I am having fun with columns that are “lists,” which I have relished ever since I was a boy, making lists of all manner of things. Lists strongly appeal to me for two reasons seemingly in tension with one another. On the one hand, lists invariably satisfy an urge for order (this is a high priority for me—when I was a boy, I enjoyed reading Leviticus, for the sense of order it communicated). On the other hand, lists often appeal to those who, like me, delight in the heterogeneous. A list of favorite movies or baseball players (shortstops from Major League Baseball history over the last fifty years, say) or novelists who flourished in the 1980s, will be delightfully heterogeneous and neatly ordered at the same time.
But there is trouble in paradise, alas. One among the countless features of the (still relatively new) digital landscape is the endless proliferation of lists; we are bombarded by them as never before. This is true not only of countless fugitive sites desperately seeking to capture our attention but also of the crème de la crème: the New York Times woos us with “Seven Grammy winners worth another spin.” Might there not be a revulsion with lists in the offing as an unintended result of this saturation?
Meanwhile, I will soldier on with my own list-making. Now, about some novels I would like to read—books as yet unwritten, so far as I know.
First, I would like to read a good novel set in the “evangelical” world so much pontificated about (see Tim Alberta and countless others, ad nauseam). If its span roughly coincided with my own, so much the better, but it could focus on characters born twenty or thirty or even forty years later. By “good” I mean well-written, rich with novelistic pleasures but also “true to life”: not at all uncritical, not grinding an axe either, but with people and places and events grounded in reality, however unfashionable that might be. Could this happen? Certainly. Will it happen? I don’t know. I think the best bet would be on a writer with a strong satirical bent who could portray the dreaded “evangelicals” and their woke critics with equal aplomb, combining cutting wit with deep generosity. Whoever takes it on would do well to seek inspiration from Daniel Taylor’s series of novels that enter the world of contemporary Bible translation, including Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees. Talk about a subject rich with possibilities.
Next, a novel centering on Christian missionaries who come to the U.S. from another country. China would be an obvious possibility, but there are others. A novel with this point of departure could go in many directions, profitably so. My first preference, of course, would be to read such a book by a writer who was both a believer and a talented novelist, but I think the subject could also be usefully taken up by a good writer who is not himself or herself a believer.
Then to spy fiction: I would like to read a novel set in our time that combines the freshness, the attitude, and the commanding intelligence that Len Deighton brought to The IPCRESS File and Funeral in Berlin in the early 1960s. Not someone who “wrote like Deighton.” The world has changed—our imaginary writer could easily be a woman—fiction has changed, “espionage” has changed, yes, of course. But there is a wealth of material, enough to launch a career as long and distinguished as Deighton’s own.
Of course, when it comes to fiction (or poetry, or any writing), often we don’t know what we are really yearning for until we see it. When I first read Marly Youmans’s short novel Catherwood, just over twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to specify in advance that this particular book was just what I was waiting for. The same had been true, years earlier, when I read Larry Woiwode for the first time. And Diane Glancy. And Charles Portis. And Muriel Spark. And Beryl Bainbridge. And Peter Handke. And Barbara Pym. And T. C. Boyle. And A. G. Mojtabai. And Thomas Bernhard. And Philip K. Dick.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to imagine such possibilities even as I wait impatiently for more fiction from Adam Roberts and Michael Connelly and Andrew Klavan, all of them blessedly prolific. I am very thankful that I will never run out of good things to read and re-read, even if some of the books I hope for don’t come to fruition.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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