Although I’m an unapologetic fan of the big glossy men’s-interest magazines on the market today (I subscribe to a whole slew of them, from Outside and Men’s Journal to Esquire and Details), I know better than to go to most of them for literary opinions. Not because there aren’t some very intelligent people working there, but because such magazines tend to be rather ruthlessly focused on their core demographic – in this case, mid-twenties ridiculously over-moneyed young business drones who are not only basically illiterate but deeply stupid as well. If you’re pandering to such a demographic, it’s unlikely you’re going to print anything about books that I want to read.
And yet, occasionally I steel myself and dig right in – especially if the feature in question is deliberately provocative. Such a feature happens in this month’s GQ (the one with a cover photo showing talented comic actor Jason Bateman wearing a cheap, poorly-tailored suit jacket and skintight pants that are too short for him – maybe GQ caught him in the middle of a Red Skelton-style routine), where some of the magazine’s editors offer readers a list of post-2000 ‘new classics’ to supplement the books they were forced to read in high school. “We spent months chiseling down the list,” they tell us (bro-code for lots and lots of beer), and they came up with 21 titles meant to stand as the beginnings of a new canon for fiction – and they also asked some of the authors of those books to nominate some extra titles of their own.
This is the GQ list:
1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
2. The Human Stain – Philip Roth
3. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
4. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
5. True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
6. 2666 – Roberto Bolano
7. Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
8. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
9. The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
10. Pastoralia – George Saunders
11. Runaway – Alice Munro
12. Austerliz – W.G. Sebald
13. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
14. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
15. The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
16. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill
17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
18. The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
19. Saturday – Ian McEwan
20. The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers
21. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
Even a glance at that list confirms most of my worst worries: it’s so timidly predictable. There’s not a single name on it (with the possible and very welcome exception of Wells Tower) that you wouldn’t expect to be on it – not a single title that hasn’t been loudly and often mindlessly praised by all the biggest – and most distinctly non-literary – media outlets in the Western world. It’s a bro-list – despite the fact that fiction has the potential to be the most subversive and mind-expanding of all genres, this is a list whose main aim is conformity. Genuine quality is certainly not a consideration, since ten of the books on the list are only average (and would be called that by the entire reading world if they’d been reviewed indepent of their respective publishers’ publicity departments, with the authors’ names stripped off) and four of them actually stink. No, instead peer pressure played a huge part in the making of this list, as it plays, unfortunately, a huge part in most of the content you’ll find in any given ‘lad mag’; the last thing you want to do is name-drop a book your senior project manager hasn’t heard of.
I confess though, even given the limitations of the venue, I half-way expected some of the actual authors involved in the list to present more courageous choices – but timidity tends to rule those picks as well. Peter Carey picks Kent Haruf; Chad Harbach scandalously picks Sam Lipsyte; Joseph O’Neill picks Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station and hilariously writes about it: “… not to mince words, this is a very intelligent, very funny, verbally brilliant, relentlessly perceptive investigation of the ethical-linguistic-political morass in which the American abroad must wade.”
The thing is saved from complete irrelevance by only the slimmest of threads: Saunders recommends Stuart Dybek, and best of all, Lethem, bless him, recommends the great Stephen Dixon. That’s cheering, but it’s also meager – a good little reminder that I should avoid bro-lit lists whenever possible.