Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Should Be the Official State Novel of California?

The House of Representatives of Massachusetts recently named Moby-Dick the commonwealth's official 'epic novel,' a compromised reached after representatives from areas that were home to writers Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne protested. While the bill must still pass the Senate and get the governor's signature, it got me thinking about our own state's literary tradition.

California doesn't have an official state book or novel, although we do have a state folk dance (It's the Hustle. Just kidding, it's actually square dancing). Obviously there's a very rich history of literature from the Golden State, but how would one choose the "capital O" Official State Novel. Let's try, shall we?

Let's limit it to novels, since throwing in non-fiction and poetry would complicate things horribly. I won't try to separate out the epic novels from the regular, non-epic ones, although I'd be interested to hear exactly how that distinction was made in the Massachusetts State House. Let's further say that the State of California should be the primary setting for the novel, though not the only setting, and that the author should be in some way associated with California. Aldous Huxley wrote a book about California, but I don't tend to think of him as a "Californian author." With these guidelines in place, a few contenders jump to the fore immediately. John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, should certainly be given consideration. Likely something from Jack London would make the shortlist as well (they did name a square after him in Oakland, after all). Below are my picks for the long shortlist:
Looking at that list, three things jump out at me. One is that certain books, like Didion's Play It As It Lays, Bukowski's Ham on Rye, and Ellis's Less Than Zero would never, ever be chosen as official state novels due to their subject matter. I'm sure somebody out there would object to just about every book on the list, but those three would be the first to go. The other thing I notice is, where are the Latino novels? How can we have a serious discussion about California's literature without a single Latino author on the list? We can't. Something must be done about it, but I will confess that I'm not likely to be the one to do it. I've read many great books by Latino authors, but none of them are Californian, strangely enough. Others write predominantly non-fiction (I'm thinking specifically of Victor Villasenor, who is quintessentially Californian). It looks like I've got some homework to do. If you have suggestions for a great work of fiction about California by a Latino author, please mention it in the comments, and I will add it to the list.

The third thing that occurs to me when I look at the list is how impossible it would be to pick one book from it. There are so many great books about so many different aspects of California. The state is too diverse to be captured in a single work. It may be a cop-out, but that's how I feel about it. If I were pressed, I would choose East of Eden, a big, sprawling, multi-generational novel with biblical themes. Is it big and sprawling enough to encompass a state like California? Not even close.



At 9:55 PM, Blogger judy said...

Highwire Moon by Susan Straight
The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins

I thought your list was extremely great by the way.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Patrick said...

Those are both great additions to the list, Judy. I also thought that Marissa Silver's God of War deserves mention.


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