The Best American Novel in 25 years

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.

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3 Comments

Filed under Notes on Readings

3 responses to “The Best American Novel in 25 years

  1. Jeg

    Great. Something to hunt for in Booksale. I may have seen a couple of titles there.

    The only 2 titles in the list I have read, I found in Booksale (I generally shy away from ‘too-American’ novels so no Cormac McCarthy for me). These are A Confederacy of Dunces and Sabbath’s Theatre, the latter in pristine condition, hardbound, at 140 pesos. 🙂

    It took several attempts for me to get through Confederacy–the lead character was just so darned repellent. But once I got over my repulsion, it had me laughing out loud. Too bad John Kennedy Toole isnt alive and well and writing. He killed himself after failing to have the book published.

  2. I’ve never read McCarthy either, or for that matter Morrison. But Updike I’ve followed over the years, and Roth I read in his middle phase, so to speak. Confederacy I read in college; I laughed so much it hurt. I didn’t realize, though, that it was actually written in the 1960s, and spent 20 years looking for a publisher, until I read the Times piece.

    That P140 hardbound copy of Sabbath’s Theater was a steal; it makes me envious.

  3. exie

    I haven’t read any of the choices save the story “The Things They Carried” that appears in the book of the same name. The De Lillo novels I’ve seen at certain branches of Books For Less; will probably pick up a copy of Underworld the next time I see it. It’s thick and daunting, though, which is one reason I never bothered with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Well, any surprise that the only Novel Prize-winning author came out on top? (Hmm, that sounded rather snide to me.)

    More to add to my reading list.

    And, oh, maybe someone should come up with a similar survey of Philippine novels in English.

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