Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What I Learned From the 100 Best Novels - Why Diversity Matters

This week is all about my journey to finish the monstrous 100 Best Novels challenge. I am taking time to reflect on various aspects of my journey and thoughts I had along the way. Yesterday, I talked about what makes a book a classic in the first place. Tomorrow, I'll be sharing my favorites (and least favorites) from the list. 

Today, though, I wanted to talk about my biggest takeaway from this challenge. Over the past four years, I've told a lot of people about my efforts to read these books. If they inquire further about my experience, this is what I share. These are the thoughts I have not been able to shake for years. This is the sentiment which has weighed on me since very early on. 

In fact, I even talked about it in my post announcing that I was taking on the challenge. Throughout the whole journey, I have been so aware of this issue. I watched it manifest itself in countless ways as I read through the list. So, I want to spend some time talking about it today.

Why Diversity in Literature Matters

Early in the challenge, I wrote this:
"The book fit well into the mold I have come to expect from the Modern Library list. Layered, rich, slow-moving, and enjoyable at times. I am wondering if, as I read through this list, I need to balance with even more entertainment-style books. Or different genres, at least. After all, to only eat meat, while delicious, is taxing on the system and unbalanced. I need lighter and different fare." - from my review of The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)
 There is no doubt that there are some truly incredible books on this list. As I said, I'll be sharing some of them tomorrow. Over the last four and a half years, I have been exposed to some of the most incredible literary talent. Most of these books were heavy, deep reads. I definitely had to learn to balance my reading habits with lighter fiction. I also, however, had to learn to balance another scale.

Literary representation.

Intellectually, I know how important representation is. When we see people like us doing things or being things or achieving things, it enables us to believe we can do the same. As a woman, I'm familiar with this. Seeing a woman do something for the first time can be an incredibly moving experience. As a woman with big dreams, it encourages me to see women go before me, to hear their stories, and to witness their achievements. 

So, when I first looked at this list and saw so few female authors, I was troubled. I knew from the start it would be frustrating for me to have such little representation in voice and experience. Having completed the list now, I could not have been more correct. Now, though, I also recognize the dearth of multicultural voices as well. It's not something I was as cognizant of when I started, but I see the drastic imbalance there as well.

So, practically, why does this matter?

Well, for one thing, when you read through this list, it feels at times as though nearly every book was written by an old, British, white man. The plots run together and can feel utterly homogeneous. There are so many which focus on colonialism, English country homes, or the World Wars. 

Now, none of those are bad topics on which to write a book and all three of those categories contained incredible works of fiction. It's just that there are so. many. more. things on which to write. So many more experiences to represent. So many more voices to hear. 

I could talk about any of those themes more specifically, but I wanted to dig into the representation of the World Wars a bit more. lot of these books focused the World Wars. Those wars were culturally defining for nearly every person on the planet at the time. So, it's no wonder so many authors wove them into their narratives. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) at least looked at the war through a different lens. Personally, I got really tired of reading about that era, but I also understand that for people who lived during or just after that time, an author's ability to capture the feeling of it would be incredibly powerful. I imagine decades from now, an author will perfectly capture the mood of post-9/11 America and all those who were alive during that time will be in awe at having those feelings reignited through written word. We'll deem that work a classic just as all these World War novels are. Yet, the monotony of reading about that time became heavy. I craved diversity of setting as well as voice. Near the end of the challenge, I wrote:
"I am just so tired of war stories. I recognize what hugely impactful events the world wars were. It makes sense that every book written around that era at least references them. Still, it's hard for me to connect with stories of soldiers on the battlefield. I have absolutely no life experience which can help me understand such circumstances. I know, I know. That makes it even more important for me to be reading these stories. I get that, too. I just...I'm tired of them. There are so many unique stories to tell in the world and I'm annoyed by the high number of stories from the trenches that made it onto this prestigious list." - From my review of The Naked and the Dead (Norman Mailer)
I'm preaching to myself there, I realize. It was good for me to read about the experience of people who lived during that era. However, I would like to also read about people of other eras and other experiences and other fears and other joys and other cultures.
I will say, I did appreciate how many of the books had deeply spiritual themes. I didn't expect that, but I really liked it, particularly during a time in my life when I'm wrestling with my own faith journey. Many of the authors approached spirituality from very different perspectives and that kept the theme interesting and engaging. 

Throughout this journey, I was overwhelmed with the need for more voices on the page. This problem does not take away from the stories of white, English men, but it does demand more voices be added to the conversation. I've come away from this challenge determined to add more diversity into my reading. I know from experience how reading a story about a person unlike myself can really help me to understand their circumstances and cultivate empathy for them. I want to do more of that. I want to be a listener and literature is one easy way to do that. 

To close out, I did want to acknowledge some books from the list that did bring some diversity to the party. I did not want to preach about this issue and not recognize the books that did represent minority voices in some way or another. 

Diversity in Authorship

Diversity in Content

  • Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and 1984 (George Orwell) - These books introduced the world to two vastly different dystopias. Neil Postman does a really interesting comparison of the two in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) - World War II and aliens and all kinds of crazy stuff. Vonnegut was far out of the box.
  • Animal Farm (George Orwell) - Talking animals revolt against humans in parallel to the communist revolutions of the twentieth century. It's educational and enjoyable. 
  • Lord of the Flies (William Golding) - This, to me, qualifies as a classic on so many levels. It wasn't one of my favorites, but it's brilliant in the unique way it explores 
  • Deliverance (James Dickey) - This book caught me completely off guard. And I still don't want to spoil why.
  • The Maltese Falcon (Dashiell Hammett) - Such a fun diversion. A classic detective novel.
  • Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner) - I was entranced by this book. I've recommended it quite a bit as well. It portrays life on the western frontier with skilled reverence. 
  • Ragtime (E. L. Doctorow) - I can't fully quantify why this one stood out to me. It was just unique.
  • The Call of the Wild (Jack London) - Because of Animal Farm, I can't even say this is the only one of the list with an animal protagonist. 
  • The Magus (John Fowles) - This book was weird. Fowles spends the whole book messing with the reader's definition of reality. 
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain) - A regular little soap opera, complete with a scandalous murder. 

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