Sampler Platter

Some time back, I posted a tasting flight of shorter works by important authors, in the interest of giving readers a way to decide whether or not they liked a particular author enough to go on and tackle one of that author’s signature doorstop volumes.  Now, as a follow-up to that round, here’s another quartet of shorter pieces by authors of important longer works.

Henry FieldingJoseph Andrews.  Tom Jones is the doorstop (and well worth reading for its own sake); Joseph Andrews is the short one, written in response to that other blockbuster of the eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.  Richardson’s novel featured a virtuous maidservant who attracts the lustful attention of her employer, Squire B, possibly the world’s most incompetent rake.  He tries everything, including abduction and a fake marriage, but never works himself up to doing the actual deed; meanwhile, Pamela steadfastly holds out for honorable matrimony or nothing, and – spoiler alert! – gets her way in the end.  Fielding, for his part, found the entire plot so silly that he responded to it first by writing Shamela, an outright parody, and then by writing Joseph Andrews, which was what we’d probably call today the genderflipped version, with the title character being the handsome young footman who resists the advances of his employer, the licentious Lady Booby, widow of the late Squire Booby (hey, no one ever said that Fielding was subtle!), and is dismissed from his position and forced to go on the road as a result.

Charles DickensA Christmas Carol.  Charles Dickens was the Stephen King of his day (or maybe Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of ours): He wrote big fat novels, and he wrote a lot of them, for a long time.  A Christmas Carol is short, but it’s got enough of the Dickens flavor that you can figure out whether you want to go for one of the doorstops – Bleak House, say, or Oliver Twist.  (You can avoid Great Expectations, if you like, and I won’t blame you a bit.  It’s the one most often inflicted upon long-suffering high school students, and has probably turned a lot of them off of Dickens for life.  Lord knows, it nearly did it for me.)  Dickens also managed, with A Christmas Carol, to come up with one of the great recyclable plots.  Hollywood, in particular, has been running riffs and changes on it for decades.

Thomas PynchonThe Crying of Lot 49.  Pynchon’s another author best known for doorstop novels like V and Gravity’s RainbowThe Crying of Lot 49 – the title refers to an item being put up (or “cried”, as the terminology has it) for auction – is short and fast-moving, an ideal way to find out of you like Pynchon enough to try the big stuff.  Highlights include a centuries-old conspiracy of uncertain intent, a (fictional) Jacobean revenge tragedy, and one of the funniest games of strip poker ever written.

Alexander SolzhenitsynOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Russian novels are notoriously long as it is, and Solzhenitsyn carried on with the tradition.  One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an exception, being short enough to be published in 1962 as a complete-in-this-issue novel in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir.  If you don’t feel up to tackling Solzhenitsyn’s mega-doorstop nonfiction work The Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life will give you enough about life in a Stalinist-era Soviet prison camp to be getting on with.

5 thoughts on “Sampler Platter

  1. Great Expectations did, in fact, put me off Dickens for good.

    Many, many years later I finally read A Christmas Carol and was amazed to discover that I liked it. But not enough to get me to try more Dickens.

  2. Heh. Pynchon says he hates Lot 49, but of his books that I’ve read, it’s not only the best but the most readable. Maybe he hates it because it’s got something resembling a narrative 🙂

    1. Speaking as a critic –writers are notoriously unreliable judges of their own work. Speaking as a writer — unlike good parents, we seldom love all of our paper-and-pixels children equally, and our reasons don’t always make sense.

      (Maybe Lot 49 was fast and easy to write, and he feels like that speed and fluency means it isn’t as deep or as well-thought-out or as *something* as his doorstop novels. Or maybe there was a thing he was trying to do in that book that nobody ever picks up on, or that he doesn’t think he managed to pull off. Or maybe the book that he had when he finished simply wasn’t the one he had in mind when he started, and he resents the loss of the book it might have been. Who knows?)

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