So we are beginning a new decade. And we like to think of that as perhaps allowing a fresh start. So in that latter spirit I thought I would here quickly yet again reintroduce myself by offering up a few points if you do not already know this about me:
My favorite novel of all time (that is not one of my own – LOL!): Pride and Prejudice, (1813).
My favorite novel (and probably the most influential on me as a writer), 20th century: The Winds of War, (1971).
My favorite novel published… in this 21st century? Hmm. I cannot say I have one…
…and that realization stopped me in my tracks.
I thought I would google the “best” novels of our current century thus far. What might be some of the possible choices I should read? The Guardian (a left-wing British newspaper) published a list in September:
Not all are fiction books. (To clarify: I am not discussing “indie” books here, many of which I have truly enjoyed over the last few years.) Having scrolled through that list, to be candid I have read NONE of them… because none had interested me. As an historian, I am frankly unsure how many would make a “2099” list looking back at the “century’s best,” or even be read much in “2120,” let alone in “2220.”
Among those twenty years of fiction is there, say, a Great Gatsby? Probably not… especially given at its release in 1925 Gatsby would almost certainly not have made a similar early-20th century list. Most in that Guardian list appear to have been written from “inspirations” that are rather narrowly rooted in early-21st century fears, sentiments, and priorities, and as such seem unlikely to stand the much-longer term test of time. So most will probably be little read a century from now aside from by those interested in exploring the “intellectual relics” of our period. I suspect perhaps like Washington Irving’s 1820 “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow,” based on what I know of it J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000), ranked #97, seems the most likely to make a centuries’-long major literary impression.
The “Number 1” book of 2000-2020 caught my attention because of what it is: the historical fiction Wolf Hall (2009). It revolves about the life of English King Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) advisor Thomas Cromwell. I have seen the television adaptation – again proving my (now late novelist) uncle’s contention that a screen adaptation is the best path to success nowadays for any author – and it was excellent drama.
However, I had been utterly uninterested in reading that source novel. Why? Because I have scant interest in Henry VIII and his “advisors” and their “intrigues.” Indeed I believe Henry and his herd have been too often whitewashed by Tudor historians/writers, with one for example noting:
“England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors” [than at any time in a hundred years].
It should actually be asked instead how much better off might the country have been had Henry been a truly decent and enlightened king? The 16th century “period costumes” by now tend to distract us from the uncomfortable reality that Henry and Co. were little better than rapacious, murdering thugs who terrorized much of the population. Henry’s ordering the beheadings of two of his wives was just for starters in a reign littered with horrific and plundering misgovernance at his vicious whim. So to me a “fictional” tale based around Henry’s “court” is akin to a Martin Scorsese film – the only substantive “difference” between them being Henry was called a “king” and not a kingpin.
Henry and his various hangers on-ers – including Thomas Cromwell – might even be bluntly compared at times with Josef Stalin and his 20th century clique. Members of his “close bunch” Stalin too regularly did away with when their usefulness to him ended or, as with Henry, his paranoia overwhelmed him. (Cromwell eventually found out what it was to have Henry turn on him.) Indeed Stalin’s second wife shot herself after disagreeing with him at a 1932 event; naturally she knew there was no “divorcing” Stalin. Did she fear he might have had her killed far more “inventively” for daring to question him in public? Yet clearly it might also be said “positively” of Stalin and his rule that his country “was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic” under him than at any time in a hundred years, uh… too.
Still, it may be an excellent novel as a novel. Considering that led me at last to have a look at it. And when I did, I was stunned when I noticed so many ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ and fewer star ratings. Focusing in on the ⭐️ reviews – which I usually consider harsh for any book because almost no book is THAT BAD – that offered “whys,” I sensed many of those readers (or frustrated readers) were looking to make a point. Amidst thousands of great ratings (including 55 percent being ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️) the only way those negative reviewers could “burst through” the applause and be noticed was to HAMMER the novel mercilessly. (About 10 percent of its ratings are ⭐️, which to me seems LOTS for a “great” book.) And they definitely got my attention.
Having read many, that one seems to sum up the overall ⭐️ criticisms fairly well.
Proof also that EVERY writer can receive REALLY bad reviews.
I read more beyond that – and quickly realized that I had been right a decade ago: it is not my kind of writing/reading. I also believe the “he” usage that so annoys that reviewer above – and others – seemingly usually refers to “Thomas Cromwell” himself: what “he” says and “he” sees, etc. Nevertheless, I thought I had begun to understand. I believe it is a mortal sin for a writer to confuse a reader. A reader cannot – indeed, should not – know everything that is happening because the story is unfolding before them, but they should EASILY identify who is speaking or who is thinking.
That is just my unimportant opinion naturally. Who am I to argue with such a major prize-winning style? Nonetheless I also don’t buy the argument (that some make in response to those readers’ criticisms) that those readers who dislike it because they assert it is confusing are dense or just plain stupid: They are novel readers; they should not have to try to be codebreakers.
I thought back suddenly to the modern historical novel – mentioned at the top – that has stylistically probably influenced me as a writer the most:
This is its opening page:
Interesting, Winds too was adapted for television… in a now famous 1980s massive US network miniseries:
And then there is one of my little historical novels…
…and its first page:
Neither that one nor my newer one is another Wolf Hall or The Winds of War. I am under no illusions about that. However, that 2017 historical effort above, and my more recent (2019) one, are how I write.
Happy New Year! 🙂