Jane Rogers, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (new paperback edition).
£9.99, 514 pages, ISBN 0-19-280083-3.
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 informationand enthusiasmabout
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 lamentpace Rogers and
her justifications and own misgivingsthe 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 Guidein 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
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.