I have been under siege for writing that I couldn't think of any good American novels that weren't heavy on sex or politics.
Ruth Lerner of Pacific Palisades had asked me to name 10 such books for her son, who is sojourning in China. He had asked her to send him works of American fiction, but none that might be confiscated by the Chinese.
Obviously my answer was ironic. I was saying that it is hard to find a contemporary novel that isn't saturated with sex, politics or both.
I have been bombarded with dozens of titles of American fiction from "Moby Dick" and "The Scarlet Letter" to "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Catcher in the Rye."
One man, J. L. Jonsson of Long Beach, names no fewer than 46 novels, and suggests that I should have passed Mrs. Lerner's request on to "someone who reads at least a book a month."
Jonsson's suggestions range from Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" to "Gone With the Wind," neither of which, it seems to me, is quite free of sex and politics.
His list poses another problem. If I had named 10 of his selections, he might have accused me of leaving out the other 36. Also, I wonder how long it's been since he read "Call of the Wild."
Lester E. Sansome of Rosemead notes that the Horatio Alger stories, which, along with the Rover Boys, was the only selection I could come up with, are in fact testaments to the American free enterprise system, and might be anathema to the Chinese.
Judy Burkey of Signal Hill points out that in observing that "The Wizard of Oz" reeks of abnormal sex I failed to note that it is also a last hurrah for the waning Populist movement of the 1890s. Certainly a no-no on two counts.
Judy Kupperman, a teacher of English at Granada Hills High School, sends a list of 16 novels, several of which are English, not American, including "Lord of the Flies," "Jane Eyre," "Pride and Prejudice," and "Picture of Dorian Gray." She also suggests "Little Women" and "Little Men," both of which I would hesitate to recommend to a young man today.
Ralph William Bentlege writes that as "a mere youth" in the Navy on Guam, he read, among others, "Anthony Adverse," "Captain Hornblower," "Great Expectations" (English) "Pilgrim's Progress" (also English) and various books by Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), and Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe). I can't believe that anyone but a literary or theological scholar could read "Pilgrim's Progress" today, and I certainly wouldn't foist it on a young man who might already be feeling isolated and disoriented in China.
Susan Gardner concedes the difficulty of finding readable books that are not saturated with sex and politics, but she recommends anything by Dick Francis and Agatha Christie, both English. She explains: "Maybe Mrs. Lerner should stick with some of the Brits, who know the art of insinuation better than the U.S. writers."
Rachel Pearson of Pasadena follows the British trend, recommending "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis as "the funniest book I've read and re-read." I agree that "Lucky Jim" is a delightful book, but it is quintessentially English, and doesn't qualify.
Linda Palmer of Beverly Hills recommends several good novels, including "A Woman of Independent Means" by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter" and "Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers, any 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain, any Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout, "Giant" by Edna Ferber, "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell, and "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Palmer also concedes that few "modern" American novels meet Mrs. Lerner's restrictions, but she insists that the books of Herbert Gold and Joseph Wambaugh are "worth risking jail to read."
She says: "If, as has been said, an age is defined by its fiction, then I fear for our age."
Fred A. Glienna and Gary Nordell both recommend the novels of Zane Grey. "You won't find prurience in Grey's 'Riders of the Purple Sage' or 'Union Pacific,' " says Glienna. He also recommends Owen Wister's "The Virginian." ("When you call me that, smile.")
Mrs. J. Ford Johnston of Sunland wonders how I feel about the Bible.
Well, for one thing, it is definitely not American. Also, it has a lot of begetting in it.