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Universal Tales

2011 January 10

In American writing, there are three perfect books, which seem to speak to every reader and condition: “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Great Gatsby,” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

That’s from the New Yorker obituary for JD Salinger. Reading it, I had much the same reaction as Cat Valente, who said:

An illustration titled 'Jim and the Ghost' from 'Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain. Jim, a black man, is on his knees praying in fear before Finn, who he thinks is a ghost.

“Jim and the Ghost” from ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (public domain image from Wikipedia).

“Really? Every reader? Every condition? Even though none of those books are about, by, or can manage to conceal for long their contempt for women, and the extent to which one is about non-whites is at best left wincingly unexamined? … The defining characteristic for writing about spoiled rich white people is that it WILL NEVER speak to every reader in every condition. And Huck Finn may have been poor on paper but he exhibits the snotty certainty of his own awesomeness and freedom to do whatever he likes without significant punishment that surely speaks to the spoiled rich white bro demographic.”


She wonders what the flaw was in Slaughterhouse Five or Little Women that Huckleberry Finn didn’t also contain.

And her comments coincide with a furore over a new edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the publishers have decided that Twain’s many hundreds of uses of ‘the N word’ are too hot to print in the modern market. So they’re taking them out, replacing it with ‘Slave’ and deleting all uses of the term ‘Injun’ as well.

Mixed reactions to this online; even quite liberal commenters find that seeing the N-word written down is Not Okay today (to the point that I’m not going to put it here because I don’t want to bring that to this site.) Others are outraged, such as Emma Caulfield (who played ‘Anya’ in Buffy), who says on her twitter:

“UNDERSTAND this. Mark Twain wrote HF to show the absurdity of racism. He was one of the most profound forward thinkers of any time.”

Language is important, and in the same way that we try to be deliberately inclusive in the feminist arena by rejecting language which is sexist, ableist or casually tolerant of any kind of bigotry, seeing prejudices treated as acceptable on a page can influence people. This isn’t the first time the work has been censored – CBS made a tv version in 1955 which cut out all mention of slavery and cast a white actor as Jim. Niiiice try, but no.

I’m with Emma on this though: if you’re too young to realise that Huck (or Tom Sawyer) parroting the local prejudices was done deliberately to reflect badly on the society they were in, and their poor and uneducated backgrounds, then the story itself should be enough to demonstrate the inhumanity of racism.

…which isn’t to say that Twain doesn’t also play unacceptably on stereotypes of coloured people in the book for what seems like cheap comedy value at times, because he certainly does.

I think there’s a bigger opportunity here. Those three books most assuredly don’t speak to “every reader and condition” – so let’s find some that do!

Your suggestions please, for books which spoke to you directly, which touched your heart, or which you think have genuine near-universal appeal. Let’s make a new top three: the authors can be any nationality, the books originally in any language. Answers in the comment thread, go!

21 Responses leave one →
  1. January 10, 2011

    To Kill a Mockingbird?

  2. @bureauista permalink
    January 10, 2011

    Any of the H*rry P*tter books. Much as I find them derivative, they touch on all the universal themes. When I moved to China ten years ago, the first thing my students asked me was how to pronounce ‘Quidditch’ correctly. Says it all really.

  3. Stephen B permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I’d put To Kill a Mockingbird above any of the three they quoted, definitely!

    I’m undecided on Harry Potter. I can see why it appeals to many, but I don’t think they identify with it directly: I think they WANT to identify with boarding school / winners-losers / born-with-destiny. I think I’m in a minority even on BadRep of absolutely loathing HP, so I’ll let that one go :)

    • Jenni permalink
      January 10, 2011

      Mm. Well, Huck Finn and TKaMockingbird are both novels which have the black people saved by the heroic white guy though, aren’t they? I know a lot of Americans resent their status as the ‘definitive novels on race and racism’ in the curriculum for this reason.

      Also STEVE STEVE HAVE YOU READ THE HUNGER GAMES YET, STEVE.

      • Stephen B permalink
        January 10, 2011

        I don’t think Mockingbird makes a ‘hero of the white guy for trying to save the black guy’ as much as it points out that we shouldn’t need to have that conversation and it’s unacceptable that we do. But there was no damn way to make the character be a *black* lawyer at the time…

        Ah, Hunger Games :) I haven’t, but I’ve read a lot *about* it. Be interested to see if the criticism stands up! *Puts it on the list*

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 10, 2011

        On that issue, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D Taylor is really, really good. Affected me hugely when I read it in my school library aged about 12. There is definitely no saving involved.

        Also Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin for a complex, harrowing portrayal of a gay relationship (note: there’s misogyny, but not so much on the part of Baldwin as his characters, who are battling repression, using their relationships with women as a “front” for their actual desires, and so on). It’s heavy going, though.

        This is before we get into authors who interact with existing texts from new perspectives, a la Wide Sargasso Sea

        • January 13, 2011

          Definitely second Roll of Thunder. While
          I was heartily sick of it by the time I finished my GCSEs- it was
          the set prose text we studied, so I’d have been sick of anything
          frankly.

