paperbacks.
The reasons are twofold. (1) Trade costs more. (2) Trade books aren't stripped, whereas mass-market books that don't sell have their covers stripped off & returned to the publisher, while the book is trashed. Thus, backlist books like Flashman that move slowly but steadily are being issued as trades.
Bridges of Madison Countyposted by: Gibby on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I'm gonna have to second on Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" books. Those are amazing. I'm just waiting (and waiting and waiting) for him to finish the darn things.
I also have to say that I thoroughly enjoy anything by Michael Crichton (like "State of Fear") and Jeffrey Deaver (like "The Devil's Teardrop").
"Literature" is too stilted and high-and-mighty for my tastes. Give me a good mass-market novel any day of the weekposted by: NMUMatthew on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
I'd recommend any of these as enjoyable reads:
Phantoms - Dean Koontz
It - Stephen King
Still Life with Crows - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childposted by: Dan on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Robert Jordan? ...the horror... Terrible terrible waste of shelf space.
Re: foucault's pendulum: it is a sublime book, but a bit intellectual to be considered "mass market". Nonetheless, it does fit Dan's definition, and so it gets my vote.
If it didn't, however, I'd suggest the following:
Not in response to the main post, but in response to thibaud at May 22, 2006 08:53 PM, I feel the need to say that Jane Smiley's "The Greenlanders" was terrific.posted by: Grant on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Any one of the fine "Executioner" novels of Don Pendleton, but I always thought #16, SICILIAN SLAUGHTER, a particularly fine piece of literature.posted by: Bilwick on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I like to read book reviews but find the New York Times reviews as mind numbing as the books they review. Count me as another lover of the so-called potboiler. And I read (or listen) to a lot of them. My favorites of the past 25 years:
"The Color Purple" and/or "Fried Green Tomatoes" -
If you prefer Stephen King, it would have to be "The Green Mile", an instant classic, containing morals within morals.posted by: J.S.Bridges on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I'm afaid it's outside your 25-year cutoff, but the Illuminatus! trilogy (by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson) was a big influence on me.
In the last 25 years? I'd vote for Diamond Age (by Neil Stephenson), though I see from comments above me that Crytonomicon and Snow Crash are also popular.posted by: Jerry on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I think it was only released in trade paperback and hardback form, but _The Engineer of Human Souls_ by Josef Skvorecky is almost certainly my favorite single book of the last twenty-five years.posted by: JakeBCool on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
The prince of Tides by Pat Conroy.posted by: Kiki on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
And of the 25 years before that, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
The last line of which is utterly devastating.posted by: Doug on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
"In place of the need to master hard knowledge or brute facts, there is folk wisdom; in place of science, animism; in place of the strict father, the self-sufficient matriarchy, first of Baby Suggs', and later Sethe's, house; and finally, in place of a man's world, the hallowed sorority of women, especially women of color—though on this last, Morrison does not insist too heavily."
I don't need to read "beloved" to experience these things, all I have to do is visit the nearest housing project!posted by: Jeff on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Elmore Leonard - Get Shorty, Freaky Deakyposted by: Daze on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Of the past 25 years?
It's either To Reign in Hell or Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grill, both by Steven K. Z. Brust.
The 25 years before that? Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Anson Heinlein.
Only women's and minority studies' majors actually like Beloved. It's a horrible novel about a woman tortured by an unremitting past. There's nothing escapist or redeeming in it. What the heck are paperbacks for if not escapism?posted by: flaime on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Bilwick: LOL, ROFL. Haven't thought of Mack Bolan in eons. I was always partial to #8, CHICAGO WIPE-OUT -- guess I'm just a sucker for stories of the home town. Sadly that's out of the window (1971). So I'll have to punt and vote for Stephen Coonts, FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER.posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
The Publishing Juggernaut to Crush All Others is the Harry Potter novels. When USAToday did their list of the best-selling books over the last 20 years at the time of the 20th anniversary of their book list, the 5 of the novels that had been released at that point occupied 5 of the 6 top slots. No, they're not American, and none really stands alone as well as, say, Cryptonomicon, but the series will actually end, unlike Jordan's Wheel of Time novels.posted by: Tom on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I'm with Daze--give me anything by Elmore Leonard. Tishomingo Blues may be my favorite so far, although I'm nowhere near through the whole library.posted by: The Unabrewer on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Last 25 years?
Greg Bear, Darwin's Children
The 25 before that?
