Thoughtful-but-entertaining novels for the nonliterary type?
June 10, 2014 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm teaching an introductory course on prose fiction (reading, not writing). What fun post-1900 novel should I put on the syllabus? Should be intelligent, but needn't necessarily be, you know, Literary.

The course is supposed to teach the fundamentals of thinking critically about fiction as literature-- theme, character, setting, structure, etc.-- but realistically, even at this level, I expect there to be some component of "You, too, can and should read books!" Consequently, I'm looking for a text that's fun, rewarding and not too avant-garde, but still complex enough to support discussion and serious analysis. My own fiction-reading background is overwhelmingly pre-20th-century, so I feel like I don't have a great handle on what might work in this slot. I'd gladly just assign Fielding or Dickens or Austen or whatever if I didn't think the diction and historical background stuff might be too much of a barrier to entry-- but that's the general kind of experience I'm going for: smart, but enjoyable.

More specific criteria:
--Mid-length or shorter preferred
--Relatively traditional in structure and tone; nothing too self-consciously arty or even MFA-y (in the manner, for instance, of a lot of the short fiction one sees in The New Yorker)
--Preferably not a literary warhorse, since plagiarism becomes more tempting the more essays are already out there
--Some political/ideological content is fine, but NOT an Issue Novel.
--No graphic sexual content; preferably no overwhelmingly strong sexual themes
--Genre or "popular" fiction is fine, again, as long as there's at least a week or two of class discussion and a couple term papers' worth of complexity in there.
--I've considered going the graphic-novel route, but everything I've seen seems to be (a) long, or (b) for specialized interests (superhero, scifi), or (c) turgid and Serious. If there are exceptions, please volunteer them!

On my shortlist at this point are Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. What else should I consider, Metafilter? When you were just a wee hormonal, texting-obsessed college sophomore, what would have constituted a rollicking good time in the longform fiction vein?
posted by gallusgallus to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Scalzi's Old Man's War would have been a nice antidote to the bale of Clarissa I had to get through.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:00 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you considered Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?

- Approximately 300 fast-moving pages
- Relatively conventional early twentieth century prose style, but on the concise/descriptive end of the spectrum, and not wordy/not boring
- Not terribly well-known or assigned
- Definitely satirical, both of the political system and the people caught up in it (fascinating backstory regarding the author's relationship to the early Communist power structure, as an added discussion material bonus)
- Interesting exploration of religious subject matter, too

I was introduced to this book in a HS class on Russian Lit (my rural IN HS had a strangely advanced English department), and have loved/read it several times since. Even though it's translated from a foreign sensibility (the Vintage International 1996 edition's translation is excellent, and has copious idiom footnotes), the tone hits a great sweet spot between humorous and serious. Sort of a wry-but-deep approach, similar to Vonnegut. Actually, have you considered virtually anything by him?
posted by credible hulk at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Gone Girl. That was an amazing shortish novel for the clever structure and characterisation, as well as an insanely fun dark read.

I would totally do an Austen with the recommendation that people watch one of the films to get a sense of the period. The films make the books much more approachable, and Jane Austen is so damn good and short.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:13 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh and Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales are brilliant and morbid and sexualized (but not explicit) and tie into lots of interesting discussions of mythology, fairy tales and rewriting, gender and sex, etc. They're short but tied together as a collection. Angela Carter also wrote a lot about literature and writing too, so there's plenty for a student to explore.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:17 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a Victorianist at heart, but I also have soft spots for Douglas Adams, fantasy, and the detective novel. These come together nicely in the rollicking, literate, accessible, and very meta "The Eyre Affair," by Jasper Fforde. NYT review. Guardian review.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:17 AM on June 10, 2014

Slaughterhouse Five? OK, a bit avant-garde and maybe getting to be considered a warhorse, but absolutely a rollicking good time for the typical college sophomore.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:22 AM on June 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

Bridge of Birds.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:23 AM on June 10, 2014

