16 May 2006

Of the making of (book) lists there is no end....

Ah, the New York Times, at it again: Sunday's question "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" (Answer: Toni Morrison's Beloved) has sparked a good deal of comment and conversation. The rest of the "Best" in alphabetical order by author are: Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From; Don DeLillo, White Noise, Libra, and Underworld; Richard Ford, Independence Day; Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale; Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; Cormac McCarthy, Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian; Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Philip Roth, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, Sabbath's Theater, Operation Shylock, and The Counterlife; Norman Rush, Mating; John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces; and John Updike, Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels.

Comment has been about not only the list itself, but also about the judges themselves (137 judges, 24 women, 12 'People of Color' including non US-born writers by my estimation). Brother John, of course, has his usual intelligent comments and Role Call of notable MIAs from the list.

This list brings to mind the Modern Library's (in?)famous "100 Best Novels of the Century" which they rolled out for the turn of the 21st Century (and also to sell some titles in its collection, no doubt. But then shameless self-promotion isn't just in the purview of the Modern Library/Random House: note how the 'Reader's List' appears to have been hijacked by the Ayn Rand Society!). There was a lot of list making going on as the last century came to an end: The Publishing Triangle did the same for Gay and Lesbian Fiction and NonFiction, for example.

I'm sure we've not heard the end of this. I found a couple of intriguing notes crammed into one paragraph of A.O. Scott's commentary about the list:

The last time this kind of survey was conducted, in 1965 (under the auspices of Book Week, the literary supplement of the soon-to-be-defunct New York Herald Tribune), the winner was Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which was declared "the most memorable" work of American fiction published since the end of World War II, and the most likely to endure. The field back then included "The Adventures of Augie March," "Herzog," "Lolita," "Catch-22," "Naked Lunch," "The Naked and the Dead" and (I'll insist if no one else will) "The Group." In the gap between that survey and this one is a decade and a half - the unsurveyed territory from 1965 to 1980 - that includes Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" and William Gaddis's "JR," as well as "Humboldt's Gift," "Portnoy's Complaint," "Ragtime," "Song of Solomon" and countless others.

Hmmm...the last time they did this, an African American author's book was chosen. This time, again, an African American author tops the field....Gee, almost makes you think that Black writers are central to American Literature, and have written (and are continuing to write) our most enduring, powerful, and influential fiction, huh? How odd, then, that most of the time Black Lit gets shunted off into the literary version of the ghetto. Couldn't be fear of the strenght of the work, could it? Of course not....

Secondly, setting aside my problems with lists for the moment, I'm somewhat sorry that there wasn't a similar survey done for that period from '65 to '80. It would have been interesting to see what people would have come up with. Just off the top of my head, I'd put Pynchon's 'Rainbow' at #1, but also adore 'Solomon', 'Ragtime', 'Portnoy', 'The Salt Eaters', 'Meridian', 'Dhalgren'....

'Who's "best"?' list like this really don't work when it comes to works of art/the imagination. What's "The Best" painting, song or symphony, sculpture, piece of architecture in recent years? Its very subjective. To my mind, the best retort I've seen was made in response to Ron Silliman's comments about the list on his blog: "What works of American Fiction written in the past 25 years would you recommend to a friend?"

Now THERE's a good question! To a winnowing of the NYTimes List --
Morrison, Carver, DeLillo (particularly Underworld), Ford, Johnson, Jones, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, O'Brien, Robinson, Roth (I'm a fan, so it's tough to cull here, but I'd say American Pastoral or Counterlife), and Rush -- I'd add the work of too many other writers: Alice Walker, Charles Johnson, Colson Whitehead, David Bradley, Dorothy Allison, E. Annie "She’s more than just ‘Brokeback Mountain’" Proulx, Gayl Jones, Grace Paley, John Edgar Wideman, John Le Carre, Nathaniel Mackey, Octavia Butler, Robert Gl├╝ck, Robert Stone, Samuel R. Delany, Walter Mosley.....

What'd I say about the making of lists? And we're just talking Fiction -- don't get me started on Non-Fiction -- or Poetry!!

Happy Reading. I'll be at BookExpo America in Washington DC at the end of the week, meeting authors, publishers, and bookseller, attending panels, -- and trying NOT to overload myself with more books...yeah right!

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