Friday, April 21, 2017

FFB: 100 Best Books books (and lists and such)

The other day, FFB founder and usual gatherer Patti Abbott was asking her social-media correspondents what she should look into for key works of fantasy fiction, since she felt that she hadn't done enough reading in that area. She received a lot of mostly good suggestions, in the way such things go, and I was reminded of all the works that exist, as books of recommendations and online lists of varying degrees of institutional and demotic weight, that try to scratch the same itch...and the books, certainly, are there to make a few bucks while serving their argumentation and illumination purposes as well.

I'm also surprised, given that I'm a sucker for such volumes, that I've only "formally" addressed two of the (primarily) crime fiction volumes of this sort in FFB entries, H.R. F. Keating's Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books and David Morrell and Hank Wagner 's anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, while mentioning others from time to time, such as Anthony Burgess's Ninety-Nine Novels and particularly Stephen Jones and Kim Newman's Horror: 100 Best Books, which, like the Morrell & Wagner is one of those which taps a hundred or so other writers to chose a single volume they'd like to highlight as one of a hundred that deserve inclusion. Sentiment plays a role at times, as does a certain desire on the part of some contributors to challenge the assumptions of the reader (Robert Bloch, for example, cited a now rather obscure book by a now rather overlooked writer, Alexander Laing's 1935 novel The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck; Robert McCammon brings in Walter Van Tilburg Clark's brilliant and harrowing western The Track of the Cat). The Newman and Jones book was eventually followed by Horror: Another 100 Best
Books, which as a second bite is if anything more interesting than the first, as most of the low-hanging classics were already dealt with in the first volume...allowing for the argument, in all senses, to move onto not only those inexcusably missing from the first volume but also more works that are more usually thought of as Not Horror, but fantasy, suspense fiction, science fiction, absurdist fiction and the like to be proposed in the horror context. 

Seemingly, Michael Moorcock and James Cawthorn's Fantasy: The 100 Best Books would be the title we all should collectively have handed to Patti, along with the more narrowly-focused David Pringle volume, Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. The Moorcock and Cawthorn is a better selection of titles, in part due to the wider range of dates and not restricting itself to novels (though it does overrepresent novels), and including fewer items (while still including some) that are more historically important or interesting (and usually both) than remotely good by any stretch of critical consideration: several relatively minor writers get two selections in the Moorcock/Cawthorn while others are missing altogether, while Pringle, while including such worthies as R. A. Lafferty and William Kotzwinkle (and more Angela Carter than the other guys did), also finds room for the execrable work of  Stephen Donaldson and Robert Heinlein's at best half-assed Glory Road. M&C inexcusably leave out Borges; neither book includes any Italo Calvino or Jane Yolen or...

But since these are all matters of taste, tempered by genuine desire (usually, at very least) to soberly assess the quality of the given work, and none can be considered a True Writ From On High except by the dullest among us (and, yet, sadly, too often they are treated thus, by the most institutional among us), as is clear when one also considers the similarly intended Modern Library rankings, between their editorial panel's choices of the 100 best fiction books  (with mostly selections that are hard to argue with, except in the rankings, and a few that are ludicrous or nearly so) and the popularity poll the Modern Library gathered votes for at the same time (many ludicrous choices, and some merely obviously the result of fannish enthusiasm game-rigging the votes, and a few choices that are notable for being rather better than some on the panel's list).  Flannery O'Connor and Thomas Pynchon made the Vox Pop list, along with trash from Rand, Hubbard and Bach, but didn't make the Expert List, which instead assures us that Winesburg, Ohio (interesting, but more groundbreaking than immortal) and Tropic of Cancer were more worthy than anything by any number of other, better writers, including O'Connor and Pynchon. Larry McCaffery and Radcliffe students were among those who came up with widely-circulated lists in response...McCaffery's was (mostly) better than the Expert list, the Radcliffe list slightly better on women writers but worse overall. 

And, always, this is an ongoing discussion...and all cited are valuable reminders that one needs to know of, at least, all the items in each collection to have a true grounding in each field. For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog. Next week, I'll be hosting, while Patti and Megan Abbott wonder if they'll be walking away with with odd little Edgar Allan Poe busts, from the Mystery Writers of America annual convention. 




7 comments:

George said...

It won't surprise you that I own most of these books. I love the Anthony Burgess book. He's another forgotten writer I should review for FFB.

Todd Mason said...

I'd suggest he isn't Too forgotten, thanks to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the Enderby books and a few of the others (you could make a case for THE WANTING SEED and the others yet, perhaps). Yeah, these are fun...

Todd Mason said...

Burgess was my Other favorite book columnist, for the last great years of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY in the early '80s, along with Algis Budrys in F&SF. And Budrys was getting tired of his column (as he had in the first run at GALAXY), while Burgess (the names even sound similar)(ever see them in the same room together?) was just settling in...

Mathew Paust said...

Daunting, Todd. Truly so I can't keep up with even the books awaiting upload in my Kindle. Thanks, tho, for the wealth of reference material (in case I ever get caught up).

Todd Mason said...

This kind of book is also fun to read for itself, at least for me and not a few other readers...

bloodymurder said...

I got the first Newman and Jones on your say so and it looks like I should get the second volume and at least the Moorcock on fantasy - thanks chum, as always, for the elucidation and expertise!

Todd Mason said...

You can do worse, Sergio! Thank you.