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Good Fiction Guide
Jane Rogers, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (new paperback edition).
£9.99, 514 pages, ISBN 0-19-280083-3.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen


My first thought when I saw the cover of the Good Fiction Guide, was that it took a lot of nerve to give such a title to a book. How can anyone claim to be able to discern what constitutes good fiction? Is it opposed to bad fiction? I then wondered if the book covered worldwide fiction over centuries or if it was Anglo-centered and limited to twentieth and twenty-first century fiction. Finally I decided it would be amusing to look for entries on my own favorites and braced myself in anticipation of the frustration I would undoubtedly feel at not finding this or that author.

The Introduction answers most of my questions. Indeed it even defuses most of the objections readers might utter. Jane Rogers is a novelist herself. She has written six novels, including Mr. Wroe's Virgins (1991) and Promised Lands (1995, Writers' Guild Best Fiction award 1996). She also teaches creative writing. All of the above gives her some credentials. Happily, she admits that subjectivity was unavoidable when she and her eighty or so collaborators made their choices. "The aim behind [the Good Fiction Guide]", she announces, "is to offer information—and enthusiasm—about over a thousand authors, and over five thousand books". (vii) She later states that the book means to cover popular and genre fiction, not just classics and today's literary fiction. "Snobbery in reading is the most pointless thing", she writes (viii), and I entirely agree. The fact remains that she does not really define what "good fiction" means. Judging by some of the entries, the ability to construct a proper sentence has not necessarily been seen as a relevant criterion by some of Rogers's collaborators. I often felt that the dominant idea was to recommend novels and stories that could give pleasure. But TV reality-shows may also give pleasure, does that mean that they may be deemed good television?

Indeed "recommendation" is the key word here; "probably the single most compelling reason for picking up a book which is new to you is when a friend tells you, 'Read this, it's really good'", Rogers surmises. The validity of such a sentence is hard to assess when you are in the teaching, writing, and book-reviewing business, but if I make an earnest effort of imagination and strive to forget all the other compelling reasons I myself might have for picking up a novel, I suppose I can see her point. Maybe the best way to view the Good Fiction Guide is as a friend leading you by the hand in the book jungle.

There are two sections: "Subject Essays" and "Authors A-Z". I have no qualms when it comes to the selection of essays such as "Adventure", "War", "Western", Historical" and the like; but I do lament—pace Rogers and her justifications and own misgivings—the conspicuous absence of Italy, Spain and Latin American countries when "Canada", "France", "Germany", "India" or "Russia" are on offer. I am glad to note, however, that Italian, Spanish and Latin American novelists and short story writers are reasonably represented in the A-Z section. How sad, though, that the following writers have been omitted: Reinaldo Arenas, Virgilio Pin˙era, Javier Tomeo, Javier Marías, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, Antonio Mun˙oz Molina, and Eduardo Mendoza. Two of the criteria used for the Good Fiction Guide are availability (are the books still in print?) and availability in English. I know for a fact that all the novelists I have just listed have been translated into English, some extensively, others patchily. Most of Mendoza's books may be found rather easily in decent translations. The sheer literary genius of Machado de Assis has been well rendered by John A. Gledson's excellent translation of Dom Casmurro. Montalbán's novels might not be as striking as Virgilio Pin˙era's René's Flesh, but they are much more respectable than some of the trash that crept its way into the Good Fiction Guide—in spite of Rogers's assurance that she and her collaborators have not "been prepared to recommend any old rubbish" (ix). Basically the only type of writers they have entirely avoided is the Mills and Boon school and Barbara Cartland.

Not being a "literary snob", I have read my fair share of "popular fiction", and I find helpful the category "glamour" as defined by Kate Saunders. I have always thought that one should read at least one novel of every genre, however "bad", pour ne pas mourir idiot, as we say in French. Saunders rightly makes much of Judith Krantz and Jilly Cooper and has very interesting things to say about the associations of such novels with eighties capitalism. She does not, however, make a case for Danielle Steel, who is handled by somebody else in the A-Z section. I myself would have thought some of her works fitted the glamour sub-genre rather well. And what about Jackie Collins? Why has she been forgotten? Rogers herself (very dubiously) declares that "authors are in [the Good Fiction Guide] if they have been particularly strong sellers over the years" (ix). Well, Jackie Collins is a multimillionaire bestseller. Even Joan Collins might have qualified.

Australian fiction is insufficiently covered, in my opinion, whether it be in Rogers's own "Australia and New Zealand" subject essay or in the A-Z section (where are Linda Jaivin and Neil Drinnan?). There are no glaring omissions as far as mainstream and postmodern British and American novelists are concerned. The authors of children's literature with crossover appeal are all listed. German-speaking writers are reasonably represented: I don't think I can seriously hold a grudge against Michael Hulse for not detailing further the achievements of the Mann family. The French entries fail to satisfy me, but that may have more to do with my own prejudices than anything else: I tend to find that very few acceptable French novels have been written since roughly 1968, and now that Marguerite Duras is dead I wonder if anyone will ever come to rescue the country from the bottomless pits of Parisianist "auto-fiction". The authors of the Good Fiction Guide have duly and expectedly included tremendous classics like Flaubert's novels but they also vastly overrate the facile recipes of young contemporary Parisians. Jane Rogers knew it, "many readers will want to pick a quarrel" (viii); but I'll stop grumbling now. Voicing my minor grievances was merely a way to introduce my compliments: this Good Fiction Guide is courageous, interesting, and useful. Anyone who's read more than a dozen novels in her/his life should enjoy flicking through it first, then looking for her/his favorites, then reading the entries about people and genres s/he's not familiar with, so as to expand her/his horizons: many entries do make the reader feel like rushing to the bookstore or the library, and I am quite certain hundreds of collections of short stories and novels will be stolen, bought and borrowed as a result of the pleasurable hours of perusal this book provides.

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