What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?

"What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" is an informal opinion poll conducted in 2006 by the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) to determine "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." Eligible works were those written by an American author and published during the quarter-century period from 1980 through 2005. The poll was conducted by NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, who sent letters to literary figures requesting their participation and received 124 responses. The results were published on May 21, 2006, in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. An essay by A. O. Scott, titled "In Search of the Best", reflected on the results and the premise of the "Great American Novel".

Beloved (1987) received the most votes in the poll.

Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved received the most votes, a result that had been anticipated by Tanenhaus, Scott, and several poll participants. The runners-up were the novels Underworld (1997) by Don DeLillo; a tie for third place between Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy and Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy (1995) by John Updike; and American Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth. The full list featured another 17 works that garnered at least two votes; some books with only one vote were later identified in other sources. Works by Roth received more total votes than those by any other author.

The poll spurred vigorous debate and a wide range of commentary on the status of an American literary canon. Critics of the poll found its results to be unrepresentative of the breadth of contemporary American literature, noting apparent biases against—for example—women's writing, regionalist literature, or genre fiction. Taking inspiration from the exercise, The Observer conducted its own poll for the best novel published during the same timespan by a writer from Britain, Ireland, or the Commonwealth, with J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999) emerging as the winner.

PollEdit

ResultsEdit

In early 2006, Tanenhaus sent a letter "to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" requesting participating in the poll.[1] Participants were invited to submit their single choice for the best work of American fiction from 1980 to 2005; submissions with more than one selection or ranked lists were not accepted.[2] The NYTBR offered poll respondents "confidentiality, though not anonymity", in that it would publish the names of those who participated in the poll while maintaining the secrecy of ballots.[3]

The poll results were announced on May 18, 2006, ahead of the BookExpo America trade fair in Washington, D.C., before appearing in print on May 21.[4] That week's edition of the NYTBR was exclusively devoted to fiction works, and the magazine's cover illustration features the cover art of 22 books from the poll results.[2] The published results included the winner, four runners-up, and 17 works of literature that received at least two votes. Beloved by Toni Morrison received the most votes. The list as published did not reveal who voted for any given work, nor did it provide the number of votes received by a given work.[5] However, Scott's accompanying essay provided the tallies of votes received by the top five works, as well as noting that works by Philip Roth had received more total votes than those by any other author, with 21 votes overall spread across seven novels (six of which received multiple votes).[6]

After the poll results were published, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) contacted poll respondents and were able to identify some works receiving a single vote.[7] The list below includes the results published in the NYTBR plus any works known to have received only a single vote.

"What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" results
Rank Votes Title Year Author Ref.
1 15 Beloved 1987 Toni Morrison [8]
2 11 Underworld 1997 Don DeLillo [8]
3 8 Blood Meridian 1985 Cormac McCarthy [8]
Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy (Everyman's Library, No. 214) 1995 John Updike [8]
5 7 American Pastoral 1997 Philip Roth [8]
6 2–6 "Where I'm Calling From" 1988 Raymond Carver [1]
White Noise 1985 Don DeLillo [1]
Libra 1988 [1]
Independence Day 1995 Richard Ford [1]
Winter's Tale 1983 Mark Helprin [1]
Jesus' Son 1992 Denis Johnson [1]
The Known World 2003 Edward P. Jones [1]
The Border Trilogy 1999 Cormac McCarthy [1]
The Things They Carried 1990 Tim O'Brien [1]
Housekeeping 1980 Marilynne Robinson [1]
The Counterlife 1986 Philip Roth [1]
Operation Shylock 1993 [1]
Sabbath's Theater 1995 [1]
The Human Stain 2000 [1]
The Plot Against America 2004 [1]
Mating 1991 Norman Rush [1]
A Confederacy of Dunces 1980 John Kennedy Toole [1]
23[a] 1 Sixty Stories 1981 Donald Barthelme [7]
Wonder Boys 1995 Michael Chabon [7]
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay 2000 [9]
Little, Big 1981 John Crowley [7]
The Hours 1998 Michael Cunningham [10]
The Corrections 2001 Jonathan Franzen [7]
Carpenter's Gothic 1985 William Gaddis [7]
The Cider House Rules 1985 John Irving [7]
Ironweed 1983 William Kennedy [7]
The Collected Stories 1994 Grace Paley [11]
Unknown[b] Richard Powers [6]
On Glory's Course 1984 James Purdy [7]
I Married a Communist 1998 Philip Roth [12]
Collected Stories (Library of America, Nos. 149–151) 2004 Isaac Bashevis Singer [7]
Aberration of Starlight 1980 Gilbert Sorrentino [7]
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant 1982 Anne Tyler [7]
Vote breakdown of top five works and others
Authorship of works with multiple votes
Authorship by gender of works with multiple votes

