Saturday, May 13, 2006

Who would you vote for? Or, would you vote at all?

The creation of the list from the New York Times of the best American novel of the last 25 years and all the commentary on it is highly annoying, but I can’t keep myself away. If you haven’t read up on it, the methodology of the NYT was to ask a couple hundred writers and critics for a vote on the best American novel; 125 of them responded. The winner, Beloved, got 15 votes. The runners-up got between 7 and 11 votes. So, this means a very small group of people made up the list and a tiny group is responsible for the “winner.”

What I find annoying about all this is the way it’s an exercise in self-gratification and self-importance – the Times is established as a guardian of culture, it asks for votes from the guardians and creators of culture, and the books it chooses are pretty staid, canonical ones. I didn’t see anything that really surprised me. The Elegant Variation notes that no bloggers were asked to participate and wonders if the list would change if they were. Maybe, but it’s highly, highly unlikely the Times would include bloggers even though it should. That’s way too democratic and open-minded.

A.O. Scott wrote an essay on the choices (an essay which strikes me as arrogant in tone, suitably enough) and said that a lot of the people polled didn’t vote because they disagreed with the whole enterprise. What is “best” after all? And who is qualified to pronounce upon it?

I’m also annoyed because the list is so predominantly male. Yes, Toni Morrison’s Beloved won, and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is included as a book that got multiple votes, but other than that, it’s a lot of the usual suspects: Updike, Roth, Delillo, McCarthy. A passage from the A.O. Scott essay is revealing, I think:

We all have our personal favorites, but I suspect that something other than individual taste underwrites most of the choices here. The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.

The best books are culturally important, and they have something to say about America. And I think that cultural importance is coded “male.” Something more woman-centered like, say, Barbara Kingsolver, is about women, while Roth’s fiction is about our culture, and about America. Lists like these reflect the state of literary culture, but they shape it too, so the implicit message is that what really matters are the stories about men.

And A.O. Scott says something else interesting too: that if the question were “Who is the greatest novelist of the last 25 years?” instead of “What is the greatest novel?” the answer would have been Philip Roth. Or, if the Nathan Zuckerman books had been treated as one (like Updike's Rabbit books are), then he would have won. As it is, Roth's votes got split amongst several of his books. So Morrison’s win is shaped by the nature of the question asked.

So, if you were asked to name the best novel or the best novelist, who would you choose? Or would you not choose at all?