Throw Out Your Ambien! Literary Lions Lull a Grateful Nation to Sleep

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The New York Times Book Review's war on wakefulness goes nuclear, as editor Sam Tanenhaus sends "a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages" in search of "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." A.O. Scott gets the thankless task of trying to write something interesting about the 125 responses. To get a sense of just how impossible that is, dig the top five:

1. Beloved
2. Underworld
3. Blood Meridian and Rabbit Angstrom (tie)
4. American Pastoral
5. American Pastoral *

As Scott notes, this is a literary canon written on Depends. Don DeLillo, the youngest author in the bunch, was born in 1936. Even Joyce Carol Oates, who turns a sprightly 68 in June and who, by my conservative count, has an amazing 37 works of at least novella-length fiction eligible from the last 25 years, just doesn't have the whitehaired wisdom you need. Asks Scott:

IS this quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters—yet another casualty of the 60's? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth? In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers—by which I mean writers under 50—were mentioned. One vote each for "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," none for "Infinite Jest" or "The Fortress of Solitude," a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.

Yeah, and how come nobody voted for that guy who wrote the pop-up book about 9/11?

Nick Gillespie considered the declining status of Great Authors back in aught-one.

* Thanks to commenter Ship Erect for correcting my double-listing of American Pastoral, a book so exciting you'll want to vote for it twice.

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  1. Political Correctness triumphs again.

    Beloved isn’t even Toni Morrison’s best (Song of Solomon gets my vote) but it deals with, hold on, slavery, ergo, must be great.

    Underworld isn’t even close to being DeLillo’s best (The Names, with a nod to White Noise). But it uses famous people who live in New York and is very long.

    The rest, well, don’t even get me started.

  2. Toni Morrison is an author who makes me wonder where our contemporary Menckens are. He would not have been kind.

  3. Blood Meridian is an astonishing novel, and its sheer power at rendering the brutality of life renders idiotic any caviling over McCarthy’s age. It’s a big theme, and McCarthy IMO absolutely nails it. His prose may be extravagent, but it works; it may call attention to itself, but I’m glad it does, because prose like that expands the mind’s ability to perceive the surrounding world. Any exegesis over McCarthy’s “high-falutin'” style simply indicates to me someone who doesn’t understand what good writing is all about. When I go hiking in the American Southwest, I keep turning over some of his descriptions in my mind as I crest a ridge. (The book came out in 1985, so McCarthy was just over 50, for the record.)

    I agree that Underworld isn’t DeLillo’s best. It has some of his trademark trenchant black wit, but it’s too long and too obviously trying to Chronicle Our Times. White Noise was keener (and more succinct) in its observations than Underworld. Libra was heartbreaking (at times you actually feel for the misfit Oswald), even as it depicts an unforgettable demimonde of wackos and paranoiacs.

    Beloved was OK. I’ve never read Roth. I read Rabbit Run, and that was enough of that for me.

  4. I attended a talk by Jules Pfeiffer the other evening on the occasion of his receiving the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate award at the Smithsonian. One of his cartoons (and I will only be able to paraphrase the narrative here) shows a man musing about his education roughly as follows: (1) Back in college I thought I’d eventually get around to reading all the great books by Proust and Faulkner and Tolstoy and the like. (2) But I never did. So I asked my kids, in college now, whether they were reading books by those authors. (3) And they said “Who?” (4) At least my generation knew what we were ignorant about.

    I have read none of the books on the list, nor am I at all unusual in that regard among otherwise reasonably well educated people. I suppose at some point people stopped writing epic poetry because people stopped reading or caring very much about epic poetry and it may well be that the same has happened to the novel. I have this vague but undocumented sense that serious literature was once also popular literature or at least that there was some significant overlap, but of course that may just be faux nostalgia for an age that, if it ever existed at all, was before my time.

