Monday, May 22, 2006

Listmania strikes again

The winners: Beloved by Toni Morrison, Underworld by Don DeLillo, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy and John Updike's four-book "Rabbit" series.

Let's see, I've read Underworld and American Pastoral (and both are extraordinary), and maybe one or two of Updike's Rabbit Engstrom books (which I liked less than some of his other works, like In the Beauty of the Lillies and The Witches of Eastwick). Beloved has sat on my shelf for years, tempting me, but I've put off reading it mostly because it seems more like homework than anything else; something I should read as opposed to something I want to read.

What struck me most was the dominance of Philip Roth in the runners-up, five strong including Operation Shylock, a book which drove me up the wall. I can understand Roth's reputation, especially amongst the urban literati types that made up the panel of judges, but come now, he's not the only top-notch writer out there. Personally, I would have bumped DeLillo's White Noise into the top position; Underworld is great and all, but White Noise, to me, is far more focused, precise and effective. (Meghan O'Rourke has a great piece at Slate that discusses the lack of "small" novels in the Times' list of winners & nominees.)

One good thing about these lists is that they can turn you on to books and authors that have never crossed your radar before; I'd never heard of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale before, for example. Another attribute is that they can get discussions going about the many deserving writers that didn't make the cut; some that came immediately to mind when scanning the list included, among others, Thomas Pynchon, Stanley Elkin, John Barth, William T. Vollmann, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, T. C. Boyle and Jonathan Lethem, who've all published some great works in the last quarter-century (and that's just for starters). The flipside, however, is that listmaking is a double-edged sword, buttressing already-established writers' reputations while shoving others even further towards the fringes. Instead of making a list that's all about everyone's idea of "the best," why not try putting together a list focusing on the most underappreciated works of American literature in the last 25 years?

Are the selections safe choices? Maybe, maybe not. Times critic A. O. Scott wrote an excellent companion essay to the list which illustrated its inherent pitfalls and made a number of prescient points about the state of American literature. I'll end this with Scott's thoughts on the general thrust of the selections:
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.

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