Evaluating Not-Dead Authors§


If you look at the list of novels that I’ve read, you’ll see that almost all are written by authors who are dead. Originally, this was because in school modern novels are questionable material of which schools stay clear. Later in college when I majored in English, older classical novels were assigned. From there I pursued the classics on my own. Only in the past year or so have I begun to read more modern works (i.e., Graham Greene). However, I’ve not read many contemporary novels, novels involving current settings and circumstances.

Now I’ve begun implementing a plan of reviewing modern classics, as well as newly published novels. It is this last part which is difficult for me. How should I review them? What shall I say about them? I know how to read and dissect a novel that is clearly a classic—it’s clear by the test of time and by its celebrated status, as well as by its own merits. With this in mind, when Graham Greene’s first novels were published, did it have the feel of a classic? The first Greene novel I read was The End of the Affair. I read it because I saw the movie of the same name and thought it a passionate movie. With that endorsement, with that backdrop, I approached that novel assuming it was a classic. I also approach such novels with the feeling that they are classics if they are set in a charming time, or just a time that is not my own. Novels set in the 1960s when I was a boy, for instance, have a feel that I don’t respect for some subtle reason. Basically, I find difficulty being easily charmed by a story in a modern setting. They say an expert is someone that lives more than fifty miles away from you. In this case, a great author is one that’s dead and lived more than fifty years before me and preferably in England or some country of which I have little knowledge. The distance of location, time, and other factors help to add charm and to smooth over the harshness of reality in a novel. Therefore, I think it’s more difficult for me to be intrigued and impressed by a modern novel.

With these personal deficiencies in mind, I’m a bit perplexed at how I should write my literary criticisms of newly published novels. My perspective is not fair or appropriate. For instance, I’m reading a new novel called House Lights by Leah Hager Cohen. It was just published by W.W. Norton. I’m almost finished reading it and have annotated many lines in my copy of the book. It reads well and is interesting. However, I feel that I cannot evaluate it the same as I would a Greene, or a Calvino, or a Dostoevskii novel. It’s not a fair method of analysis. The charm of a different time and a different way of life can smooth out a novel, add a filter to hide blemishes. With this novel by Cohen, she speaks of life in Cambridge and the surrounding area—this is an area of the world of which I have some personal knowledge from my boyhood and during the times when I lived there while on the run from the hurricane. Her protagonist is also less than a decade younger than me, so there are childhood references with which I’m familiar. This is all too close to home, too close to my reality, too personal. It’s not softened in the least by time or distance. Additionally, the pace of the story is different from what I used to reading: it’s not in the long dragged out style of an Austen or Dickensen novel with its surprising and delightful twists of fate and improbable coincidences. Nor does her novel move with the rapidity of a Buchan thriller or a Chandler detective story. Further still, while it deals with human emotions, it doesn’t present harsh and socially unacceptable emotions and actions like a Greene novel. It’s just a well written story involving moderately normal people trying to cope with life, trying to understand each other and their selves. The familiarity of setting and time, the normality of characters and the somewhat normal situations make the novel far from daring and as a result I find it difficult to assess by the same standards as I would the classics that I’ve read.

I could just say that House Lights is not a classic, but I don’t know that. My normal sense of a classic novel is distorted, out of focus from being to close to the subject. Still, Cohen’s novel probably won’t be categorized as a classic. But is that necessary? Do we write novels strictly with the goal to write a classic? Or do we write a novel to tell a story that we want to tell, that we’re drawn to tell? I think this latter reason is primary. My reason for reviewing novels and the method by which I had intended to take was to learn more about writing novels from the examples of others. This does not change whether the novel is a older classic, or a newly published novel. When I write my novels, I certainly hope that one day they will be seen as classics, but the driving force is the same as for many authors: a desire to write a novel. I want it to be well written, to be read, and to be understood and appreciated. That seems to be universal for authors like Greene and Cohen. So, when it comes to analyzing new novels, I think I just need to develop a method that addresses those concerns and goals. When I write my review of Cohen’s book over the next couple of weeks, I think I can begin to form that method, a method by which I can learn about writing a novel in my current time and setting.