    It is always possible to take a shot at academia here and note that, as with poetry, the path to a career in serious literature requires gaining the attention and respect of the academic literati who, almost by intentional self-definition, tend to appreciate a different aesthetic than the general reading public. Then again, it may simply be that most of those who are sufficiently capable of stringing words together to churn out a “ripping good yarn” sensibly decide that the money and fame today lies in screenplays or, at least, novels that will yield good screenplays. (Even if the resulting movies aren’t all that good.)

    Which leads me to drop the proverbial turd in the metaphorical punchbowl here and mention The Da Vinci Code. Even my wife, whose tastes run more to Jane Austen, described the book as a “page turner.” I wouldn’t know, having not read the damned thing. However, given that the world, to borrow from Lincoln, little notes nor will long remember the vast majority of contemporary serious novelists or, if it does, will almost certainly downgrade their status as time passes and that even in their own lifetimes the likes of DeLillo might as well be invisible men, is it any wonder that the majority of competent popular authors (by whom I don’t mean Brown) would aim for something a bit more, um, rewarding than making the so-called canon?

  5. zzzz…what? Did someone say something? I fell asleep in the middle of the first sentence on this topic…

  6. As Scott notes, this is a literary canon written on Depends.

    A Confederacy of Dunces received multiple votes and Toole has been dead for 37 years. I know the book wasn’t actually published until 1980 but why is it even in the running?

    I’ve never read Roth. I read Rabbit Run, and that was enough of that for me.

    Maybe I am missing something in your context, but Rabbit Run is John Updike.

  7. Neal Stephenson, for my money. Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle, take your pick … I found it far more engaging, and far more relevant to modern life, than anything by, say, DeLillo.

  8. I agree with Mr. Blather. Song of Solomon is better than Beloved. Beloved is very good, though. I wonder where Song of Solomon would finish if they extended this list to 30 years.

  9. Where’s P.G.Wodehouse? The only one worth anything.

  10. One of the greatest literary crimes of the 20th Century: Toni Morrison is hailed as a great author and wins numerous literary prizes while Anais Nin sinks into oblivion.

  11. House of Leaves: published in 2000, better than Moby Dick. Scholarly, erudite, impeccably composed, epic, sentences strike and sear like Camus and Kafka, it hits every note and continues flogging until every other book looks comparitively insipid. It’s like…obscenely good, it’s almost indecent, like so embarrassing a willful forgetting must occur for the American literati to maintain their sanity.

    But its formatting’s wildly experimental and it features supernatural elements. The literary establishment inexplicably needs elements to kneejerkingly sneer at. It was a page-turner, too, probably because it was excellent in every way…couldn’t actually use the experimentalism to enhance reader interest, huh? Isn’t that…missing the point of these 20th century innovations?

  12. I’m still disappointed by how no one has heard of Jonathan Lethem… Fortress of Solitude is at least as good as the snore-fests listed.

  13. I never get any of these kinds of ratings.

    There are folks who rank Ulysses as ‘the greatest novel ever’. I’m a literate, well-educated person with a good sense of humor and above-average smarts and I frankly, have never understood the attraction to that book.

    There are others (many of whom post here) who rank The Fountainhead as ‘the greatest novel ever’. Again, while the ideas are certainly profound and while the novel is no doubt influential, holding it up as great literature is a head-scratcher to me. The characters are either boring or cartoonish and often act out of the silliest of motiviations.

    As for the last 25 years, I’d put The Lovely Bones up as the most extraordinary book I’ve ever read and a sure winner but it didn’t even get a nod. Another book I liked, Lonesome Dove was also forgotten. I tried reading Rabbit Is Rich and found it boring.

    Never read Beloved or Song of Solomon (or any of the others on the list). Will have to check them out, I guess.

    Anyway, I’ve never really understood the purpose of these lists other than to solidify a pathetic kind of snobbishness in the creators.

  14. Yeah, Fortress of Solitude was beautiful, really captured the time. Motherless Brooklyn was lovely too. What about Matt Ruff – Set This House In Order, anyone? And yeah what about Neal Stephenson? Dave Eggers?

  15. I was going to make some comment about “Book of the New Sun” being the best U.S. fiction in the last 25 years, but I actually think it is too old.

