If you love books and have a sense of humor, you may want to check this out: the New York Times Book Review got 125 leading writers, critics, and editors to "nominate the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years." The top vote-getters are not unexpected, but A. O. Scott’s explanatory essay first has to deal with the anticipated difficulties — indeed, the essential impossibility — of the thoroughly unscientific list-making project, before he can reach revealing conclusions about what we may well call the FDR generation of American fictionists.
The entire enterprise is iffy (even if the world’s best living critic, Frank Kermode, is one of the judges). The biggest if is what turns out to be the main though probably largely unspoken criterion:
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.
But, it’s a list, in an age of media-driven lists. More, it’s a list where the diversity of choices almost guarantees the result: the top pick will receive only a small percentage of the votes. I’d place more weight on a list compiled by Kermode, say, or the inimitable Clive James. One central, searching intelligence at work. But, despite its limitations, I must say the Times list and the Scott essay are an engaging read. It’s about books, after all.