The Browser

“100 Best Novels”? The Authors Respond

Eavesdropping on the Dead Authors’ Guild Listserv.

(posted Thursday, July 30, 1998)




Re: Joyce–or, better, don’t


Saw Wings of the Dove last evening & was very impressed. So that was what it was all about! Your writing has no bigger fan than EW, but I must admit to finding some of the later novels a bit, shall we say, murky. Large & charming party at the Cineplex Odeon–the young Waldorf Astors, Mr. Balfour, Ld & Lady Elcho, Dcess of Manchester, Lady Essex, &c. &c. All seemed delighted but for poor Teddy, who ran screaming from the theater during the first reel–his nerves, no doubt. Miss Bonham Carter was splendid. She ought to play Lily Barth if The House of Mirth ever makes it out of turnaround. Is it true they’re giving the Merchant-Ivory treatment to your Golden Bowl? Can’t say I ever made it quite to the end of that one either.

Have you looked over the Modern Library list yet? As Scribner authors, neither of us is likely to find much favor in a list of books sold by Mr. Cerf. Still, I fear that to the younger generation we must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers. Ulysses, alas, is No. 1. Have you driven into this fog? It’s a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & uninformed & unimportant drivel. The ingredients of soup do not make soup without the cook’s intervention. The same goes for Mr. Kerouac.

Your Devoted Edith





Re: 100 romans

Dearest Edith,

The drab unblinking question that presents itself is that “compilation” to which you refer, whose arrival, though unwelcome, is in no way resistible. Of the part that is mine to pass over in silence is perhaps the course both of humility and of humilité. That the number of my own works chosen should be trois is a matter for neither protestation nor ingratitude. Yet that such an ordering hardly induces in the author of the aforementioned trois such satisfaction as might be hoped to accrue to one looking down with Olympian detachment from beyond the vale of longevity is a statement the validity of which cannot be called readily into question. It is unlikely to fail to play upon the suspicions of such a one that the composition of his most highly esteemed should be that most lately converted into a wan cinematic confection of fretsome abbreviation. Neither, however, could a figure such as he neglect the observation that the personage with whom the former is now abstractly in conversation was accorded the merit of only dues livres, and that those due were accorded a position more terrestrial, which is to say well below those of the former on the “list.” Such a “point,” once made, could not resist the tendency to instill feelings of “envy” and ressentiment on the part of an author perhaps better compensated and perhaps more “popular,” but in the view of the critical intelligence–if any such fitful and discredited light may still be conceived as being within our sphere–not really as good as mine. Thus it is an expression of both discretion and a great humble reverence for the feelings of others to leave such a “point” unmade and unwinced at.

Though it may be additionally unpenworthy, there is another “point” that heavily impels making. It is that of all the volumes, some eminent, some too much esteemed in the trail of “fashion,” there is one included that so transgresses the hesitational boundary of propriety as to induce a feeling of stammering dyspepsia. Attention is called to the uncouth Mr. Roth, whose effluviations are so juvenalianly unspeakable that I cannot bear to utter their “title.” This work, it cannot be refrained from being pointed out, has as its chief topic that exercise that in our own great palmy day was considered least worthy of writerly elucidation. That this basely erotic occupation that was to our own contemporaries so unsupportable should form the core of the work in question might be thought to constitute a disqualification. To such vulgarian depths does this “fascination” descend that there is in one place depicted an act of rank unsalubrious congress between him and a comestible whose ingestion by familial others is ineluctably and tenebrously foreordained. I speak here of the “liver” scene. For a work whose “climax” depends on feelings of the most passionate revulsion to be esteemed ahead of your own labors, so far superior as to be undeserving of inclusion in the same tormented sentence, is, my dearest Edith, an insult insufferable to all whose reverence for literature anglais is to be warranted. To commiserate against so great and gaping an injustice presents itself as a course of action perhaps less unwise than others.

Yours faithfully fond, Henri





Re: What did I win?

Dear Mrs. Wharton,

This is the first I’ve heard about a prize. Pardon me for asking, but is there by any chance some money attached to it? Also, please forgive me for the off-color stories I told at tea last week. The one about the American couple in the bordello went a little far, I think. Zelda and I may have had a few too many before stopping by.

Mirthfully, Scott Fitzgerald




Cc: faulk@snopes.noedu;

Re: Listing slightly

Dear Scott,

I was in Key West when I got a copy of your message. I have a place down there in Key West. It’s a small place but a good place. There are cats and a lot of rain and when it rains the cats all come inside the house. The biggest cat is named Hem. There are some smaller cats, too, with names like “Scott” and “Sherwood” and “Dos.” The big cat is bigger than the others and also braver and probably a better writer. But some people who don’t know any better think the little cats are pretty cute. One day I’ll put them in a bag and drown them in the river for their own good.

