On May 21, 2006, The New York Times published the results of a poll based on a single question. The newspaper had asked over a hundred writers and critics to name the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. The question is still open to discussion, as it was recently by a panel at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. I was a member of that panel, and here is some of what I had to say:
I'm a reader, as everybody here tonight is a reader. And yes, it's my job to be one. I get paid to do it. But I don't pretend to have a theory of what literature ought to be. Nor am I an academic with a canon of "great books" up my sleeve. Nor am I even, I believe, a critic, if by "critic" we mean a wise judge of long training.
A reviewer, yes, I'm comfortable being, working on deadline and according to word count -- a book columnist, then, and one who reports on more than works of fiction. It's all fine by me. It has to be. It's my job. An authority on contemporary American fiction I therefore am not and don't pretend to be.
But this question of the best work of fiction of the last 25 years ... I ask you: Why the question in the first place? I ask: What would any answer to that question have to do with the writers who write? I respect those who write and especially those who write fiction. It's a harder business than meeting a deadline or reaching a word count.
But you maybe ask, "Whatever happened to the search for the Great American Novel?" I ask, "Who cares?" That search is to me Stone Age material, the stuff of any early age -- I mean the early-to-mid 20th century -- a time when the question of establishing America's place in world literature seemed a matter to be met. It was a matter of defining ourselves to ourselves. A matter of measuring ourselves against older literatures. And if the question is still around, is it because a newspaper of record is looking for, still looking for, good copy?
The answer to the question of the Great American Novel, of course, now or ever: That novel ain't gonna happen. Only a culture unsure of itself could ask it, because art doesn't work in terms of best and second-best and third-best.
A.O. Scott, in his essay attached to the results of the Times poll, admitted that the question put to the authors and critics was seriously open-ended, but he maintains that the results were not without significance. Those results boiled down to this:
A first-place finish -- with a whopping 15 out of 125 votes -- for Toni Morrison's Beloved. This "trend" in the voting, according to Scott, favored a literary work that carried the "burden of cultural importance" -- a serious work that took America not only as its setting but also as its object. And so: On the one hand, you have Beloved in the winning spot and a runner-up, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian -- primordial tales that mixed the violent and the lyrical. Strange, archaic tales, the stuff of myth and the groundwork for national sins. Really American in outlook and purpose. Works to define ourselves to ourselves.
And on the other hand, the runner-ups -- John Updike's quartet of Rabbit Angstrom novels, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, and Don DeLillo's Underworld: works that grappled with the national in terms of the personal -- contemporary takes on America as-is. Really American in outlook and purpose too. Sweeping, synthesizing, ambitious books that the generations of novelists after Morrison, McCarthy, Updike, Roth, and DeLillo are either unable or unwilling to see as their business as novelists at all. And why should it be my business to argue otherwise, with the winning writers or any writers at all?
Writers, all writers, I believe, do their best with every book they write. There's no outside goal that they're answering to, no larger issue at stake than their personal best. If all politics is local, all literature is sourced in the individual. I believe in the artist, at work to be his or her best.
So the word "best." And back to my job as book reviewer. Here are the questions I keep in mind when reading then reviewing a work of fiction: What was the author trying to do? How well did he or she do it? And was it or was it not a pleasure for me to read it? Was I engaged? Was I being told the truth? Was I stopped short, thinking, Yes, that's right, I never thought of that, I never saw things that way and I believe what you say. Or was I too often stopped short, thinking, No, you're not convincing me at all and how soon can we be finished? "The burden of cultural importance" isn't on my mind. Good, better, and best aren't on my mind.
Pleasure in reading is. That pleasure derives from a writer seeing into the truth of things regardless of his or her approach. Art is open-ended. Keep an open mind.
Which is why recent novels as dissimilar as Smonk by Tom Franklin, The Angel of Forgetfulness by Steve Stern, The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford, Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy opened my eyes and measured up to the goal, I believe, the author set for himself. They elicited pleasure -- the pleasure of reading writers in command of their craft, at the top of their "game," if you want to call it that.
Game -- this game of naming the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. The very idea is itself a construct, a fiction, despite critic Harold Bloom in his useful book How To Read and Why and despite the good work of the Library of America. Because, trust me: When it comes to long-lasting excellence, time, not the Times, is the judge.
The winner and runners-up last May of the best of American fiction of the last 25 years -- I agree. It makes good newspaper copy. It raises questions. It gets readers reading and thinking and talking. But I can't give you an easy answer. I can't give you an answer, period. I'm here to report. And I need to report: I haven't read Beloved, and Updike and Roth have never been authors I wanted to read, job or no job. What can I say in apology to Morrison, Updike, and Roth? Sorry. To DeLillo: ditto. But I do want to name two names tonight: "Munro" and "Trevor." Authors to look into if you don't know their work already.
You're asking me about greatness in fiction of the last 25 years? For our purposes this evening, Alice Munro and William Trevor don't make the cut. They can't: One's Canadian; the other's Irish. They don't count. But in the end they do.