  16. IS this quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters…

    OK, write me off as a culture-less philistine, but I have to ask what constitutes a “decline of American letters?”

  17. Peter Straub has put out some of the best fiction of the last 25 years, in my opinion. It was published just outside of the 25-year period, but Shadowland is the one book I have read more than any other. For novels of his within the 25-year window, I’d nominate Koko

  18. http://www.time.com/time/2005/100books/the_complete_list.html

    Is a better list, although not restricted to US or the last 25 years, there are many good works by younger American authors in there…

    The only thing the NYTBR list proves is that they need to hire some new staff…

  19. And my vote goes to “Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand” by Samuel R. Delany.

  20. Blood Meridian kicks more ass per page than any half-dozen books not written by “Don Pendleton.” Good to see it on the list. That being said, I nailed Beloved at #1 the instant someone told me about this list’s imminence, DeLillo is possibly the most overrated, masturbatory novelist in America (he might be tied with Updike), and the Roth book is just okay – The Human Stain was better.

    Looking for a really good new(ish) book by a living author? Pick up William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. I think his recent work – Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Virtual Light and Pattern Recognition – is even better than the stuff he made his name with in the 80s.

  21. Neal Stephenson, for my money. Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle, take your pick…

    Stephenson is an amazing writer, for scope and imagination if nothing else. I suspect that many are daunted by the sheer size of the Baroque Cycle (what, 2500 pages?), but it definitely rewards the reader who jumps in. Not just entertaining, but still — very entertaining.

    Though he may never have written the G-A-N (the way Roth and DeLillo have), John Irving deserves a vote for his body of work. Garp, Cider, Meany, Circus, Widow — as a life’s work, nothing to apologize for.

  22. If you’ve never read any Philip Roth, you’re missing out. He’s one of the most FUN great writers around. And count me as one who considers “The Great American Novel” one of his best.

  23. no votes for A Million Little Pieces?

  24. On the other hand, “The Human Stain” and “The Plot Against America” weren’t all that great. Don’t know why they got multiple votes.

  25. So I take it that Caleb Carr, David Guterson, Mark Helprin and Paul Theroux didn’t make the list?

  26. Reading these past 25 comments shows, for me, that the novel form isn’t disappearing anytime soon, nor is American intelligentsia a dying breed, but rather, it’s just changing in form, I think. Any work in which two intelligent people can have vastly different opinions must be worth checking out. That’s why I like this blog, really- the commentors sort of prove that Americans aren’t getting dumber- their voices are just getting drowned out by idiots with bullhorns.

    /end non-sequitur comment

  27. Definitely “A Million Little Pieces” by James Fry. Though not a novel per se rather a searing memoir about addiction and the institutional rehab complex…

    What’s that you say, made the whole thing up?

    Uh, well there’s this other book called “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life” by a young woman called Kaavya Viswanathan. Best thing I’ve read in a while…

    Wait, she did what?

  28. I was confused about this list–how could American Pastoral be both 3 and 5?–until I read the article. It should read:

    1) Beloved
    2) Underworld
    3) (tie) Rabbit Angstrom & Blood Meridian
    5) American Pastoral

    Of course this misreading would have to occur in commentary about an article concerning “the decline of American letters.”

  29. I loved McCarthy’s Border Trilogy — and especially found The Crossing just riveting.

    Blood Meridian, to me, was just unreadable. I’m rather stunned to see it so highly esteemed. I’d always figured it was one of his unreadable early works, before McCarthy found his game.

    Il ne faut pas disputer les gouts.

  30. Anyway, I’ve never really understood the purpose of these lists other than to solidify a pathetic kind of snobbishness in the creators.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Thank God (or whoever) for the western captialist marketplace, where everybody can read whatever they want, and give definition, through patronage and dollars, to their own “Great Works” list.

    Personally, I hate most fiction and literature written after WWII, and haven’t read a novel in twenty years (that great honor belonging to Ishamael Reed’s Reckless Eyeballin’ , which aptly satirized the disgust I feel for authors like Toni Morrison and all these freaking Earthmother-Oprah book club types).

