White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Your Face Tomorrow Vol. 1: Fever and Spear
Your Face Tomorrow Vol. 2: Dance and Dream, Javier Marías
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
Varamo, César Aira
Comedy in a Minor Key, Hans Kielsen
The Invention of Morel, Bioy Casares
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, Lester Bangs
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon
The Museum of Eterna's Novel, Macedonio Fernandez
"Invention can assume the form of a documentary record of reality, and vice versa, because both have essentially the same appearance... While the conventional work of art thematizes cause and effect and thereby gives the hallucinatory impression of sealing itself off, the avant-garde work remains open to the conditions of its existence." -Varamo
Without a doubt, the thing my freshmen prove most resistant to is the suggestion that they don't know how to read. It's possible to go far in life believing that the skill one picked up at four or five is the same skill they practice now, with slightly longer sentences and a few more words. My freshmen are tasked with providing concise five-minute introductions to discussion twice over the course of the semester, and to see their preparation for it makes evident that I am failing to communicate this point to them: articles with four different colors of highlighter applied throughout the whole text of 30 pages, four or five pages of notes on one piece of writing of similar length. That writing comes in modes and styles, written with different emphases and for different audiences, and that therefore reading each first requires an act of recognition and subsequent alteration of the reading method is only now beginning to dawn on them. Reading (and writing) are skills, and the failure to continue developing them can only mean they will atrophy.
The adult who is seriously committed to a program of reading fiction has three primary options: genre, realism or experimentalism. I've written before about the genre fiction-v-literary fiction divide, and don't propose to say much more about it here. Genre fiction isn't for me, for the most part, though I think it's a perfectly fine place to go looking for material. (Interestingly, I may have made some progress on why I don't like genre fiction: I was discussing Tolkein with some friends this weekend, and suggested to them that I don't much care for Lord of the Rings because Fellowship of the Ring begins with 50 pages of background historical material, at which point four of my companions admitted that they, for the most part, tend to skip expository or descriptive material in favor of dialogue or action. Do other people do this?) The debate I'm interested in is experimental fiction versus realism.
In part, this is because of Jonathan Franzen's ongoing war against anyone who does not write exactly like him.* His definition of realism has seemed blinkered to me for as long as I've had occasion to think about it: realism implies writing about more or less ordinary people to whom more or less ordinary things happen, in clear and muscular sentences that provide little challenge for the reader (documented at some length by Ben Marcus in his Harpers essay "WHY EXPERIMENTAL FICTION THREATENS TO DESTROY PUBLISHING, JONATHAN FRANZEN, AND LIFE AS WE KNOW IT"). Which is fine, except that, so far as I can see, this requires throwing out several of the notable forbears of literary realism. Dostoevsky certainly didn't care about style, or organization, or the occasional intervention of the supernatural; see also Zola in The Dream and The Sin of Father Mouret, whose commitment to providing a realistic picture of his characters led him to assume as true their decidedly non-realistic beliefs about the world.
So, on the one hand, you have works of literature that are committed to explaining something real and difficult, like White Teeth. On the other, you have, say, Marías, who has been the subject of a running joke on Facebook because I'm ~600 pages into Your Face Tomorrow and I could not tell you what genre, if any, the book is intended to be. There are the experiments of Casares and Fernandez, which are not always and on the whole successful (I don't doubt for a moment that Jorge Luis Borges thought The Invention of Morel was a perfect novel; he did not think to say "a perfect novel for me"), but fail or fall apart in interesting and useful ways, and these make the return to conventional literary realism, like in Chabon, a welcome respite from books that make you work. Even if that work is salutary and worthwhile, making possible other books down the road. (And, goodness: the Chabon was a really excellent book, that managed to avoid the 600+ page novel problem of having slow and boring parts)
So, César Aira: these brilliant and hallucinatory short novels (always around 90 pages), which are committed to that most signal of literary achievements won by Spanish-language writers: works so well-constructed that it seems impossible to find not just the unrealistic element, but the fictional element: the whole might be made up, but the fissures are otherwise not evident, and at all events mixed in with so many verifiable historical facts as to be maddening. If I've become more partial to experimental and quasi-experimental fiction in the last few years--and I have--it's because those works seems to repay close and sustained attention in a way yet another book about a married couple where one of them has an affair simply cannot.
*In part, it's because a commitment to literary realism seems to require a move from major works of literature to minor works, and in particular those British-y mid-20th century novels in which nothing interesting ever happens. All of which is fine--I like Elizabeth Taylor quite well--except readers in this mode tend to forget that the works they're reading are minor and not that much of a challenge. The existence of greater, harder genre or experimental works escapes them entirely.