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Friday Column: Best List? No Way.

When Sam Tanenhaus came on board as editor the New York Times Book Review, word was that nonfiction would take the lion’s share of the coverage. Two years later, if anyone doubts that Tanenhaus is giving short shrift to fiction, the recently published list of the best works of American fiction in the last 25 years should change their mind. This is a list that–with the resources and influence of The New York Times–could have been awesome. Instead what we have is a list that shows signs of poor planning, and that ultimately is uninteresting.

Thus far, the five "winners"–Morrison’s Beloved, DeLillo’s Underworld, Roth’s American Pastoral, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Updike’s Rabbit series–have drawn most of the criticism. No one seems to doubt that Beloved is a great book, but many doubt that nothing better has been written in a quarter-decade. At best, the consensus seems to be that it was the obivous choice. Similarly, no one is stepping up to say that DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy, and Updike aren’t great writers, but a lot of people are saying that they are pretty obvious choices.

Poet Ron Silliman drives home the list’s lack of variety when he writes

Do we really think that more than one fourth of all the important novels over the past quarter century were written by one man? If so, do we honestly think they were written by Philip Roth? I’d poke my eyes out before I’d live on that planet.

Silliman goes on to suggest a number of authors left off Tanenhaus’s list: Kathy Acker, Lydia Davis, Samuel R. Delany, Joseph Torra, Bruce Sterling, Pamela Lu, Mary Burger, Bob Glück, Carla Harryman, Nathaniel Mackey, Sarah Schulman, Lucius Shepard, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephanson, Paul Auster, Harry Matthews, Dennis Cooper, Gilbert Sorrentino, David Markson, Douglas Woolf, Walter Mosley. Of course, we’ll never know if these authors were simply never even nominated, or if they failed to garner the two votes necessary for inclusion as a special mention.

DeLillo et al. are obvious choices and I doubt that many will find a list headed by them very interesting. Even film and literature critic A.O. Scott, asked to write an essay on the list, seems to wonder where the more interesting authors of the past decade are.

In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers – by which I mean writers under 50 – were mentioned. One vote each for "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," none for "Infinite Jest" or "The Fortress of Solitude," a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.

Scott ends his essay with a suggestion that perhaps a list composed in 2030 will include these authors. Little consolation to us, who will have to wait another quarter decade.

Instead of exonerating the Tanenhaus list with a sweet homily, I’d like to ask it to account for itself. Yes, it’s likely true that Wallace, Vollmann, and others will get their due in time, but shouldn’t our nation’s leading paper do better? Shouldn’t it point toward exciting new authors instead of looking back at ones so obvious that most of us could have guessed this list beforehand? (According to Scott, many of the respondents in fact predicted Beloved would win, and not wanting to waste their vote changed their nomination accordingly.)

A first problem is with the judges. If you look at the list of judges, you’ll find precious few authentic literary critics (Gass and Wood didn’t even get an invite). Most of the judges, in the words of GalleyCat, are "writers who have written reviews." Authors certainly do many valuable things with their time, but I’d wager that they read far less books than dedicated critics. (When I saw Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace in conversation, both admitted as much.) They are certainly good to have on the list, but an undertaking like this practically begs for more critics than authors.

You’ll also find very few women; much less than half the judges are female, and this certainly is part of why the final list features only two female novelists. In an era when people routinely criticize The New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review for the decidedly lopsided male-to-female ratio of writers, I can’t imagine why Tanenhaus would not have taken the time to include more women.

And, of course, there’s clear elitism at work here: the judges consist mostly of the same old list of names that you routinely see feted throughout the literary world. Again, there’s nothing wrong with including the obvious choices in your pool of judges, but where are the lesser-known names? Where are the editors of literary journals? Were are the writers published by small and/or independent presses? Where are the "genre" authors? Where are the–God forbid–bloggers?

(As a lengthy aside, let me just say that I mean that last question in all seriousness. M.A. Orthofer of the complete review has read thousands of works of literature from all around the world, writes tons of reviews, and operates one of the best book review archives on the Internet. Dan Green is a former academic who possesses great erudition and has published his work in top literary journals. Sarah Weinman has written for tons of newspapers (including the Times) and writes professionally for GalleyCat (as does Ron Hogan, who also writes for Publishers Weekly, among others, and is the author of a forthcoming book on film). Laila Lalami is the author of a successful novel, has been published in numerous journals, is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. These people are more than qualified to participate in on Tanenhaus’s list.

