Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Literary cage match: Literary Fiction vs Children's Fiction

Which 20th Century books are more important to the West?

1900s: Heart of Darkness (1902) versus The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
1910s: Ethan Frome (1911) versus Peter and Wendy (1911)
1920s: Ulysses (1922) versus Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)
1930s: Of Mice and Men (1937) versus Mary Poppins (1934)
1940s: The Stranger (1942) versus The Little Prince (1943)
1950s: The Old Man and the Sea (1951) versus The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)
1960s: Catch-22 (1961) versus A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
1970s: Gravity's Rainbow (1973) versus The Princess Bride (1973)
1980s: Beloved (1987) versus Redwall (1984)
1990s: Infinite Jest (1996) versus Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)


stu said...


A few opinions, YMMV, etc.

1900s: Heart of Darkness (1902) versus The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

In terms of popular memory, Oz, although that has more to do with the movie and the general hotness of Judy Garland than the book.

But Heart of Darkness is more formative of our culture's understanding of itself, because of its role in explaining the effect on westerners of immersion into non-western cultures, cf., Apocalypse Now.

Indeed, it's often noted that Achebe's "Things Fall Down" is an attempt at a rebuttal to Heart of Darkness, and so is a witness to a continued dialog around it. I'd say that there's no corresponding attempt to rebut Oz, but that's not actually true, cf., Wicked. But I see Wicked as being more in the tradition of Mysts of Avalon or Grendel, in that it consciously tries to breathe a colorable life history and motivation into the "bad guys/gals" of fiction, and explain them in a way that gives them a self-understanding as being the good guys.

I suppose the difference is that Mysts of Avalan (and Grendel, and Wicked) are ultimately based in a kind of cultural relativism that makes the argument that our conventional view of who is good and who is bad has little more substance than who won and who lost, respectively. In this, Achebe really is making a different argument, which amounts to the notion that the traditional cultures really were objectively better.

1920s: Ulysses (1922) versus Winnie-the-Pooh (1926)


1950s: The Old Man and the Sea (1951) versus The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)

This is a hard one, and I think a good case can be made either way. I'll go with Lord of the Rings, if only because it's a metaphor for the British experience of the World Wars, of the sense of irresistable evil, of the difference that a few individuals can make, of personal betrayal and redemption, of sacrifice, and ultimately (cf., the scouring of the Shire) of the disappointments of victory, and the pettyness and greed of those who didn't fight. It simply has a broader range.

In any event, Liv Tyler was even hotter than Judy Garland.

1960s: Catch-22 (1961) versus A Wrinkle in Time (1962)

Catch-22. Seldom has a book had better fortune in coming out when it did.

G. M. Palmer said...

You can't discount the book just because it was popularized by the film.

And how influential is Achebe?

Wrinkle in Time is a generally poor choice (I thought of The Mouse and the Motorcycle) but it just fits so well with Catch-22 I had to include it.

stu said...


And how influential is Achebe?

I think he gets cited a lot by the "old dead white guys should remain so" crowd. I've read "Things Fall Down," and thought it good. Of course, my favorite novelist is Norman Maclean, so I tend to be drawn to spare prose like Achebe's over more ornate, adjectival prose like Conrad's. And I'll note that I picked Conrad despite the name he gave his book's villain.

Anyway, Achebe's well known enough that I got into a big argument with J about him on Kirby's blog. FWIW.

stu said...


Wrinkle in Time is a generally poor choice (I thought of The Mouse and the Motorcycle) but it just fits so well with Catch-22 I had to include it.

Alternatives: The Chosen, The Pushcart War.

I might opt for "The Pushcart War." Just to piss Kirby off, I'll suggest that is is a fictional illustration of "Rules for Radicals," with all that that implies.