There's a great list here, which may hit that spot you're looking for. Popular, quick reads. Maybe too popular, if you're worried about plagiarism, though. Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison jump out to me. I would try to balance a masculine and sexist perspective in something like Vonnegut, which I adore, with something like Handmaid's Tale.
posted by Lardmitten at 8:25 AM on June 10, 2014

Important fact that credible hulk left out about Master and Margarita: One of the supporting characters is a hog-sized, hard drinkin', sarcastic cat that walks on two legs. Master and Margarita is a real winner.
posted by coreywilliam at 8:31 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Any Waugh would be excellent, & sort of along the same lines, Cold Comfort Farm & Nancy Mitford's novels are brilliant. I also loved reading Forster's A Passage to India and Paul Scott's Staying On around that age. For more current stuff, Kate Atkinson, (some) Murakami, & Amy Tan are very readable.

I love The Eyre Affair but it might be tough to 'get' it without a fair bit of literary knowledge.
posted by littlegreen at 8:32 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

(When I recently reread Cold Comfort Farm, I was shocked by how casually racist it was in patches. I'd suggest reviewing all these with an eye to racism/creepy attitudes about women/creepy attitudes about domestic violence and sexual assault/homophobia...sadly a lot of the fun reads of my youth have pretty gross passages, and I would not want to give them to a student, even if (perhaps especially if, due to reinforcing terrible ideas) the student was, like, a white middle class cis straight guy.)
posted by Frowner at 8:36 AM on June 10, 2014

Tom Perotta is fun.Election has some sexual content, but I don't remember it being too graphic (I might be wrong).
posted by jaguar at 8:43 AM on June 10, 2014

The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy

This was recommended to me by a teacher who could see I loved reading, and I still re-read it every three or four years. So accessible, so funny, so clever.
posted by greenish at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

i seconded slaughterhouse-5 and would add the earlier vonnegut "cat's cradle", "player piano", but i gotta say, your question made me feel bad for the future of higher education if college sophomores can't handle the diction and historical background of fielding, dickens or austen, and are presumed to plagiarize any assignment related to any well-known text.
posted by bruce at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Sense of an Ending is brilliantly, deceptively simple. A perfect modern vehicle for discussing le mot juste.
posted by maya at 8:53 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien is a staple on many syllabi. It's a book of short stories, but carries a cumulative effect that's somewhat breathtaking.

Another collection of stories that forms a somewhat-cohesive narrative is Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. Brief, and full of really beautiful writing, but not challenging (on a sentence level, anyway. there is lots to unpack there.)

Also nthing The Handmaid's Tale. You can get radical with it (if you want)!
posted by magdalemon at 8:54 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you wanted to go a popular and fantasy novel route, much of Terry Pratchett would fit this bill. He constructed an entire world out of a few characters, and they are also really relatable characters and it's very intelligent --- almost deceitfully so.

Reaper Man might be a good one since it is relatively stand alone in plot and deals with a common subject matter. Don't let the page numbers fool you --- Terry Pratchett reads fast.
posted by zizzle at 8:57 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kindred could be good. It's not a very difficult read, it involves time travel and women's history and Black history and is very entertaining.

Have you considered Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?

This is about the least "relatively conventional in structure and tone" novel I can imagine, plus it relies on the reader having knowledge of Russian history and the finer points of Christian doctrine. It would be totally inappropriate for a class for people who barely read for fun.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:00 AM on June 10, 2014 [5 favorites]

How about "Gone with the Wind", Middlesex, Life after Life, Cutting for Stone or 11/22/63. All Fiction from this Non-Fiction loving reader but very captivating and discussion worthy.
posted by MrsMGH at 9:01 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tom Perotta is a good suggestion, though for your purposes I would go with his coming of age linked story collection Bad Haircut rather than Election.

