When Writers Don’t Know Enough: A Glib List of Books That (May Have) Shaped American Culture

Ephron’s classic collection of essays didn’t make the list.

Attempts to define the canon can be problematic even for Harold Bloom and Elaine Showalter, but Emily Temple, a Millennial who is a senior editor at Literary Hub, is not afraid to miss the mark. She glibly compiled a list of books she thinks shaped the literary culture in the U.S. from  1900 to the present.  She says in her article “A Century of Books” (actually more than a century) that these books, “if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade.”

Wow, even  as a confident young reviewer I did not suffer from this kind of hubris.  And at the TLS or The New York Review of Books, this list would be a task for a team of  contributors, among them critics, biographers, novelists, and sociologists.

But Temple  writes,

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.

I do not take lists seriously, but the first thing that struck me was how little Temple knows about American history. Her ten choices per decade are bizarre–do Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes,  and J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy really deserve three slots in the 1910s?– but she is also surprisingly sexist, naming only two or three women per decade. Never mind that in the 1960s she left out Tillie Olsen, Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Denise Levertov, Ellen Willis, and Adrienne Rich.   On her list for the 1970s, the height of Second Wave feminism, she mentions only  one book by a woman:  Judy Blume’s Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret. (Apparently it’s not so long ago that Temple was reading childrne’s books.)

Better even than Raymond Carver!

it does make me wonder what on earth Millennials think the 1970s were about.  Our Bodies, Ourselves changed women’s health care;  Erica Jong’s best-selling Fear of Flying was compared to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn; Nora Ephron’s stunning  essay,”A Few Words about Breasts,” in Crazy Salad made all small-breasted women feel better; Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics influenced literary criticism, as did The Madwoman in the Attic, by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert; Ann Beattie’s minimalist  first collection of stories, Distortions, and novel Chilly Scenes of Winter were published simultaneously in 1976; and The Environmental Handbook, released for the first Earth Day, introduced us to ways of saving the planet, if only people had listened….

If this list had been called “Fun Books in Amerika,” I wouldn’t have minded, but Temple takes herself too seriously.  And this is why I don’t trust shallow online publications.  Editors of print publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post are still careful about what they print and would have assigned “A Century of Reading” to writers who had done the reading.

12 thoughts on “When Writers Don’t Know Enough: A Glib List of Books That (May Have) Shaped American Culture”

  1. You could say the same of The New York Times and The Washington Post and almost all book compilers and list makers – including bloggers. I do not count anymore the number of stupid things I have read (and will certainly read) about French literature (fiction, poetry, essays and so on) written by American / British / English native speakers of such culture. And this includes their dumb choices of books and authors. Emily Temple may be bad but not that much than others.

    1. Yes, there are so many lists like these. And because I know a lot about American lit and culture, this list particularly bothered me. I do imagine what you must think of lists about French lit. When people readin in translation, not that I’m against that, they just don’t quite get it. Several of Zola’s books have recently been published in new translations, and I can’t tell you what a difference it makes to me. I had read several in bowdlerized 19th-century editions, because that was all that was available. And I could get nothing but plot out of them.

  2. I think most lists should carry the caveat “that I know of.” So much gets forgotten. Our view of what was going on in decades we didn’t experience is usually shallow and limited to what’s readily available to us now, unless (ahem!) we’re strange folk who happen to enjoy picking through the musty shelves of second-hand bookshops, thrift stores, and estate sales. But I’m amazed how quickly times I’ve lived through pass into musty history. During the Kavanaugh hearings I was reading posts of young women discovering the Anita Hill debacle as if they were excavating ancient history.

    1. Oh, Liz, I know! It’s hard to get a sense of history unless one has lived through it. Poor Christine Blasey Ford. And there seemed to be some confusion in online forums about Bill Clinton: they thought he had been impeached, not that Repubs had tried to impeach him. No wonder this young Lit Hub list maker couldn’t get her head around what’s important and what’s not.

  3. As long as folks create booklists there will be controversies and disagreements. With that, I agree that there are major omissions to this list and that several feminist works should have been included. Furthermore. I also agree that Showlwalter really is not qualified to put a list together like this.

    I like Lit Hub as a site but there are pieces and editorial decisions that they make that I strongly disagree with.

    1. I know: book lists are meant to cause controversy! And Lit Hub is very uneven, mostly about selling books (they “partner” with many publishers). It’s a statement about internet boredom that I check it out regularly! It’s aimed at a young audience, I think, though there are sometimes interesting pieces by contributors.

  4. I agree with much of what’s being said here. But for me, in this instance, it would be more about what’s excluded than the inclusion of Judy Blume. I think she was vitally important for North American girls (I discovered her when I was seven and reread her books until their spines began to fray) and continues to be a powerful force for women’s writing today despite the many attempts to ban her work. Still, as others have said, it does get people talking about books…

    1. Yes, it’s the fact that she’s the only woman on the list that really bugs me. As if children’s books are all women can write.

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