ParticipantsEdit

The names of 124 poll respondents were printed in the NYTBR.[13] Although the NYTBR did not reveal any voter's selection, several respondents chose to publicly disclose the title of the work for which they cast their vote after the list was published. If known, a participant's poll response is provided below in a footnote.

The following people were among those who had been invited to participate in the poll, but ultimately declined to respond:

ResponseEdit

 
New York Times critic A. O. Scott wrote an essay to accompany the poll results.

The eventual victory of Beloved did not come as a shock to Times staffers who were involved with the project. "It's a very controversial book and a controversial choice," Tanenhaus said in an interview with Book TV, "although not altogether surprising. And in fact, we heard from a few voters who predicted Beloved would win—even as they cast votes for other books."[20] In his essay accompanying the poll, titled "In Search of the Best", A. O. Scott wrote, "[t]he results—in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all—provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details."[12] Of the poll winner, Beloved, Scott said:

Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, Beloved has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic. This triumph is commensurate with its ambition, since it was Morrison's intention in writing it precisely to expand the range of classic American literature, to enter, as a living black woman, the company of dead white males like Faulkner, Melville, Hawthorne and Twain.[21]

A year after the poll's publication, Lawrence Buell remarked that it had "occasioned an amazing amount of comment" on the topic of the Great American Novel.[22] Sara Nelson, then editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, wrote of the poll: "There's no doubt about it: I envy Tanenhaus this publicity—and perhaps advertising-generating vehicle, even if he does say that the winning publishers have not been alerted in advance, à la Oprah, and therefore are unlikely to buy extra ads in the issue. Cash investment or no, to be named the New York Times Book Review's best fiction of the last 25 years has to be a brand-builder for both the winner and its bestower."[23] The poll has been cited as a prominent example of the influence of the media on the construction of literary canons, alongside other institutional influences such as academia, governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations, libraries, and publishing companies.[24]

On May 22, 2006, the public radio show Open Source, hosted by Christopher Lydon, invited literary critics James Wood, Mark Greif, Ruth Franklin, and Dennis Loy Johnson to discuss and analyze the poll results.[25] The 2010 conference of the American Literature Association (ALA) hosted a panel discussion on the poll results, with one panelist representing the literary society of each of the top five authors in the poll as follows: Marni Gauthier (of the DeLillo Society), Steven Frye (of the McCarthy Society), Yvonne Atkinson (of the Morrison Society), David Brauner (of the Roth Society), and Marshall Boswell (of the Updike Society).[26]

Taking inspiration from the NYTBR poll, British newspaper The Observer conducted its own poll of 150 "literary luminaries" seeking their choice of the "best British, Irish or Commonwealth novel" published between 1980 and 2005. Disgrace, the 1999 novel by South African–Australian author J. M. Coetzee, received the most votes in The Observer's poll.[27] Comparing Disgrace and Beloved in an article for the Journal of Narrative Theory, Molly Abel Travis wrote: "What these two novels have in common, besides being profound and beautifully written narratives by Nobel laureates, is that they confront historical traumas and foreground the contested relationship between empathy and ethics through narrative distancing."[28]

CriticismsEdit

Laura Miller, who declined to participate in the poll, explained her reasoning and her view of the poll—and other such literary rankings of "classic books"—in a critical piece for Salon.com:

I've always disliked the "greatness sweepstakes" view of literature. Every conversation I've ever witnessed about which works or writers are "truly great" has smacked of philistinism ... Ultimately, novels are so diverse that once they attain a certain level of quality, they really can't be meaningfully ranked against one another. Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment are both excellent, but very different, books, and the idea that we can decide which is better—or "greater"—is fundamentally absurd. ... I realize that people—or some people—will always feel profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that some fields of excellence can't be as minutely broken down as the NCAA rankings. But get used to it.[18]