But even most basic than these qualifications is that the literary blogosphere is full of people writing cogently on books. Not only that, but many of them write better than (or at least as well as) people published in mainstream newspapers–and they’re often covering interesting books and angles that newspapers rarely touch. Now that the literary blogosphere is an established medium for discussing books there’s no reason to shut it out, just as there’s no reason for the almost complete shutout of indie authors and literary journal editors.)

Tanenhaus’s selection of judges is just more evidence of an editor of a book review that’s not all that interested in fiction. In recent months, the Literary Saloon has been diligent in watching Tanenhaus’s coverage of fiction. They report that in each of the past nine issues of the NYTBR, titles of non-fiction have outnumbered fiction; cumulatively, it’s 105 to 46. Should we be surprised that with a track record like this, Tanenhaus appears to not have put much thought into his list of judges?

Beyond this, the list’s methodology seems funny. Judges were asked to name only one novel. You try doing that–it’s impossible. According to Scott, many judges sent lists of nominees to Tanenhaus, or simply declined to participate, stating the futility (or stupidity) of such an undertaking. Why not give the judges more votes? At the very least, the final list would have been much larger, meaning that it would be more diverse and undoubtedly more interesting.

In the end, however, I must question–as Scott did–the very idea of picking the best book of the past 25 years. How do you define best? For that matter, how do you define book? How do you define 25 years? (For instance, as Scott notes, what to do with a short story collection written over the course of many decades?) Perhaps more to the point, why would you want to say Beloved is the best book of the past quarter century? There’s no way to choose a best without ignoring scores of worthy competitors, and the diversity of literature produced in this country means that often you’d be making an apples-to-oranges (or, rather, apples-to-VW Wagon) comparison anyway.

Why not just say "here are a number of books that are among the best works published by American authors since 1980" and leave it at that?

Critic Laura Miller, writing at the National Book Critics Circle blog, seems to agree. She was asked to judge, but sat out because

Ultimately, novels are so diverse that once they attain a certain level of quality, they really can’t be meaningfully ranked against each other. Some people I discussed this with had a hard time understanding that not wanting to exert an excess of judgment isn’t the same thing as refusing to make any judgment at all. . . .

But beyond that, the idea of a single best novel seemed not only a confining choice but one that completely missed the point of what’s happened in American culture in general and American literature in particular over the past 30 years. Once, maybe, people could convince themselves that there was a monoculture and guys like Mailer and Roth could compete for the alpha-dog position as the novelist who best defined the "American experience." That’s not the world we live in anymore, no one gets to speak for "everybody" . . .

I can think of only one good reason to crown any book number one, and that is to stir up debate: saying Beloved is better than Underworld is bound to spur lovers of Underworld, who will then force lovers of Beloved to defend their book. The problem, however, is that if this list was meant to stir up a delightfully erudite debate about literature, so far it appears to have failed. Many more people have come out against the list itself than have argued the merits of the positioning of the books therein. Perhaps that’s because when they saw the list, the most they could muster was a yawn.

It bears saying that this list represents–in many ways–a missed opportunity. In many places novels are on the defensive, viewed as part of a dying art. Part of that view is due to a belief that books aren’t as interesting as other entertainments out there, that they’re not attuned to our new century. A list that repeats the big names familiar to most who follow books will do little to change that, but a list that was representative of the best of the exciting books that have been produced in the past 25 years might surprise many.

Not only that, but with this list Tanenhaus had a genuine opportunity to jump-start a much-needed discussion about contemporary literature. Among our national newspapers and magazines, very few try to talk passionately about literary matters in a way that begs responses from their peers. (Ben Marcus writing about experimental fiction versus non-experimental fiction in Harper’s was a notable exception.) This list could have done that, or at least tried to, but I doubt that it will generate much discussion beyond criticism and talk of missed opportunities.

