19 May 2006

By the Cover (I)

That's the only foundational principle I can find in the NYT's horrible and misleading infinitely reflexive list of the supposed best American novels of the past 25 years. The reflexivity (and poor experimental design) is apparent in the preamble:

[T]he Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

"What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" (21 May 2006). The list of "judges" is unintentionally revealing of the inability of Mr Tanenhaus to define "fiction" any better than Potter Stewart did pornography ("I know it when I see it," Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184 (1964)). The judges included:

Kurt Andersen; Roger Angell; A. Manette Ansay; James Atlas; Russell Banks; John Banville; Julian Barnes; Andrea Barrett; Rick Bass; Ann Beattie; Madison Smartt Bell; Aimee Bender; Paul Berman; Sven Birkerts; Harold Bloom; Bill Buford; Ethan Canin; Philip Caputo; Michael Chabon; Susan Choi; Mark Costello; Michael Cunningham; Edwidge Danticat; Don DeLillo; Pete Dexter; Junot Diaz; Morris Dickstein; Andre Dubus, III; Tony Earley; Richard Eder; Jennifer Egan; Dave Eggers; Lucy Ellmann; Nathan Englander; Louise Erdrich; Anne Fadiman; Henry Finder; Jonathan Safran Foer; Paula Fox; Nell Freudenberger; Carlos Fuentes; David Gates; Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Julia Glass; Nadine Gordimer; Mary Gordon; Robert Gottlieb; Philip Gourevitch; Elizabeth Graver; Andrew Sean Greer; Allan Gurganus; Jim Harrison; Kathryn Harrison; Alice Hoffman; A.M. Homes; Maureen Howard; John Irving; Ha Jin; Thom Jones; Heidi Julavits; Ward Just; Mary Karr; William Kennedy; Frank Kermode; Stephen King; Maxine Hong Kingston; Walter Kirn; Benjamin Kunkel; David Leavitt; Chang-Rae Lee; Brad Leithauser; Frank Lentricchia; John Leonard; Jonathan Lethem; Alan Lightman; David Lodge; Ralph Lombreglia; Phillip Lopate; Janet Malcolm; Thomas Mallon; Ben Marcus; Peter Matthiessen; Ian McEwan; David Means; Daphne Merkin; Stephen Metcalf; Rick Moody; Lorrie Moore; Geoffrey O'Brien; Chris Offutt; Stewart O'Nan; David Orr; Cynthia Ozick; Ann Patchett; Tom Perrotta; Richard Gid Powers; William Pritchard; Francine Prose; Terrence Rafferty; Marilynne Robinson; Roxana Robinson; Norman Rush; Richard Russo; George Saunders; Liesl Schillinger; Joanna Scott; Jim Shepard; Karen Shepard; David Shields; Gary Shteyngart; Lee Siegel; Curtis Sittenfeld; Jane Smiley; Wole Soyinka; Scott Spencer; William Styron; Studs Terkel; Deborah Treisman; Anne Tyler; Mario Vargas Llosa; William T. Vollmann; Edmund White; Tom Wolfe; Tobias Wolff

"The Judges" (21 May 2006). Exactly three of these individuals are novelists whose work is primarily identified as other-than-mainstream; several others have written outside the mainstream in "category fiction," but have largely resisted identification as such (Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Richard Powers are the most obvious examples).

The resulting list can hardly help being ignorant of work that is substantially superior to works that did make "the list." I won't argue with the selection of Beloved as the "best," because a single best work is really a matter of taste among a rigorously considered set of nominees. However, I would replace several of the works on the list, in particular with category fiction. The list was broken into three sections: the "best," four runners-up, and a disturbing plethora of "received multiple votes." For ease of reference, I've rearranged the lists into library-order… and starred those I would remove as unworthy.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved (1987)
DeLillo, Don. Underworld (1997)
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian (1985)
* Updike, John. Rabbit Angstrom
   Rabbit, Run (1960)
   Rabbit Redux (1971)
   Rabbit Is Rich (1981)
   Rabbit at Rest (1990))
Roth, Philip. American Pastoral (1997)
Carver, Raymond. Where I'm Calling From (1988)
DeLillo, Don. White Noise (1985)
* ———. Libra (1988)
Ford, Richard. Independence Day (1994)
Helprin, Mark. Winter's Tale (1983)
Johnson, Denis. Jesus' Son (1992)
Jones, Edward P. The Known World (2003)
* McCarthy, Cormac. The Border Trilogy:
   All the Pretty Horses (1992)
   The Crossing (1998)
   Cities of the Plain (1999)
O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried (1990)
Robinson, Marilynne. Housekeeping (1980)
Roth, Philip. The Counterlife (1986)
———. Operation Shylock (1993)
* ———. Sabbath's Theater (1995)
———. The Human Stain (2000)
* ———. The Plot Against America (2004)
Rush, Norman. Mating (1991)
* Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

I would remove the Updike both because I think it ineligible — if one must read outside that quarter century to fully comprehend the more-recent works, it's not fiction of the last 25 years — and because they're not that good and don't belong anywhere on this list. The others I've listed for removal just aren't good enough. Top candidates to take their places include (again, in library order):

Le Guin, Ursula K. Tehanu (1990)
Gaddis, William. A Frolic of His Own (1994)
Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2 (1995)
Russell, Mary Doria. Emilio Sandoz's tale:
   The Sparrow (1996)
   Children of God (1998)

And, if I was willing to pull an Updike-violation, I'd substitute Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books for the single inclusion of Tehanu—which, unlike Updike's books, includes enough context from its predecessors to read on its own. I have way too many candidates for that sixth spot, and would have even more if criterion was last quarter of the 20th century—there was an awful lot of fine American fiction published from 1976 to 1981.

A.O. Scott's self-congratulatory essay doesn't make things any better. But that's for another time, along with some other sharp comments.