  4. jon permalink
    January 10, 2011

    the duchess of malfi, by john webster.
    titus andronicus, by william shakespeare.
    a confederacy of dunces, by john kennedy toole.
    in watermelon sugar, by richard brautigan.

  5. Cendri permalink
    January 10, 2011

    Book of Franza by Ingeborg Bachmann.
    Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    Contact by Carl Sagan

    Most influential books to me so far, particularly the first. I can’t attest to their universality, but I personally think laying claim to that idea is silly anyway.

  6. January 10, 2011

    I enjoyed _Mockingbird_, but it’s widely regarded as being
    still at least a little suffused with the racism of the era. I love
    those kind of mid-20th century southern American grim novels, but
    am unsure that that particular one is of universal value (I’d rate
    Dexter’s _Paris Trout_ a little higher, if there’s a need for a
    20th century southern American racism in the list…). I’m going to
    pick my top 3 as follows: Le Guin’s _The Dispossessed_, for
    recognising the inevitable, human imperfections in even a feminist,
    non-homophobic, non-racist utopia, but for still giving us
    something to work towards, a blueprint, a dream. Piercy’s _Woman on
    the Edge of Time_ for something similar, with the added awesome of
    a kind of Girl, Interrupted / Maria Or The Wrongs of Woman / Yellow
    Wallpaper style look at the inherent sexism, racism and injustice
    of contemporary psychiatric “care”. Moore’s _V for Vendetta_,
    because governments should be afraid of their people, and because
    however much we may be oppressed and imprisoned, within that last
    inch, we are free…

  7. Rob permalink
    January 10, 2011

    Vonnegut’s ‘Mother Night’, or Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’?
    Not that it’s really possible to have a truly universal text that’s
    going to speak to everyone, but they deserve a nod at
    least.

  8. Zoe Bidgood permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I don’t know if I have mentioned this before but when I
    studied TKAM all through Year 10, for some reason Atticus Finch was
    impractically but indellibly case in my head as Morgan Freeman. He
    just has the most wonderfully suitable ‘mature and wise’
    demeanor/voice… It’s not so much the story but his character and
    multiple quotable bits of morality…

  9. Michael S permalink
    January 10, 2011

    I haven’t read the book and to my shame I’m not 100% which
    of his books it is but I’m pretty sure it’s “If This Be A Man” by
    Primo Levi. Because although I haven’t read the whole book I was
    shown the passage where he relates the day Red Army Scouts got to
    the fence of Auschwitz. He relates that as they looked in he at
    first couldn’t place the expression on their faces. Then he
    realised it was the same expression on his and others’ faces on
    ‘selection days’ when they survived. It was guilt. Less traumatic
    though good suggestions come from Joseph Heller: “Catch 22” –
    Futures trading, market forces, the insanity of those and of war.
    Compare so much of the insanity he presents and compare to ‘normal’
    today. “Picture This” – I bang on about this book a fair bit but
    for me it’s as good a book as any written. The killer line for me
    being: “”History is bunk.” Said Henry Ford, the American Industrial
    genius who knew almost none. But Socrates was dead.”

  10. Simon permalink
    January 10, 2011

    American writing – that means no Shakespeare or Webster,
    sorry! There’s no way that any of those 3 would make it into
    anyone’s but the most chauvinistic of Americans’ top 3 novels of
    world literature. Good shout for As I Lay Dying though.

    • Miranda permalink*
      January 11, 2011

      With the original top three, laying aside The Universality Debate for a moment, I’m just not sure why this critic thinks there are only three Great American Novels in the first place. Just on the predominantly white and male “trad canon” writers front, there’s John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, late-period Henry James, Saul Bellow, and Hemingway?

      So yes, the original premise is flawed in the first place.

      But I have to admit I’m not a big reader of any of the authors above. Louisa May Alcott actually had a really big effect on me when I was younger, and I’d agree with Cat Valente that Little Women has far more to it than its detractors often claim. In fact I’d defend Little Women quite extensively if given the opportunity. Maybe I should write a post.

  11. Simon permalink
    January 10, 2011

    Sorry – top 3 books I meant.

  12. January 11, 2011

    I think the premise of the statement is deeply flawed, due to the huge variety of human experience how can any book really expect to have universal appeal? The three mentioned clearly fall down on gender, class and racial lines, but surely we’d also need to consider sexuality and cultural aspects too to find a universal novel. I just don’t see it happening.

    Having said that, I’d bring up a book I read recently called Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that David Mitchell). It’s soft sci-fi with 6 stories set in different times, some past, some future. I’d say it takes a pretty good shot at looking at life from the perspective of a whole massive different set of identities. Plus it’s really good, just in general.