    At this point, if I get an inkling to read anthing other than non-fiction (which is rare), I prefer to just re-read the Great Books of the past that I was forced to read in high school and college for “homework”, but now choose to read out of appreciation. Now that I’m 40, life experience opens Swift, Cervantes and Twain in ways I never imagined.

    Keep Morrison, Updike and the massive shitload of “modern literature”. Or better yet, send their works to Gitmo and watch the REAL torture unfold.

  31. So where does “Battlefield Earth” fall on the list?

    It has to be there, they always find a way to get L. Ron on these lists.

  32. Underworld isn’t even DeLillo’s best work. It was sad to see him go from crisp and understand and sharp as a razor and FUN in White Noise and Endzone to wankeriffic in Underworld.

    This is a list of novels written for writers, sort of like the 27 minute wankathons you hear on music written for musicians.

  33. “Personally, I hate most fiction and literature written after WWII, and haven’t read a novel in twenty years”

    Then please stop insulting us for possessing a variety of discernment you lack, and have no interest in posessing.

  34. It is a damn shame that Infinite Jest didn’t make the grade, definitely one of the most gripping and well-constructed novels I’ve ever read (except maybe the ending, DFW’s endings are just weird). When I got into it I would carry that book around with my finger stuck in it, and if it looked like there was going to be a lull in a conversation or I had to wait in an elevator or something I’d grab a few more sentences. Possibly the most insanely addictive thing I’ve experienced. (His new short story collection Oblivion is pretty damn good as well.)

    House of Leaves is also a fascinating ride. I’m not sure I get it entirely, but it was definitely fantastic. Worth the trip if nothing else. And the companion CD by his sister Poe (Haunted) is very very good.

    I’ve heard very good things about Augusten Burroughs, and have his (real) memoir Dry sitting on my to-read shelf, but haven’t had a chance to get through it yet.

  35. * Thanks to commenter Ship Erect for correcting my double-listing of American Pastoral, a book so exciting you’ll want to vote for it twice.

    Of course Ship Erect corrected it correctly by taking out the fourth place listing which is the one that should have been crossed out. If there is a tie for third there is no fourth place – you can’t be in fourth place when you have been beaten by four entries. 🙂

  36. The answer to all of this is in Scott’s last paragraph:

    But the thing about mythical beasts is that they don’t go extinct; they evolve. The best American fiction of the past 25 years is concerned, perhaps inordinately, with sorting out the past, which may be its way of clearing ground for the literature of the future.

    Hindsight is 20-20. It takes a while to read a novel (and it will take even longer for your friends to read it, if you pass it along;) so web-based word of mouth dosn’t have the same effect on literature as it does for say, contemporary music. Fifty years from now graphic novels might be common high school curriculum and Jonathan Safran Foer could fade into obscurity. It’s just too soon to call a classic.

    Plus, “American literature” is extremely limiting. On any given Chicago bus, at given time, at least three passengers will have a Murakami or Zadie Smith book in their hands. Another benefit of globalization: greater cross-cultural curiosity.

  37. Ahoy, Ship Erect. Thanks for the correction, noted and fixed.

  38. I love Underworld, though I realize most don’t consider it his best. I don’t consider it anywhere near as indulgent as some of his earlier writings. For example, although I enjoyed the book overall, I’m not sure why anyone would slog through the second half of Ratner’s Star.

  39. Beloved was an unacceptable book on so many levels. I hate that goddamn chokecherry tree. Back in the day a friend of mine almost got kicked out of school for nailing it to his wall after we finished reading it. The fact that I still have visceral feelings if crapulence towards that book 6 years after I had to read it says something.

    Where’s E.L. Doctorow on this list? I thought Ragtime was a fantastic piece of fiction. Of course, that’s why the NYT Book Review peeps get the big bucks.

  40. I’m still disappointed by how no one has heard of Jonathan Lethem… Fortress of Solitude is at least as good as the snore-fests listed.