Getting back to the point on which I started this column, with this list Tanenhaus has made clear his disregard for fiction relative to nonfiction. Considering that he has the full force of the NYTBR behind him, the list could have been a thorough, delightful undertaking. He could have reached out to many, many more voices, could have worked to find ways to create a truly interesting list. Instead, it seems that Tanenhaus has gone about this list with the same energy that he devotes to the weekly collection of fiction review. And it shows. Maybe next time Tanenhaus wants to make a list of books, he should do it with those of the nonfiction variety.

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9 comments to Friday Column: Best List? No Way.

  • Well, Thomas Pynchon is pretty poor, I think. And Paul Auster certainly deserves exclusion. I don’t know much about U.S. fiction, but the inclusion of Morrison is welcome. At least she’s definitely a great author.

  • Sorry, I just have to add, after reading the remainder of your highly interesting spiel, that you sound very much like the leader of our federal opposition here, in Australia, with your declaration that the list was ‘a missed opportunity’. He doesn’t get any votes with that kind of approach and, I suspect, neither will you. Cheers.

  • Here’s another terrific book from the last few years that positively no one remembers but me: Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist.
    It’s a pretty crappy list by any margin. You have to wonder what kind of reader would say The Plot Against America — among others — is the best book they’ve read since Reagan got elected — that’s someone who just doesn’t do much reading. You have this sense of people scribbling down the first book that came to mind.
    I found it both odd and depressing that so many forgot (or never read) Mason & Dixon, but somehow remembered Underworld. I read DeLillo’s monstrosity, and as soon as it was over, couldn’t recall what it was about. I think it was one of those cases where you just struggle to get through a thing and the mind just isn’t fixing on the words beyond a more than superficial level. DeLillo’s dry, ironic tone — which perfectly suited Libra — got really, really wearisome over the course of 800 pages. I haven’t been able to read him since.
    All I remembered was the baseball in the first chapter. In the Internet discussions I’ve had over the years since, it turns out that’s about all anyone remembers. No one discusses character (were there any?) or depth or artistry; they just talk about the first chapter.
    Mason & Dixon was so much more of an adventure, intellectual and literary: a great swirling whirling beauty of a book that went in and out of time and history.

  • P.S. What’s the one great, single, compelling reason people remember a novel years after finishing it? My guess: character. Maybe that’s why Beloved, which I’ve never read, won. Not true in every case, but probably true in general.

  • Where are the–God forbid–bloggers?
    I’m waaaaay ahead of you.

  • Yesh Prabhu

    I think the winner of “The Best Works of American Fiction in the last 25 years”- “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, startlingly exposed the poor quality of novels published in the USA. It made a reader suddenly realize that the best writers of fiction live in countries such as Canada, India and England. When I think of the joy I felt reading the Whitbread Book of the year (2003): The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon(British), The Booker award winner – “God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy (Indian), and the incomparable “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel (Canadian), I couldn’t help but shake my head sadly. Ofcourse, we have “The confessions of Max Tivoli” by Andrew Sean Greer. But it appears that he doesn’t count, according to the N.Y.Times. The book didn’t even make the top five.
    Yesh Prabhu, author of “The Beech Tree”

  • Jon Drucker

    In any writer’s list of the howevermany Best books of the howeverelsemany years, there’s going to be bias. Part of the difference between a good critic and lamer is the ability to recognize this. Sam Tannenhaus seems to have pulled that particular wool over his own eyes – I don’t get the sense that he’s even aware of his fiction-related deficiencies in lit crit.
    I also want to put the rest of us to task (meself included) for missing a broader issue of failing to recognize the difference between the essential questions of What Is Good vs. What Is Beautiful. In non-fic we can look at books in the light of What Is True and What Is Good – and in those sublime cases maybe we can get to What Is Beautiful. Fiction dispenses with the question of What Is True, at least on the surface, and starts out in the medium of What Is Beautiful. Good fiction can take us to asking What Is Good or even What Is True, or sometimes it’s enough to be Beautiful.
    The point of the obtuse and perhaps pretentious paragraph above is that we can’t very well rank books on their Goodness, only on their Beauty – and that’s by definition subjective. My Top 25 list will be different from yours, and critics can burn way too much oxygen and electrons debating whose is Mas Macho. That’s why any proclaimed list of any Best needs to prefaced by a pronoun, not a definite article.
    But then again, that’s just my crackpot opinion.

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