A conversation with a colleague in January of 2022 led to my blogging about the possible “Best Books of 1972.” The post was fun to research, so here’s a sequel of sorts: What were the best books from fifty years ago?
(I don’t have to do any research for a quick answer: Gravity’s Rainbow was the best novel of 1973.)
Just as in last year’s post, I’m mostly interested in novels here, or books of a novelistic/artistic scope.
Still, with that said, I’ll begin with commerce: What were the bestsellers of 1973? The New York Times bestsellers list for 1973 picks up where their ’72 list left off, with Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull leading sales for the first 11 weeks (Bach’s novel was the bestseller of 1972 for half a year). Genre fiction from Frederick Forsyth, Jacqueline Susann, and Mary Stewart accounts for more than half the year. More notable bestsellers include Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, Gore Vidal’s Burr, and Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. (Gravity’s Rainbow was not a chart topper.)
Critic John Leonard’s end of the year wrap up for the Times in 1973 is especially instructive. He leads with Gravity’s Rainbow, describing it as
…one of the longest, darkest, most difficult and most ambitious novels in years. Its technical and verbal resources bring to mind Melville, Faulkner and Nabokov and establish Pynchon’s imaginative continuity with the great modernist movement of the early years of this century. Gravity’s Rainbow is bone‐crushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, poetic, dull, inspired, horrific, cold and blasted.
Leonard also recommends Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark (“her most artful exploration of her major themes: the relation of self and society, intelligence and feeling, madness and health, and, above all, the role of modern woman”) and John Leonard Clive’s Macaulay, the Shaping of the Historian.
Some notable titles that the editors of the NYT Book Review append to Leonard’s feature include Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, Thomas McGuane’s Ninety‐Two in the Shade, and John Cheever’s The World of Apples. The editors also call out “disappointing efforts by Don DeLillo (Great Jones Street) and Marge Piercy (Small Changes).”
In addition to the essayistic feature, the Times also offered up an extensive list of notable titles. There are around 200 books on this list, which I’ve used to help generate my own list at the end of this post. (The most interesting entry I’d never heard of is The Exile of James Joyce by Helene Cixous
Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter is not on the list because it was not published in 1973. It was published in 1972. But it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1973.
Infamously, there was no Pulitzer Prize awarded for fiction in 1974, even though the jurists were unanimous in their recommendation that Thomas Pynchon win it for Gravity’s Rainbow. (Gravity’s Rainbow did win the 1974 National Book Award.)
The New York Times list also fails to include Patrick White’s novel The Eye of the Storm. White won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973.
Neither does the NYT list include Alan Gardner’s Red Shift, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, B. S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, Anna Kavan’s Who Are You?, Clarice Lispector’s Água Viva, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Devil Tree, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Charles Bukowski’s South of No North, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Peter Shaffer’s Equus, Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born or Thomas Rockwell’s juvenile classic How to Eat Fried Worms.
Here is my (almost certainly incomplete) list of the best books of 1973:
Água Viva, Clarice Lispector
The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom
Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
Child of God, Cormac McCarthy
Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, B. S. Johnson
Crash, J.G. Ballard
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Red Shift, Alan Gardner
State of Grace, Joy Williams
Sula, Toni Morrison
There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest
Here is my short (complete) list:
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Ruggles Pynchon