In Florida the cats drink milk, but we humans all drink rum. It’s not very good rum, but in Florida rum is the drink to drink so we drink it. Sometimes we mix the rum with Coke and sometimes we don’t mix it with anything, depending on how thirsty we are. Rum and Coke is a good drink, but not if you’re thirsty. If you’re thirsty, you want water, but never Rum and Coke. Here’s 400 bucks. You can pay me when you see me, unless I see you first.

Hell, you were saying something about a list. I couldn’t quite make out what you were saying, but I knew it was about a list. Scott, a list is a fine thing if you’re young, and you’re high up on it. But when you’re a little older and not so high up you see that the list is just a list and that’s all it is.

Yours always–Ernesto


From: faulk@snopes.noeduTo: ernie@erols.comCc:; Re:

Dear Ernest,

Apparently man can be cured of drugs, drink, gambling, biting his nails, and picking his nose, but not of making lists. I’m not giving it another moment’s thought on account of I’m too busy writing my novels, and if somebody wants to read one of them instead of sipping a whisky highball and kicking back in an Adirondack chair or an eight-dollar swivel chair or a pig iron porch swing covered in fifty-cent Montgomery Ward paint from a paintcan he keeps on a ledge in the fallingdown barn where his people have been begetting quadroons and octaroons and sixteentharoons and thirtysecondaroons since the time before they thought to write it down, that’s nobody’s business but his own. I’ve got only one complaint for you to please pass along to the committee. My handwriting may not be all handwriting should be, especially after lunch, but even a county court judge drunk at noon ought to be able to read a title straight. So please tell those Northern fools it’s not Light in August but Fightin August, for godsakes.

Let’s get soused again sometime soon,

Yours, Bill

P.S. Mailer is Hemingway on a tight budget. Styron is Faulkner on no budget at all.


From: mailer@daemon.comTo: faulk@snopes.noeduCc: listserv@deadauthorsguild.orgRe: Insult as e-mail; the e-mail as insult

Mailer had always thought highly of William Faulkner. Once, when he was younger, he had read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying cover to cover. Privately, he had found it a bit confusing. Why was the mother a fish? But he knew that people thought it was a fine novel, and he resented that he hadn’t written it himself. Faulkner was a Southerner, probably a racist, and hard to understand. Mailer was a Jewish New Yorker, beloved by black people, and a comparatively easy read (not to mention a fine lay). Still, Mailer thought, Faulkner and Mailer were a lot alike. Both were great American writers–between them they had written many of the best 100 novels of the 20th century. Both drank, heavily at times; liked to get paid for what they wrote; and had contempt for lesser talents. Mailer thought Faulkner thought highly of Mailer as well–maybe as highly as Mailer did himself.

Mailer had sent Faulkner every book he had ever written, all with flattering inscriptions, and never received so much as a thank-you. Mailer suspected that Faulkner had read them all and wished he had written them himself. Possibly, Faulkner had never so much as looked at them. He had heard somewhere that Faulkner had died. Still, Mailer was irked. He felt that it had all been a big literary game. Mailer was not a critic of Southern literature, but he privately wondered whether posterity might not judge John Jakes a better novelist than Faulkner, sources close to Mailer tell Mailer.

So to be called Hemingway on a budget by Faulkner made Mailer angry. It made Mailer very, very angry. So angry did Mailer become that Mailer took the big picture of Faulkner that hangs over Mailer’s desk and smashed it into a million pieces. After he did that, there were just pictures of Mailer hanging there. Mailer recognized that this reaction was not very mature, but Mailer had bigger things to worry about than minding his literary manners. Mailer didn’t understand why people were treating him like a dead writer, either. Just recently, Mailer had published his autobiography and a book about Jesus. Mailer had the inspired idea to combine the two subjects in one book. Bill Faulkner never had an idea that good, or if he did, no one could understand it.

Mailer thought to himself that next time he saw Faulkner, he would probably sock him one in the kisser. No, Mailer thought, the next time he ran into Faulkner at a swanky literary party, he would return Faulkner’s insult with his usual witty insouciance. Mailer hated those parties, but he hardly ever missed one. “Your books stink,” Mailer imagined himself saying. “Mailer can’t understand a word of them.”


From: dharmabum@nirvana.netTo:; listserv@deadauthorsguild.orgCc: beats@evillage.comRe: On the list


Easy on the benzedrine, man. Me, I was just pleased to be on that list with famouswriters like Paul Bowles and William Golding. That cat Saul Bellow was on there too. It made me think about the time Neal and I went to see him in Chicago in 1949.

