First comes a word on deciding which books make the cut. Using WorldCat, I’ve ranked the books by the number of libraries worldwide that have copies. The more libraries, the higher the rank. So it’s not my fault if some universally loved, critically acclaimed or otherwise worthy books are missing. Blame the librarians. The list’s previous and more pretentious name, “California Canon,” suggests that the entries meet established standards of artistic merit or cultural importance. Of course, such standards don’t exist for California fiction any more than they exist for American fiction generally. So “California’s Famous Fifty” comes closer finding the quality that ties the list together. The idea is that libraries keep books on the shelves because patrons have heard of the books and might want to read them. So the larger the number of libraries retaining a book, the greater the book’s renown. (Okay, there are flaws in this thinking, but it does have some objectivity.) The argument applies less to academic libraries, which collect books using various criteria and are more likely to bury unpopular titles rather than tossing them out.
Compiled in this way, the list holds up well. The most prominent authors and most recognized books all seem to be there. I’m fairly confident that exceptions occur only in categories I’m not reading. If I included historical fiction, for example, Ramona and maybe a couple other books would make the list. Otherwise, the chances are pretty good that anyone who has read a work of California fiction published before 1960 has read one of the Famous Fifty.
It’s clear from first glance that this list, like other inventories of important books, is skewed toward works by well known authors. John Steinbeck appears ten times, Raymond Chandler six times and Jack London four times. James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Frank Norris, William Saroyan and George R. Stewart check in with three books each. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac with two apiece and you have ten authors producing 78 percent of the listed books.
A check of authors’ first names reveals another skewing. Although women wrote about 25 percent of the California fiction I’m reading, only two books by female authors appear on the list. Since male authors almost always write about men, female protagonists -- or even important female characters -- don’t show up very often in the Famous Fifty. Their absence may give the erroneous impression that serious fiction necessarily focuses on the thoughts, experiences and problems of men and that female protagonists are found only in romances, cozy mysteries and other light fiction. I’ve read more than 130 books that don’t fit this stereotype.
Here’s my final complaint about the Famous Fifty. The list, even with its pseudo-populist rationale, gets validity from the notion that its entries have greater merit than whatever it omits. If the books weren’t in some sense good, why are they still in libraries? Add to that a halo effect and readers may come to believe that only a handful of authors has produced nearly all the worthwhile California fiction. Which is wrong in two ways. First, several of the listed books are not all that terrific -- and even those that clearly possess literary distinction may not impress some readers. Second, the list does not represent the body of California fiction, which includes around 3,000 titles from before 1960 and offers great variety in subject, style and intent. Many, many of those books are worth reading. Which, of course, is one of the points this blog is trying to make.