Sunday, May 21, 2006


By now many of you have seen this week's NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW with its cover feature, "WHAT IS THE BEST WORK OF AMERICAN FICTION OF THE LAST 25 YEARS?" The TIMES staff contacted a list of 125 readers and writers and put to each that same disarming question. These things are not to be taken any too seriously; they are meant to provoke exactly the sort of discussions we will soon see reflected in the letters column of the REVIEW. The accompanying article demonstrates as much, with its amusing summaries of the follow-up questions that came from those being surveyed. Readers will ask how this particular list of 125 respondents was chosen, by whom, to what ends, etc.

I don't think it will come as any surprise to many that the "winner" is Toni Morrison's BELOVED. I'm not here to debate that outcome, or even to discuss the many things about that book and about its moment that we might point to in explanation of its popular success. But there is something at work here that strikes me, and I wonder if it strikes you.

It certainly is a sign of something, beyond the quality of the book itself, that Morrison's novel received the most votes. (I still think SONG OF SOLOMON is better, but hey -- that's the kind of disagreement these surveys are all about.) This result is especially intriguing when put alongside the result of a 1965 survey of the same sort conducted by BOOK WEEK. While I don't think these surveys tell us anything at all interesting about the American novel (or about why a question about "fiction" is assumed to mean "prose fiction") they do, I suspect, tell us things about reception and about ourselves. In 1965, the "winner" was Ralph Ellison's INVISIBLE MAN, a result I imagine many will find agreeable. The fact that two African American novelists' works get the most votes in such an inquiry four decades apart is a good sign. But exactly what it is a sign of is more open to question.

In much the same way that David Horowitz seems to think that the existence of Oprah Winfrey is somehow proof that there are no racial or economic hierarchies in American society (no kidding; I heard him say it), there are many who will point to this result as a triumphalist moment in the progress of America's racial ethos.

But take another look. The NYT BOOK REVIEW spreads before its readers a listing of THE RUNNERS UP and books that received multiple votes. There is only one additional African American author listed there. There are no Latinos, no Asian Americans, no . . . well, you get the idea.

This, I think, is worth another look. I'm happy to see Don DeLillo appear with two novels. I may be considerably less happy to see six Philip Roth novels represented, but I am not at all taken aback by his popularity. I'm even happy to see A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES on the list, though, as the editors point out, this raises some of those questions put to the survey itself. The book was published in 1980, but written much earlier.

But what does it mean that we still don't see more novels by people who are not appreciably white appearing on such a list?

Each of you will quickly be able to come up with worthy authors who should have received multiple nominations. I'll just mention two books, by the authors depicted above. It's hard for me to imagine that you couldn't find more than one person among 125 who might choose John Edgar Wideman's PHILADELPHIA FIRE as the best work of American fiction of the past quarter century. And what about Leon Forrest's amazing DIVINE DAYS?

[and what about MIDDLE PASSAGE, TRIPMASTER MONKEY, and so on and so on?]

Does the triumph of BELOVED mean all that much about the broad popular reception of African American art? It assuredly means something, but doesn't the rest of the list mean something too?

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