Monday, May 15, 2006

BOOKS: And the Best Work of American Fiction of the Past 25 Years Is...

My dear lord. I'd hate to be the editor of The New York Times Book Review after this piece came out. Can you just imagine the letters?

Here's the set-up:
Early this year, the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."
I'm already suspicious of this methodology. Tanenhaus allegedly sent his letter to various "literary sages"? Hello? I didn't get mine. Maybe it got lost in the mail. If my letter had arrived, I'm not sure I would have agreed with the panel's choice... mostly because I've never read it.

Come to think of it, I'm drawing a blank on much of the list of runners up. I mean, sure, yeah, I've read both Don DeLillo's Underworld and White Noise. And of course I've read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I've read a fair number of Philip Roth's novels (but apparently none of the list-worthy ones), and I've been meaning to read Housekeeping ever since it was strongly recommended to me a short while ago. But everything else? Meh. And I must tell you, even after reading this piece, I still don't feel compelled to pick them up.

Did that come off as unapologetically stubborn? Good.


Actually, I'd be more inclined to nominate books written by many members of the jury. Russell Banks? Yup. Michael Chabon? Uh-huh. Jane Smiley? You bet. John Irving? Why not?
Marilynne Robinson. Fo' sho'. Studs Terkel? I've never heard of him, but I dig his name, so hell yeah.

It's great that a novel written by a woman is at the top of the list, but call me when there are more women on the list of judges and more books by female writers on the list of finalists. Or better yet, send me that letter.

15 comments:

Jinxie said...

Huh. The editor/contributors also seemed to have a loose definition of what, exactly, is meant by "the last 25 years."

Anonymous said...

Seriously? Well, okay...but, no. I've read it and all, but, seriously? It was good, but, are you sure this wasn't Oprah's book club that voted for this? Wow. I am bemused.

Rachel said...

I love love LOVE Studs Terkel. Most (all?) of his books are generally collections of interviews revolving around a certain theme: Working, for one; Race; for another.

In fact, in my junior year of high school we did a musical based on Working, and it was so bizarrely awesome that I can still sing most of the songs (badly).

I have both Working and Race if you'd like to take a gander at them!

eninnej said...

That piece was the worst. The dearth of women authors was disappointing, for one. And then there was no comment from the 'sages' about why they picked the book they did. How incredibly dull. I'm totally uninspired to read any of these except Housekeeping (not even reviewed!) and White Noise, and that's only because they were recommended by friends.

Anonymous said...

Oh, do please read some Studs Terkel. He's just amazing.

rocketgirl said...

I have yet to read Studs Terkel, but he was on The Daily Show recently and really piqued my interest. He seems to have some great insights, and a wicked sense of humour.

I've only read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, but I had bit of trouble with her writing style and so never bothered with anything else. I'm sure Beloved is good, but the BEST? I don't know.

John Irving, on the other hand, is one of my all time favourite authors and A Prayer for Owen Meany would be close to the top of my personal list, if not at the top.

Wing Chun said...

Eh, Beloved's okay. I wrote a paper on it for Prof. Rose in...my third year at Brock? I can just send you that; it'll give you the gist. Heh.

Meredith said...

I am a sucker for best of... lists while at the same time, I KNOW that they mean nothing, are totally subjective and a good deal of the time dead wrong. However, Beloved is my favorite book in the entire universe and it does my heart some good to see it so appreciated.

K. said...

Studs Terkel is so fabulously awesome, you really, really need to read some of his work. I'm a bit biased, being from Chicago (he's a Chicagoan), but really, we aren't alone in our love of the man. Working is a fabulous book.

There is a very concise way of explaining his books, and I'm having a complete brain freeze at the moment, but essentially, he interviews scores of people about a specific topic, and his books are a compilation of their thoughts and experiences. He is awesome.

missbanshee said...

I read "Beloved" for school in 1993, and didn't understand a damn word of it. Granted, I was barely 15 years old at the time. I really need to re-read it, although Morrison tends to exhaust me. Count me in for the Studs Luv, please do pick something up of his. Damn I need a new book to read!

Wing Chun said...

Dopp, I also forgot to add in my last comment -- forget the Times list; next year's Canada Reads panel is all past victors, so now is when you start campaigning to be included in 2008!

Karen said...

Marilynne Robinson's "Housekeeping" was exquisite.

Read some Studs Terkely. You just should.

laura said...

I've read Beloved three times. I had to read it the second time because I was so confused. The third time was just for fun, and it got even better. So I guess I thought it was pretty damned good, but most other books don't take that much effort on my part.

Lyndsey said...

I agree with Meredith. It's just a beautiful book.

Kyle said...

Housekeeping was universally reviled by my bookclub. I mean, the writing was pretty, but I never felt like any of the characters were worth reading or writing about.