Lin Carter, Titan of the World's Endposted by: Alan Kellogg on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Alan Moore's The Watchmen, or for sth. more conventional, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. The Watchmen was a great step forward for the quality of, and acceptance of, the graphic novel. It has cult status but also sells in high numbers. As for Jurassic Park, it combines a page-turning pulpy quality with some genuinely interesting ideas. Moreover, it spawned perhaps the last true blockbuster Spielberg will make.posted by: Bina on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Christopher Moore, _Lamb_ (technically only released in cut-priced trade paperback, but I'm counting it)
Terry Pratcett, _Small Gods_ or possibly _Night Watch_
John Varley, _Steel Beech_posted by: Dave on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I've tried to read most of the books on the list and of the top three I've completed and enjoyed Beloved and Blood Meridian. Much as I liked DeLillo's White Noise and Libra, I've never been able to get to the halfway point before putting Underworld back on the shelf.
I'd recommend all the Cormac McCarthy novels without reservation, well if you don't mind violence, and Beloved with the reservation that having seen the movie probably will have a negative effect in terms of how it is structured. I can't find a source now, but I read at the time that Oprah Winfrey first approached Jodie Foster, who'd done her senior thesis on Toni Morrison, about directing the movie and Foster passed, telling her the novel couldn't be adapted.
It's actually a pretty decent list given what could be on there, but Ender's Game and Snow Crash would be one-two on my list.posted by: Patrick on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I hate to repeat the choices of others, but...
Pratchett's The Truth is just amazing.
Gibson's three cyberpunk books seem to me to make up one extended riff--Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive.
If you'll allow something older than 25 years--Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang, about overreach by the FBI, published in (I think) 1964. And a terrific mystery.posted by: Donald A. Coffin on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" (although I'm still not sure how much of the book is fiction).
For fiction prognostication, I'll take Clancy's "Debt of Honor" (followed by the "Sum of All Fears").posted by: A fine scotch on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Hunt for Red October or Little, Big (both of which I read in mass-market paperback editions). I even knew a communist in college who nonetheless loved Hunt for Red October.posted by: gzk on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
I have a question for the Ender's Game proponents. It probably sounds insulting, but I really don't intend it to be.
I vote for The Bonfire of the Vanities or A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe. Both were very good and also important novels, despite the more recent critical drubbings Wolfe has gotten. The Corrections by Franzen was also a very good novel.
For more deliberately popular work, Grisham's entire body of work has to be considered just for the enormous influence it has had on popular perceptions of the legal profession. (for good or ill is debatable)posted by: I'llbeyou on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Not sure if this is quite in the 25 year period, but "Lonesome Dove" by Larry McMurtry is my favorite novel of recent American novels, and I'd second Dan on In the Lake of the Woods, its excellent.posted by: pw on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Charles McCarry, The Last Supper (1983) (not sure of date of mass market pb edition; recently reissued in hardback) is arguably the best spy novel ever written. Even if it's not, it's certainly in a league with the best of LeCarre, Furst, etc., both as a page turner and as a well written and characterized novel. On top of this, it combines several favorite beach reading genres -- spy thriller, New England WASP family saga, and CIA roman a clef. Not to mention Nazis, Vietnam, Berlin (Cold War and Weimar), inscrutible Red Chinese out of The Manchurian Candidate, Oedipal obsession, Kennedy assassinationology, and both moles and elephants. All while maintaining a LeCarre-like tone of moral seriousness and historical and tradecraft realism (spurious or otherwise, though McCarry apparently was a CIA agent for a while).
The Last Supper is one of several spy novels involving a hero, "Paul Christopher," that McCarry wrote in the 1970s and early 80s and that are at the top of the genre. His earlier and later books, some involving Christopher or his relatives are not bad,* and, in some cases, very entertaining, but nowhere near as good as his 3 or 4 classic Paul Christopher novels.
* Actually, a lot of his more recent political novels are pretty bad but still enjoyable in a guilty pleasure kind of way, particularly because they often contain wacked-out versions of the qualities that made his best work terrific. See, e.g., Lucky Bastard and Shelley's Heart, which, among other things, come across as right-wing nut case tracts, not, as Seinfeld would say, that there's anything wrong with that.posted by: Martin on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
Prince of Tides, Pat Conroyposted by: Don S on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.
"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.
I'd have to go for Barbara Kingsolver's 'Prodigal Summer' - a great read and the best and most painless explanation of ecological balance thrown in to boot. Also Julia Glass' 'Three Junes' - incredibly lovely writing and a wonderful story.
+1 for Stephenson's Cryptonomicon
transcendent.posted by: stephen o'grady on 05.22.06 at 11:09 AM [permalink]
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