Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Best?

The NY Times Book Review asked roughly 200 authors and critics to nominate their choice for the best work of fiction published in the last 25 years. My notations to the side indicate that I've read it (R), that it's on my shelf to read someday (S), that I've neither read nor bought it but have considered doing so (C), that I've never thought about reading it (N), or that I've never even heard of it (H).

Overall Winner:

Beloved by Toni Morrison (R)


Underworld by Don DeLillo (R)

The rest listed received nominations from more than one judge:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (C)

Rabbit Angstrom series by John Updike (R)

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (N)

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (S)

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (H)

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (C)

White Noise by Don DeLillo (R)

The Counterlife by Philip Roth (C)

Libra by Don DeLillo (R)

Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver (N)

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (R)

Mating by Norman Rush (N)

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson (H)

Operation Shylock by Philip Roth (C)

Independence Day by Richard Ford (C)

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth (C)

Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (C)

The Human Stain by Philip Roth (R)

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (N)

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (S)

To be honest, I haven't been paying that much attention to the NY Times Book Review lately. I just haven't had the time. I found out about the list, being published in the May 21 issue but currently available online, through various listservs and newsgroups I'm on for different genres of writing (sci-fi, fantasy, and experimental lit). Most are complaining about the list, about how their favorite genre is under-represented. Or not represented at all. A quick look at the list of judges will tell you why.

Out of the 100+ judges listed only a handful can really be considered experimental (Ben Marcus, Lorrie Moore, Rick Moody, and maybe Jonathan Safran Foer). The numbers drop even more if you ask about genre writers, with Stephen King as the only true genre writer and afficionados like Jonathen Lethem and Andre Dubus III thrown in for good measure. The playing field's also greatly narrowed by the judges' ties to geography; a gross number of the writers listed are fully immeshed in the NY scene supported by the mags like the New Yorker. They will, naturally, pick books they've read and talked about within their own world. It wouldn't occur to them to nominate a book outside their area of knowledge. So I don't fault the judges at all for the narrow selection; I fault the NY Times for not seeking out a broader spectrum of judges.

I have no personal problem with anything chosen. The books listed are certainly well crafted and many have been very influential. The winner, the runner-up and a couple of others would be on a list of my own if I had to make one (I wouldn't). The list does, however, point out a continual bias with the NY Times to support certain types of literature and certain styles of writing.

For any attending Book Expo this week, they are holding a seminar Thursday afternoon discussing the choices. If anyone happens to go, I'd be curious to know what they say.


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