Friday, May 12, 2006


The best work of American fiction in the last 25 years is Toni Morrison's Beloved.

So saith the New York Times.


It's unlikely that most of the best fiction books of the last 25 years happened to be written by the most overrated novelists of the last 50 years. Morrison, Updike, Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Richard Ford.

It's unlikely that most of the best books of the last 25 years were written by authors past their primes, considering that throughout the history of the novel everywhere the best novelists wrote their best books when they were in their 40s.

It's unlikely that the only contenders for best book of the last 25 years written by authors who were young when they wrote them were written at the very beginning of the last 25 years. Which is another way of saying:

It's unlikely that none of the best books of the last 25 years was written in the last 15 years by a writer under the age of 40.

It's unlikely that The Known World by Edward P. Jones belongs on the list and his far superior collection of short stories, Lost in the City, doesn't.

It's unlikely that any list of the best fiction of any time period longer than the last 12 months would include the names Denis Johnson and Mark Helpren.

It's unlikely that a list of the best American fiction of the last 25 years would not include any of these names: Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, T.C. Boyle, Russell Banks, Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, William Kennedy, Elmore Leonard, Thomas Berger, Richard Powers, Tom Robbins, Gail Godwin.

It's unlikely that the best work of fiction of the last 25 years could be chosen by 125 judges that include so many New Yorker-approved middlers and writers who were considered hot stuff at the beginnings of their careers 15 and 20 years ago but who haven't written anything to justify their early reputations since.

It's unlikely that the best work of fiction could be identified by asking those 125 people for their number one choice with the winners being the books that got the most number of votes so that the best work of American fiction is declared the best work of American fiction because it was named by 15 out 125 judges. And for all we know it was named by the 15 stupidest or most intellectually dishonest people among the judges.

It's unlikely that if the editors had come up with any other way of deciding I'd have had respectful things to say about that process or the list of books it produced.

It's unlikely that anybody will care about this list 10 days from now, let alone 25 years from now when somebody gets the idea to do another one.


It's very likely that someone will now ask: So why bother to post about it, Lance?

Whenever I get all worked up over one of these Best Of lists, either here on in conversations in real life, some very reasonable person will pipe up to point out, reasonably, that the purpose of these lists isn't really to make sound artistic judgments, it's to stir up some controversy that will draw attention to the people who put together the list, so why do I let it get me?

To stir up controversy and draw attention to myself! Why else?

But I do have a few things to say that matter to me as an actual reader and lover of American fiction.

Given the way the list was put together, I'd rather know which books got only two or three votes. I think that would make a more interesting reading list. What we have here are the usual suspects plus John Kennedy Toole. I've read them all.

In the last 25 years there must have been dozens of excellent novels and collections of short stories I never heard of, let alone had the chance to read.

As for my thinking that it's unlikely that Toni Morrison's Beloved is the best work of American fiction from the last 25 years, well, it's unlikely that any book you could name is the best, just as it's unlikely that the lottery ticket you just bought is the million dollar winner. Somebody's bought the winning ticket, though, and somebody's written the best book. Could have been Morrison and it could be that book.

I don't happen to like her work much. I loved Song of Solomon, but that was the first of Morrison's novels I read, and I think it set up expectations in me that none of her other books have met. I keep thinking she should be one kind of writer, and she keeps insisting on being something else.

But even if it's true that Beloved is the best it is not proven by what A.O. Scott says proves it is. Scott calls Beloved the expected winner---I don't know who expected it. Him, I guess. I sure didn't.---and writes:

Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, "Beloved" has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic.

Look, you don't have to be David Horowitz to believe that a book's inclusion on college reading lists is no measure of its real literary merit.

Professors choose books for lots of reasons on top of or even despite how important and excellent they might be. Some of those reasons include readability, time constraints---short novels by novelists who usually wrote long novels are a regular feature of college reading lists because it's easier to get through The Death of Ivan Ilych than War and Peace in a few class periods---the professors' own familiarity with the book, the place the book holds in the literary history---cf. Uncle Tom's Cabin---and, gasp!, politics---cf. Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Some book---maybe several---of Toni Morrison's belong on the reading lists for any of a number of survey courses. There are, or there should be, whole courses devoted to her work, like courses devoted to other important authors. But Beloved is on the reading lists for a whole lot of classes because it provides excuses for discussions that go beyond questions of artistic achievement and literary technique.

A classic is something that people besides college professors and their trapped students read.

Which may be why Beloved is a classic. Beloved may be the best work of American Fiction in the last 25 years. I didn't like it, but I don't like Updike's stuff much either or Cormac McCarthy's or Raymond Carver's or Denis Johnson's. I didn't like Roth's The Plot Against America, and Don Delillo's Libra lost me about half way through.

What do you like, Lance? I hear you ask.

In fact, the best work of American fiction I've read that was published in the last 25 years was Edward P. Jones' Lost in the City. I really think it is the American Dubliners.

Close second is Russell Banks' Continental Drift, my vote for the best novel of the last generation. It would make my list for best novel since World War II too. Heck, it would be on my list of Best American Novels ever.

Honorable mentions:

Ironweed by William Kennedy.

Mohawk by Richard Russo.

A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.

Rounds by Frederick Busch.

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux.

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers.

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Father Melancholy's Daughter by Gail Godwin.

Your turn.

Other counties heard from: Rob Farley is pretty well satisified with the list. But he likes McCarthy. Jedmunds, however, hates it and everything it stands for.


At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely, unlikely.

"You use this word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it does."


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