Friday, May 12, 2006

On Sunday, the New York Times Book Review will publish a survey of “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” as to the “best work of American fiction” of the past 25 years. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the winner, but she also is one of just two women to have published a book that received multiple votes in the survey, the other being Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Housekeeping, it’s worth noting, is the one novel on the list never to have been reviewed by the Times.

In all, just 14 authors have novels listed by multiple respondents to the survey, tho Philip Roth has six books listed among the 22 to receive multiple votes. Don DeLillo has three, Cormac McCarthy has two (tho one is his Blood Trilogy). John Updike’s quartet of novels, Rabbit Angstrom is also listed. Nobody seems to have thought that short stories counted. Here, in alphabetical order, is the list.

  1. Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From
  2. Don DeLillo, White Noise
  3. Don DeLillo, Libra
  4. Don DeLillo, Underworld
  5. Richard Ford, Independence Day
  6. Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale
  7. Denis Johnson, Jesus' Son
  8. Edward P. Jones, The Known World
  9. Cormac McCarthy, Border Trilogy
  10. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  11. Toni Morrison, Beloved
  12. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
  13. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
  14. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
  15. Philip Roth, The Human Stain
  16. Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
  17. Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater
  18. Philip Roth, Operation Shylock
  19. Philip Roth, The Counterlife
  20. Norman Rush, Mating
  21. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces
  22. John Updike, Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels

Do we really think that more than one fourth of all the important novels over the past quarter century were written by one man? If so, do we honestly think they were written by Philip Roth? I’d poke my eyes out before I’d live on that planet.

Time Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus doesn’t list his sages, let alone their gender or ethnic breakdown, but this list suggests that he & they should both get out more, venturing further north than Connecticut, further west than Riverside Drive, further south than Gramercy Park. It wouldn’t hurt to meet women.

A.O. Scott makes an effort of sorts to throw some context around this mess, noting that just 125 of the Tanenhaus’ experts responded, that Morrison’s first place finish was predicated on all of 15 votes, that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest received no votes at all, that nobody voted for William T. Vollman. Scott does note the concentration of writers born in the 1930s in this list, but appears not to have noticed the proportion of women here is worse than it is in Congress. In fact, the real story about this list isn’t who is on it, but rather who the Times chose to make its selection. Who does Sam Tanenhaus consider to be experts? On that point, Scott & Tenanhaus are mute.

To those sages, I have just a few words of advice: Kathy Acker, Lydia Davis, Samuel R. Delany, Joseph Torra, Bruce Sterling, Pamela Lu, Mary Burger, Bob Glück, Carla Harryman, Nathaniel Mackey, Sarah Schulman, Lucius Shepard, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephanson, Paul Auster, Harry Matthews, Dennis Cooper, Gilbert Sorrentino, David Markson, Douglas Woolf, Walter Mosley dot dot dot