Friday, May 12, 2006

Most annoying lists of the last 25 years

Certain to bug people the world over, the New York Times solicited opinions from various literary types (I was going to write "luminaries" instead of "types," but that word is now on my growing list of words not to use for a while) to crown the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. Toni Morrison's Beloved won, which will raise the hackles of lots of people, I'm sure--according to A.O. Scott's introduction to the list, several people wrote in to explain why they weren't choosing Beloved. Personally, I prefer her novel Song of Solomon, but that might change next time I read either one.

The list will likely get a lot of publicity as did the Modern Library's list of the Best 100 Novels of the 20th Century because it's naturally faulty. If you ask for the "Best Book," there's likely a certain pressure to vote for the Big Social Novel; after all, writers produced an awful lot of those as the millenium approached, so choosing one is likely indicative of an important literary trend. A lot of the judges are writers I admire, writers I would have assumed would reply to a query about the Best Book with a, "Thanks, no. This is ridiculous." Only a few writers who placed also voted--Norman Rush, Don DeLillo ("how many can I nominate?"), Marilynne Robinson.

After Beloved, the next four were:
  • Underworld, Don DeLillo. I read the prologue to the novel, which was later published in its own hardcover. The prologue was both brilliant and maddenly pompous and falsely portentous. I later heard that's the best part of the novel. I'll probably go back and read it someday, but for now I'm using it as a yoga brick. That isn't a joke.
  • Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Haven't read it.
  • Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, John Updike. I loved Rabbit, Run--I read most of the novel posing for my brother, a painter, and broke the binding on the mass-market paperback--and I liked Rabbit, Redux. His prose writing amazes me.
  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth. I read a ton of Roth in high school and early college; he is for me as a writer like Annabel is to Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the formative experience you can never escape. Still, I stopped reading American Pastoral at page 50.
Other notables:
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole. Long live Ignatius J. Reilly. Apparently some voters resisted the novel because it was written beyond the scope of the last 25 years but published within it. I say screw them. I would have voted for Tristram Shandy.
  • The Counterlife, Philip Roth. I enjoyed this book immensely and went through a period of shoving funny passages from it in people's faces. That said, in the intervening years I've conflated it with Operation Shylock, another Roth novel on the Times list I enjoy.
  • Where I'm Calling From, Raymond Carver. Good call. Unexpected.
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien. Admittedly, the first book that came to my mind when someone mentioned the list to me.
  • Sabbath's Theater, Philip Roth. Really? I enjoyed this when I read it. My brother (again the painter) read it, then destroyed it in two sentences for me. I can't believe this novel is on the list.
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth. He must've called in a lot of debts. Not a bad novel. Not a great one, either.
Now that I've devoted far too much time to the list, I'm off to flog myself, then walk naked through the streets holding Danielle Steel's Summer's End over my head and shouting, "Why hast thou forsaken Steel, oh good and great Grey Lady?"


Soggy Bear said...

That's a lot of Roth.

Coral said...

I saw the article in the NYT and hoped the choice wouldn't be Beloved, but, alas. I too prefer Song, though it's been several years since I've read either, and may have a better impression of Beloved another time through. One major problem w/these kinds of lists is that there is no specific criteria for "best." Just as I refuse to answer a question like "What's your favorite movie?" I find it difficult--if not impossible--to name a "best" anything. It was also disturbing to look at the row of pictures of the authors of the favorites--made the choice seem even more suspect.

And I've read few of the other nom's...when I finish school, I keep telling myself...

Wanda Ball said...

I was all upset that I wasn't on the list but then I remembered that I haven't published a novel. Crap.