The Smart Novel Challenge

Margaret Drabble:

Margaret Drabble: “I have had a weird feeling that I’m being dumbed down by my publishers.”

Yesterday I told you I thought writing and publishing had gone downhill.

I am not the only one who has noticed.

Margaret Drabble, my favorite writer, told The Telegraph last October that her new novel was unlikely to be published by Penguin, her publisher.

“I have had a weird feeling that I’m being dumbed down by my publishers and it’s interesting there’s an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace.”

She is one of the best writers of the 20th (and 21st) century, and if publishers are treating her with little respect, I can only imagine how they treat new writers.  I hope Penguin publishes an intelligent edition of her novel, or that she finds a new publisher.

The critic Harold Bloom has long written about the “dumbing-down” trend, and  in 2003, when the National Book Foundation gave a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award to Stephen King, he wrote a long op/ed piece for the Boston Globe.

Bloom wrote:

The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.

We all know Stephen King is a good guy.  He has given millions (more?) to charities.  But is he a literary writer?  No.

There has been a post-post-post-post-modern breakdown that tells intelligent readers to pretend popular and literary novels are the same–and they are not.  The National Book Foundation has continued its dumbing-down trend in the Distinguished Contributions arena: last year they gave the award to mystery writer Elmore Leonard.

I read and like genre fiction, but I hate to see the National Book Foundation’s determination to attract attention (Hello!  We’re a Celeb Prize!)  cheat literary writers.

Huck and Jim on raft, 1884

Huck and Jim on raft, 1884

Censorship has always been a problem in the U.S., and in 2011, a new low was reached by a publisher who wanted, yes, to censor and “dumb down” 19th-century literature.  New South Books censored an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, removing the word “nigger” from the text-a word used in the 19th-century dialect by Huck, which obviously he obviously rises above in his friendship with the escaped slave, Jim.

The writer David Matthews wrote for The New York Times:

Removing that single word from the text, while sparing those too sensitive to get past it, relieves the reader of doing any heavy lifting. Great books — or any work of art — require that the reader meet the author half-way. Huck Finn is a serious literary work. It is not a children’s adventure book, nor a Rockwellian portrait. As intended, it is a scathing indictment against slavery, hypocrisy, gender roles (sure, why not), and class.

What a century!

After rejecting many highly-touted novels, I am desperate to find a good new book.

Here is the challenge.

Find me a brilliant new novel.

It has to have been published in the 21st century.

It could have been reviewed in national book review publications, or even be one of the Best of the Month at Amazon, but if it is not, so much the better.

It can be in English or in translation.

Recommend something.  Please leave a comment or I will know nothing is good!

6 thoughts on “The Smart Novel Challenge

    • I’m glad you’ve said that, because I’ve considered this several times in the bookstore – next time I may take it to the till!


  1. Gosh – the depressing thing is I can’t even think of anything to recommend to you. Just about everything I read nowadays is 20th century or earlier 😦 I *was* given Umbrella by Will Self for Christmas which I asked for as I find his fiction challenging and I want to be challenged.

    I hate, hate, hate the dumbing down of literature – and if people are so stupid as to be unable to deal with books containing the traits of the period they were written in, that’s their problem. One of the first books I reviewed on my blog was “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk” by F. Scott Fitzgerald and I was infuriated by the constant apologising in the introduction for any racial element. We are intelligent enough as readers, surely, to allow for the fact that this was the norm when the book was written. I had the same problem with a collection of Virginia Woolf’s essays, with the introduction regretting her slurs on Jewish people. Erm, hello – her husband was Jewish and while she might make a casual racial comment which we would not nowadays, surely we ar big enough to ignore it?

    I confess I’ve paid very little attention to literary prizes since Atwood won the Booker (I was pleased about this, but haven’t liked much they promote since). And the fact that Mantel won over Self says a lot in my mind…


  2. Alex, I do like Julian Barnes. Thank God you’ve come up with a book I want to read!

    Kaggysbookish, I have to laugh. I’m pretty sure I’m reading more contemporary books than last year. But now I look back, and though I started out strong in January, I’ve had to go back to the 20th and occasionally older, too!

    And I HAVE read some great 21t-century books.

    The search is on.


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