Lev Grossman of Time magazine called the poll results "aggressively boring" and continued, "it's a very staid, predictable, old, white (except for Morrison and Jones), and male (except for Morrison and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping) bunch. No surprise extra-canonical incursions. (No William Gibson? No Watchmen?)"[29] Poet and critic Ron Silliman criticized the list for its narrow range of authors, particularly its gender inequality, with only two works written by women receiving more than one vote, writing: "Do we really think that more than one fourth of all the important novels over the past quarter century were written by one man? If so, do we honestly think they were written by Philip Roth? I'd poke my eyes out before I'd live on that planet." Silliman continued by suggesting that Tanenhaus and the poll respondents "should both get out more, venturing further north than Connecticut, further west than Riverside Drive, further south than Gramercy Park. It wouldn't hurt to meet women."[30] Susan Straight lodged a similar complaint in the Los Angeles Times, in which she criticized the poll's evident bias toward the East Coast, particularly New York, to the detriment of writers from the Western United States and the geographically diverse tradition of American literary regionalism.[31]

Reactions from authors named in the poll resultsEdit

John Updike encountered the poll results shortly after their announcement at BookExpo America, where he was promoting his latest novel, Terrorist. His reaction to the list was observed in real time by Patti Thorn of Rocky Mountain News, who reported he "breathed a sigh of relief" when he saw his name on the list at third place. "Sometime later," he told Thorn, "you wonder why these other books came first." He continued, "I feel awkward about any award. [These polls turn] literature into a kind of track meet, where you can judge first, second and third ... I wonder if the discontent it breeds doesn't offset the joy of the winners."[32]

Michael Cunningham—a participant in the poll himself,[c] whose own novel The Hours also received a single vote from a fellow author[n]—praised the poll's top five novels for capturing a sense of the zeitgeist when taken as an aggregate whole. Cunningham then emphasized the difference between the criteria to name a greatest book of its time versus the personal criteria to name a favorite book. For example, he said he regarded Nicholson Baker's 1988 novel The Mezzanine as not just a personal favorite, but a book he would recommend to an English-literate extraterrestrial lifeform to "convey a sense of American life right now"; nevertheless, he deemed The Mezzanine too unusual, too experimental, and too radical in its modernist style to qualify, in his view, as a definitive "best" book representing its era.[14]

NotesEdit

  1. ^ Works that received only one vote in the poll were not included or "ranked" on the original list as published by the New York Times Book Review. These works are only known, if at all, via secondary sources.
  2. ^ A. O. Scott notes there was "a single vote for Richard Powers" in his essay accompanying the poll results, but he did not provide the title of whichever work by Powers received that vote.[6]
  3. ^ a b Cunningham voted for White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo.[14]
  4. ^ Dickstein voted for Sabbath's Theater (1995) by Philip Roth.[14]
  5. ^ Fox voted for On Glory's Course (1984) by James Purdy.[7]
  6. ^ Greer voted for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon.[9]
  7. ^ Irving voted for his own novel, The Cider House Rules (1985). "I voted for myself," Irving said, "suspecting that, otherwise, I might not receive a single vote. We all know presidents vote for themselves, and they do far more harm than writers do."[7]
  8. ^ Karr voted for Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy.[15]
  9. ^ Mallon voted for Underworld (1997) by Don DeLillo.[16]
  10. ^ Metcalf voted for Underworld (1997) by Don DeLillo.[14]
  11. ^ Moody voted for The Collected Stories (1994) by Grace Paley.[11]
  12. ^ O'Brien voted for Aberration of Starlight (1980) by Gilbert Sorrentino.[7]
  13. ^ Orr voted for Little, Big (1981) by John Crowley.[7]
  14. ^ a b Roxana Robinson voted for The Hours (1998) by Michael Cunningham.[10]
  15. ^ Rush voted for the Library of America's three-volume edition of Collected Stories (2004) by Isaac Bashevis Singer.[7]
  16. ^ Sittenfeld voted for White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo.[17]
  17. ^ Smiley voted for Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison.[14]
  18. ^ White voted for Wonder Boys (1995) by Michael Chabon.[7]

ReferencesEdit

SourcesEdit

External linksEdit