Graphic novel wise, I've never met anyone who did not like Marjane Satrapi's coming of age novel Persepolis.
posted by gudrun at 9:02 AM on June 10, 2014

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
posted by JohnLewis at 9:06 AM on June 10, 2014

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving; it might be a little long but it goes fast. It's full of Themes and Motifs while being super readable.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:09 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Silence of the Lambs
posted by galvanized unicorn at 9:12 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ellen Foster, Bell Jar, Never Let Me Go, The Road, True Grit, Handmaid's Tale, Tree Grows in Brooklyn - all pretty short, all really good, with good writing and great characters
posted by umwhat at 9:14 AM on June 10, 2014

Breakfast at Tiffany's is short, sad, and written terrifically. And then you can show the movie, which is totally different.
posted by thursdaystoo at 9:29 AM on June 10, 2014

First, a comment. You described superhero graphic novels as being for specialized interests. I object! If they were only of interest to a few, we wouldn't be rolling through a cycle of multi-million dollar movies like The Avengers, where 40% of the audience was female. So many of your hesitant readers will be used to comic books, cartoons and these characters that it will be a great conduit to opening a broader literary world. I'm with aca-fans like Henry Jenkins, who suggests that this type of genre fiction (comic books, Star Trek, etc), and both the professional and amateur story variations they spawn, are like the folk tales of our age.

I suggest you use Scott McCloud's fabulous Understanding Comics (if you haven't already, I suggest you get all of his works on graphic novels), and then follow with either Alice in Sunderland (probably the most interesting for your class), Ghost World, V for Vendetta, the Sandman, or From Hell (probably too violent but something to consider), and also offer them the option to read a superhero novel such as Frank Miller's Batman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, or Watchmen.

You can also offer After the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn. It is a straightforward account of a woman whose parents are superpowered, but who has no powers herself. In its way it suggests questions about why that type of fiction is so appealing to us. I would suggest it for female readers who assume they wouldn't like a genre story. The lead is a forensic accountant.

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is a easy read. Again, if you offer his book "Fever Pitch", people who watch the American movie can be caught out easily enough.

Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper (people who try to skip by "reading" the movie can be caught out easily!)

YA science fiction is filled with material that's easy to get into...
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks, Billy Collins,.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald (e.g. Tales of the Jazz Age)
Howard's End by E. M. Forster
Short stories by Katherine Mansfield
"The Dead", by James Joyce.

Jack London was a racist, so you may want to caveat this for certain texts, but he also wrote great adventure fiction, like the Call of the Wild.
Speaking of adventure, if the literature you'll share with them extends to nonfiction, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Literary nonfiction, new journalism like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.
Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice.
James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
If you'll be considering plays, I don't think you can go wrong with Tenneessee Williams.

How about a mystery? Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, for instance? Paired with a hardboiled piece by Chandler like The Simple Art of Murder, which starts with an essay about detective fiction.
Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels.

From that age, two pieces that resonated were Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, and Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown.

I think The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society might work fine.
posted by mitschlag at 9:41 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jessmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones!
posted by tapir-whorf at 9:42 AM on June 10, 2014

(Oh, and an addition - I think guys will be fine with the Carrie Vaughn book too, I just think I would offer it to women I know who sneer at science fiction, fantasy, action movies etc.)
posted by mitschlag at 9:43 AM on June 10, 2014

I love the idea of teaching with Gone Girl. It's deeply readable and discussable, has some interesting structural elements, and bonus fun unreliable narrators! This is, in my opinion, the easiest book to dive into out of those mentioned.

Atwood is, of course, awesome too. Master and Margarita is one of my very favorite books. My professor made sure we were able to pick up on all the context of the satire, both religious and Soviet. I think unpacking that with a class could be really fun. Especially with a hard drinking demon cat to guide the way!
posted by chatongriffes at 9:52 AM on June 10, 2014

I think Michael Chabon is intensely readable and fun while still being literary. I'm thinking especially of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen of the Road.

I also want to second the recommendation for Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I read it as a freshman or sophomore in college, and I recall it being pretty universally liked by my peers. Plus it's a fast read with prose that isn't too challenging or dense. I honestly think it's a must-read book, for Americans especially.
posted by yasaman at 10:02 AM on June 10, 2014

Much as I love Fforde, I think reading his books would be an extremely frustrating experience for people who aren't capital-R Readers (yet).

