Friday, November 20, 2009

The New Classics

This week's Booking Through Thursday question asks what authors are going to last:
Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?
This is a graduate-level question. I mean, Dickens, Austen, and Bronte probably did not consider whether anyone would be reading their books 100 years later. And I like to think that all my favorite authors will retain their appeal, as unlikely as that would be. So how can we know? My stab in the dark list includes: Saul Bellow Ian McEwan John Irving My thinking is not subject to close scrutiny. It is not based on thorough knowledge because I have not read everything these authors wrote. Perhaps Bellow does not even qualify because his books already have some years on them and may not count as "this era." But I think that the books by these authors might last because they are character-driven, complex fiction, not tied to a particular period of time. Although the stories may include particular historical events, the books do not depend on those events. They are enjoyable because of the people in them and how those people relate to each other. For instance, I prefer John Updike to John Irving. But I wonder if his Rabbit books will carry the same charge 100 years from now. They so perfectly capture post-WWII America -- the sexual revolution, the Vietnam home front, all of it. But will readers 100 years from now care about, or be able to appreciate the nuances of, the shifting zeitgeist that so shaped Rabbit Angstrom's life? On the other hand, books like Irving's World According to Garp or A Prayer for Owen Meany, or Bellow's Herzog or Humbolt's Gift, are great stories that do not require the reader to have first-hand experience. Like with Dickens' books, there are a lot of characters doing a lot of stuff. These books are entertaining, but intricate. McEwan is more of a flyer, and a couple of his earlier books do not deserve to be read today, let alone 100 years from now. But I included him on the list for a couple of reasons. First, because books like Atonement fit in with the above description. Even though the book is set in a certain time and involves a particular battle, the story does not depend on those events. The story is about the people. Future readers can understand all they need to about the historical events from the book itself -- they do not need independent knowledge. Second, McEwan's books are particularly clever and give the reader some big ideas to chew on after the plot fades. If idea-based novels are going to survive, McEwan's will be among them. Enough. I wish I could be around to learn the real answer.

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