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.