The most shocking thing about the New York Times Book Review commissioning a poll to determine the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years is not, ultimately, that the New York Times Book Review commissioned a poll to determine the best work . . . etcetera, although yes, that’s pretty damn shocking. It’s that the winner and presumed favorite, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, got a grand total of 15 votes. Fif-fucking-teen. A quorum of seven out of the 125 prominent authors and critics polled was enough to land Philip Roth’s American Pastoral in fifth place. Only 21 books got more than a single vote. Cynics may carp that manufacturing an illusory notion of consensus out of some half-baked dog-and-pony show is the nadir of literary criticism, but sheesh -- from the results, it sure does look like American literary culture has emerged just as ornery, fractious, and stubborn as ever.
Is it possible to rate the “single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?” Of course not. Sam Tanenhaus, and the rest of the editors at the Book Review, know better. Elsewhere in the same Sunday Times, on the cover of the Business section, you could read Chip Hawkins, CEO and founder of the cell-phone-content developers Digital Chocolate, opining that “[c]ontent is just a means to an end, so there’s something to talk about.” Whether you’re talking about mobile apps or the nation’s preeminent lit-crit supplement, the song remains the same. Let’s give ’em something to talk about.
Of course, the timing of this list wasn’t accidental: it dropped right smack dab in the middle of BookExpo, the publishing-industry hobnobbing event of the year (BookExpo ran May 19-21 in Washington, DC; the Times’ list went up online a few days early, presumably so attendees would have something to argue about on the shuttle.) By Sunday afternoon, Beloved was on its way up the Amazon.com top-200 sales chart, jumping from a Saturday close of No. 153 to No. 68, on its way to the low 40s. In the book world, that may not be Oprah book club numbers, but it’s something.
The list itself isn’t quite meaningless, but what’s more important is that the Times proved it could control the discussion. As Jessa Crispin observed on the Book Slut blog, “The great thing about lists is not only are they the anti-content, they allow everyone else to fill up space without having to create any content either. And when the listmaker is the New York Times, well, publications can coast for weeks on competing lists, half assed analysis, and ‘inside looks’ at the judging process that don't actually tell you anything.”
And so began the inevitable literary storm. The counter-lists, the complaints, the questions: what about Anne Rice? Where’s Tom Robbins? How come they forgot Rushdie and Melville? Why didn’t they ask non-famous readers? Significantly, the discussion unfolded mainly in the online forums of the Book Review, which now contain hundreds of responses. (Which at least proves that people still give a shit -- and whether you hate lists or love them, that’s still good news.) There’s even a lengthy discussion between novelists Michael Cunningham and Jane Smiley, critic Stephen Metcalf (who wrote the obligatory “but is Beloved actually any good?" piece on Slate), and author/critic Morris Dickstein on the state of fiction today and how the list does or doesn’t reflect it.