I came in by Greyhoundbus from Milwaukee. It was an ordinary Greyhoudbus with runaways and oldfolk and the Greyhoundbusdriver in his Greyhoundbusdriver’s cap not saying much of anything but just driving the bus toward Chi. Neal didn’t have the busfare so he hotwired a car, not to steal it, but just to ride ride ride for the thrill of it like some magnificent highflying parkpigeon. Along the way, Neal had married or maybe just kidnapped a Scandinavian-extracted girl from Kenosha named Inga. Inga had blond curls and beefy arms like a stevedore and was excited about seeing the bigcity but said she wanted to go home and was going to call the police if he didn’t take her. Neal should have been worried about Inga being jailbait but at that point he was pretty focused on medieval literature, and kept on reciting passages from Chaucer and El Cid and talking about how Giotto was a better painter than Van Gogh, nokidding.

We were crashing at a cold water flat on the South side with a guy called Phil and Phil’s aunt and her chihuahuas. The chihuahuas had been shaved real close to the skin, so there wasn’t much to them, just a lot of pointy ears and dogyapping. They must have been pretty cold in those Chi winters and when they were hungry they’d claw at your shins. Neal wanted to invite Sanchez and Marylou and Freddie Engels over for a sexorgy but Dave’s aunt was out of chihuahuafood, so before we could do that, we had to get something for the dogs to eat.

As soon as we stepped outside Phil’s aunt’s apartment, a cruiser spotted us and tailed after us at a slow crawl down the street. Neal had ditched his freebuick, but apparently we looked like some hipsters who had pulled off a jewelry heist downtown. They didn’t stop us on suspicion, but just kept tailing us at a distance which made us twitchy since Inga kept saying she was going to turn us in for being hopheads and whiteslavers and a lot of other stuff I couldn’t understand because it was in Swedish. We knew they were cops because they had copuniforms and were driving a copcar. So we stopped in a dark dingy old South side tavern to think over our plans and have some coldbeers.

When we came out of there, Inga had split and we realized we were on Congress Street. Congress Street shoots out West for an amazing distance, which is where we were headed, so we hijacked a lettuce rig, pistol-whipped the driver, wham, and made straight for Joliet. As we were riding through the sweetsmelling American night, Neal looked up from the book he was reading, Les aventures de la dialectique, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which he had lifted from the philosophy section of Kroch’s & Brentano’s in the Loop. He turned to me and the driver of the rig who was wearing a lettucepicking outfit and a red bandanna tied around his mouth and said, “Oh man, we completely forgot to go see Saul Bellow.” And now we’re all on the same list of goodbooks. I’m sohappy.

As ever, Jack


From: virginia@bloomsbury.netTo: dharmabum@nirvana.netCc:; listerv@deadauthorsguild.orgRe: Who’s afraid of V W?

My dear Mr Kerouac,

Yes, of course I too am pleased to be on the list. All these last several decades I have been overwhelmed with feelings of horror & despair; annihilation; nothingness; barrenness & void. One could say that I have been in a poor mood. For To the Lighthouse to place fifteenth provides a moment of cheer, for it proves that someone has indeed read to the end of it.

But a moment of cheer quickly passes. What after all is a list? A hundred books; perhaps seventy-five; perhaps only fifty. The end of each arrives, and soon another book is published, a book is reviewed, more books appear. List succeeds list. Lists turn into libraries. Some of these books are borrowed from the libraries. These books seethe with plots; with characters; with life & suspense. In other books, little occurs. A group of persons goes somewhere; or does not go somewhere; or contemplates going somewhere but delays the decision about whether to go. The words fly past; two hundred words; six hundred words; one thousand five hundred words; two thousand words. The words turn into pages: one hundred pages; two hundred pages; three hundred pages; four hundred pages. The alphabet is recounted. B follows A. D is preceded by C; then comes E; then F; then G; then H; then I. If L could be reached, that would be something. But L is very hard to attain; very few people in the whole of England ever attain L. Not many even get so far as K. And what of M, and the murky letters which follow M, which include U, R and W? Who can even speak of W, which shimmers at the North end of the alphabet, scarcely visible from D. When I think of D, an image comes into my head that I am powerless to resist: it is the cross section of a mackerel.

Please forgive my digression–what else can one call it, except perhaps “maundering”–which has made me forget entirely what I had been about to tell you! It is nothing of importance! Perhaps something about Vanessa; or Lytton; or Vita; or Lady Ottoline; or Maynard, who as I write pursues Duncan around the garden with lust in his heart & a croquet mallet. Such gossip pales beside this “maundering,” this reverie for which I am intensely thankful; for nothing so solaces me, calms me in the perplexity of life, and miraculously raises its burdens, as this sublime power, this divine talent for writing endlessly about hardly anything at all, & one should no more interrupt it, while it lasts than one should break the crockery in one’s home and leave the shards lying on the kitchen floor for no reason. Though yes, I have done that at times as well.

Write if you find work, V