    I showed up to plug Gun, With Occasional Music, so I’m glad Lethem already got a mention.

    And I’m on my second copy of House of Leaves because I destroyed the first one. I tend to need about three bookmarks whenever it comes off the shelf.

  41. In terms of both ontological revelation and hermeneutical self-examination, I recommend the works of Theodor Geisel.

    Although I like a decent number of newer works, I’m not one for most of the books listed as best sellers–with a few exceptions, especially in science fiction. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an American author who has really wowed me in the last 25 years. I rather like Graham Greene, but I’m not sure he did anything in the last 25 years, and, more importantly, I am sure that he wasn’t an American.

  42. Bears in the Night, by Stan and Jan Berenstain. Leaner and more muscular than anything Hemmingway ever wrote: not only no sissy adjectives but no verbs either. Just nouns and prepositions, baby, though not usually in that order.

  43. The amount of entertainment choices we have today is staggering, and the proliferation of these choices has dynamic effects on each type of entertainment. Take video games: average game complexity, necessary skill level, plot complexity, control complexity, etc are all on the rise, and this rise corresponds to the amount of time the average person is willing to devote to playing. There is a finite amount of time and concentration in any culture, so it may be that recent entertainment shifts are producing per capita fewer literary masters and literary appreciators.

  44. Three books off the top of my head:

    “The Kite Runner.” The author is originally from Afghanistan but is an American citizen. Grew up partly in Afghanistan and partly in America, so I think he qualifies. This novel, his first, is a riveting tale of a boy growing up in both countries.

    The literati would sneer at this one but I really liked “A Painted House,” by Grishom. Not one of his legal thrillers, which got stale after one or two books after “The Firm” (well that one was wonderfully entertaining at least). I think his books are diminished by not only the formulaic style in which they are constructed but the pandering to popular notions about those ‘eveeel corporations.’

    “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

    I agree with some other comments here though that the most interesting or thought provoking works in the last 25 years have definitely been in non-fiction: “The Fatal Conceit,” “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Wild Swans,” “A Conflict of Visions,” “Catfish and Mandala,” “Bobos in Paradise,” and “The Future and its Enemies” to name just a few.

  45. Oh, for non-fiction, forgot to mention Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” That one really shook up the synaptic connections.

  46. No Stephenson, Wodehouse or Gibson? You’re dead to me.

  47. There are folks who rank Ulysses as ‘the greatest novel ever’. I’m a literate, well-educated person with a good sense of humor and above-average smarts and I frankly, have never understood the attraction to that book.

    I remember reading a story in the New Yorker several years back that they had found several copies of Ulysses that Joyce had given to other, prominent luminaries of the day. Not a single one was opened more than halfway. I even loved Portrait of the Artist and I still can’t get into Ulysses.

    I’ll agree with others that Song of Solomon is far superior to Beloved and I could never stand anything John Updike has done. I’m generally unfamiliar with the others.

    I can’t offer up a good reason as to why these books were chosen, but I certainly don’t think this represents “quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters”. As many others have mentioned there are plenty of great, younger writers who have acheived some measure of both popular and literary credit.

    I would be very much interested in who the “couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” that participated in this survey were. And if you’re not a writer, critic or editor how the hell do you become a “literary sage”? That’s probably a pretty cool business card to have.

  48. I think the weakness of the NYT list is a result of the huge quantity of good books being published every year and the ease with which you can hear about and locate good but obscure titles. Aside from POS bestsellers like Da Vinci Code and Bridges of Madison County, it’s harder than ever to come up with lists of books that everyone who counts has read.

  49. Hey losers,

    I’ve just finished a CRACKING book. Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Nothing to do with Will Smith battling aliens (although that film rocked).

    I recommend it whole heartedly. Apparently, it gets to the root of the ‘modern american condition’ blah blah blah. Not sure about that but it’s clever stuff.

    PS Ulysses is rubbish. Scientific fact.

  50. Ulysses is music.

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