A Neil Gaiman book might work. Stardust is more straightforward (and any cheating with the movie will be evidenced by the appearance of Captain Shakespeare). American Gods is more literary and challenging. Good Omens is probably too long and weird.

You might take a breeze through some Banana Yoshimoto. Her books tend to be short, but some are more sexual than others.

Curveball idea: The Rook by Daniel O'Malley. It's genre and one of the most intensely gripping books I've read in a while. Just starts and keeps going! Interesting questions of identity and so on to be explored, too, I think. (It looks like it's too long, though. Dammit! I couldn't put it down.)

Maybe a Miyuki Miyabe murder mistery? Her books are also extremely gripping, and all the ones I've read have been translated in a straightforward way. Gender relations, societal connections, and morality are major themes.
posted by wintersweet at 10:11 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's marketed as YA, but Nation by Terry Pratchett is a quick read, immensely entertaining, moving, and thoughtful, with lots of potential for discussion about tradition and individualism, family and religion, not to mention prejudice and gender roles.
posted by johnofjack at 10:19 AM on June 10, 2014

31 comments and no one recommends A Confederacy of Dunces??? I would've LOVED to have been assigned that in college.
posted by jabes at 10:20 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

LOL. I was scrolling down to see if anyone mentioned A Confederacy of Dunces. On a completely different tack, Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey often gets listed as the number one mystery of all time. It is a fun, brisk read, different from almost any other mystery and the whole idea of rethinking history is a profound notion.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:51 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Uncommon Reader

It is very short, gorgeously-written but without pretention, and is about a non-reader discovering books. (That non-reader is, in fact, Her Royal Highness the Queen of England.) It is laugh-out-loud funny, and, in the end, a surprisingly deep and profound meditation on art, morality, and a person's right to their own choices. I have recommended it to a well-known poet, a 16-year old cheerleader, and a grumpy investment banker, none big on fiction. All raved.
posted by minervous at 10:51 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was going to suggest We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it's already on your list. Maybe The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Strangers on a Train?
posted by betweenthebars at 11:23 AM on June 10, 2014

Graphic novels: I can see how Maus would be too much, but what about Persepolis? Or Ghost World or Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (probably paired with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

Nthing True Grit. Fun and funny. I also enjoyed the hell out of The Yiddish Policeman's Union but it might be too long/too Literary; it's kind of dense with alternate history digressions and obscure-to-goyische Judaica. Might not be the absolute best for reluctant readers. I found it hell of engaging, though.

Maybe Motherless Brooklyn? It's a detective novel but has some literary aspirations that could give you a week of class discussion, easily. In that vein, you can talk forever (gender! unreliable narrators! where tropes come from! about The Maltese Falcon, plus it's a fast, easy, fun read.

Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs is about a college sophomore who becomes a nanny to an odd wealthy couple while her brother contemplates joining the post-9/11 Army. I think it would be super-readable and enjoyable for college students, and there are some harder and easier literary things to pick out- like, there's a very obvious bit of foreshadowing that even the laziest student will pick out, but there's also more subtle things about family formation and when we are and are not parents and children.

Let us know what you pick!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:31 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about something in the mid-20th century nonfiction-novel vein?

Or something like A Fan's Notes?
posted by jason's_planet at 5:41 PM on June 10, 2014

How do you feel about novellas or long short stories? Because I think something like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders is a solid one-way ticket to Reading-isn't-so-bad Town.

Alternately, I just read Ethan Frome in an afternoon, and I can see its appeal for nineteen-year-olds. Furtive, doomed romance, an excellent villain to root against, and a plot twist that literally made me say, HOLY SHIT out loud. (You know the one. I definitely didn't see it coming.)
posted by book 'em dano at 10:22 PM on June 10, 2014

On the off chance that short stories are acceptable, I chip in the suggestion of a collection of Borges. Ficciones, for instance, although maybe skip stuff like Al-Mu'tasim, Menard, or Quain which might be too navel-gazy meta to hold interest?
posted by juv3nal at 11:35 PM on June 11, 2014

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