  13. Russell permalink
    January 11, 2011

    Okay, after some ponderance I have my three, and only one
    of them is a trashy fantasy novel! (Go me!) 1. Dracula by Bram
    Stoker – so few of the films really follow the book properly, and
    so few people would take the time to read the book, which is
    powerful, complex, evocative, and a true classic. It actually
    follows the perceived “bunch of men save woman from evil (and
    foreign) man” line a lot less than it’s thought to in many ways, as
    well; Mina is a strong, independent character from the get-go and
    is rewarded for this with ultimate redemption (even salvation)
    whereas Lucy, the weak, stereotypical C19th beauty is punished by
    vampiric transformation. There’s even an argument that suggest that
    Mina, sexually experienced by virtue of her recent marriage, is
    able to overcome Dracula’s divergent sexuality for exactly that
    reason. Also, it’s a fantastic horror story with so much going on
    beyond sexual and gender politics. 2. The Satanic Verses by Salman
    Rushdie – so anyway, we were told that for our final sixth form
    text we’d be reading the play “Translations” by Brian Friel. I
    happen to think that play is awful (other opinions about that play
    are available), so I checked out the reading list and sure enough,
    there was “Midnight’s Children”. Now, for those of you who haven’t
    read it, “Midnight’s Children” is essentially the X-Men in India,
    and to my eighteen year old self nothing could be more appealing
    (in fact, to my 26 year old self that’s still pretty
    OHMYGODITSBEENEIGHTYEARS), so I promptly read it. Having devoured –
    well, devoured isn’t really the right word for Rushdie – having
    consumed it an appropriate rate, I moved on to The Satanic Verses
    which I found suited the post-colonial themes of my course just as
    well in many ways, so I proceeded to write a comparative essay in
    the exam (go me!). In any case, The Satanic Verses is a complex and
    difficult text whose inaccessibility is not assisted by the
    controversy surrounding it. It is is subversive, complex, and
    contains an excellent female read. If you’re looking for something
    to read on holiday that has a bit more punch than your average
    paperback, this is a good move. Unless you’re going to Dubai (other
    Islamic nations are available). 3. Wheel of Time (series) by Robert
    Jordan – Yay, the trashy fantasy novel. Whilst it is true that
    there is a sub-trope of fantasy fiction in which the women have all
    the magic while the men (with the exception of messiah-figure)
    don’t (as far as I know it consists of this and Dune), I’ve always
    felt that WOT treats women sensibly, cleverly, and fairly.
    Essentially, the plot is that Supreme Evil(TM) has managed to
    poison the male half of the true source of the one power (magic)
    for the past three thousand years, and as a result all men who try
    to channel (be magicians) go mad and then die. Therefore, the women
    have become the sole legal magicians for health and safety reasons
    and are forced to hunt down any male channellers for their own (and
    everyone else’s) sake, with the exception of The Dragon Reborn (TM)
    (aforementioned messiah-figure) who is prophesied to defeat the
    Dark One (aforementioned Supreme Evil(TM)), restore piece to the
    land, and comes with a free toy. As is the way with all the best
    epic fantasy trash, it quickly gets more complex than that, with
    war, political intrigue, returning exiles, a bad-ass ninja nation,
    and villains everywhere. It’s often compared (favourably) to Lord
    of the Rings, as all fantasy is, but the closest real approximation
    in my opinion is George RR Martin’s A Son Of Ice And Fire, which is
    nastier, but equally avoids skimping on the details. It has many
    virtues which are often overlooked in episodic fiction, for example
    the sheer joy of speculation prior to each new instalment, which
    you can do alone or in a group. You don’t get that from your
    grown-up books, do you?

  14. Dee permalink
    January 17, 2011

    I recognize that books that speak to me aren’t going to have universal appeal. ;-) Here are three off the top of my head.

    1. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. I can’t adequately describe how much this book has affected my thinking since I first read it in 1988.

    2. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. This started my quest to read all of his books. I adore it and find new stuff to think about every time I read it.

    3. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. A woman who wants to be a rock star and the Faerie court? This could have been written with me expressly in mind. ;->

  15. Pet Jeffery permalink
    February 3, 2011

    Venturing upstairs to my bedroom, for an empirical view of my literary tastes, I spotted two books that may have universal appeal (neither of them yet mentioned):

    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The arbitrariness and madness of the adult world, viewed by the child who still lurks (I hope) somewhere inside everybody. I think there’s something here for anybody who hasn’t died from the inside.

    The Wind in the Willows. Not the Toad chapters, but (especially) “Dolce Domum”, which says what there is to say about home; “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”, which is simply wonderful; and “Wayfarers All”, which says what there is to say about the urge to leave home. I also love the seasonality of the book… spring, summer, autumn, winter are all encapsulated — and something important evoked about each of them.

  16. Custard permalink
    February 8, 2011

    I know I’m way, way late to this party but here’s my three:

    Frankenstein – Mary Shelley: for it’s complex look at the treatment of oppressed classes (and the monster was vegetarian, amazing)

    Save me the Waltz – Zelda Fitzgerald: because unlike her “too cool for school” husband there is huge emotional depth in her writing (compare to his “Tender is the Night” – based on the same events – and you wonder if he was that cold and cruel to her in real life too)

    The Edible Woman – Margaret Atwood: because I really relate to this novel, and how the main character struggles to keep hold of her identity while the men around her try to swallow her up.

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