22 May 2006

By the Cover (II)

I was perhaps too generous when referring to A.O. Scott's essay as "self-congratulatory." It is myopic, too; and betrays a clubbishness that borders on the precious.

It is perhaps this babble and ruckus—the polite word is diversity—that breeds the impulse of which Sam Tanenhaus's question is an expression: the urge to isolate, in the midst of it all, a single, comprehensive masterpiece. E pluribus unum, as it were. We—Americans, writers, American writers—seem often to be a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus. Our mythical book is the one that will somehow include everything, at once reflecting and by some linguistic magic dissolving our intractable divisions and stubborn imperfections. The American literary tradition is relatively young, and it stands in perpetual doubt of its own coherence and adequacy—even, you might say, of its own existence. Such anxiety fosters large, even utopian ambitions. A big country demands big books. To ask for the best work of American fiction, therefore, is not simply—or not really—to ask for the most beautifully written or the most enjoyable to read. We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.

"In Search of the Best" (21 May 2006). And what is their tally? Rather revealing in a way—first place required only 15 votes out of 125.

Of course, Scott misses the irony in his statement. He complains that writers are "a tribe of mavericks dreaming of consensus," but the "mavericks" all congregate in the same part of the bookstore. That is, itself, "consensus": that only certain forms of expression are worth examination, and only under predetermined conditions. And a rather restrictive one, too: it's not just those long-haired kids with their electric guitars who can't play at the concert, but anyone who would play in a nonformal(ist) setting.

Where Scott, and Tanenhaus, and for that matter the "jury", go wrong is revealed in the last three sentences I quoted above. They are lip service to the theory that great literature has great subjects and is inherently reflexive. Much of Shakespeare—particularly, but not only, the sonnets—would fail that test as to Elizabethan England. So would Cervantes, and Marvell, and Swift, and Goethe, and Mann (with respect to their various cultures). So, too, would all literature that does not try to limit itself to one nation's perspective; as would literature that tries to find the universal in the singular. And, perhaps most interestingly, so would literature that chooses a nonnarrative paradigm. My own taste runs to speculative fiction… but it's hard to treat The Brothers Karamazov and Alice in Wonderland as anything else.

If that's all that Tanenhaus and Scott want to read, they're entitled to that. What they're not entitled to do is pretend that their own taste exclusively defines what is good. (Of course, since Tanenhaus's taste very clearly runs to nonfiction, based upon the changes in the proportion of books reviewed since he took over the NYTBR…)