The novelists

Norm’s favourite English-language novels vote is in. I was very pleased to see Austen lead the pack by a wide margin. So she should. There is no one who can touch her for what I can only call perfection – for ruthless avoidance of flab, gas, wind, padding, self-indulgence; of bad writing; of sentimentality; of sententiousness; of overt lecturing; of sloppiness. There’s a power, a muscularity, a cold authority to her writing that makes a lot of male writers look feeble indeed. She’s widely supposed to be a narrow genteel nostalgic peddler of romances; well, Dickens and Thackeray and Hardy should only have been so lucky to have the force and strength of pen that she had. She and Emily Bronte could outdo them all.

Thus I was sorry not to see Emily Bronte until 32. Also not to see Willa Cather at all (meaning she got eight votes or fewer or none). I think Cather is under-rated. Some of her stuff is brilliant, and unlike other novels. The first half of The Song of the Lark is staggeringly good, I think.

I was glad Rohinton Mistry made the near-miss list but I wish he’d done better. I’m surprised to see Orwell there at all – he was a godawful novelist. I suppose he’s there on the strength of the last two, but really, as novels…they’re not very good. And two novels that I recommend strongly: Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-body Problem and J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.

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