In its May 21 issue, TheNew York Times Book Review published the results of a survey initiated earlier this year, when "the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years,'" as A. O. Scott explains in his essay.
Of the aforementioned sages, 124 responded, and their names are listed along with the results. Fifteen of them chose Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved, which was enough to win. The runners-up were Don DeLillo's Underworld (11 votes), John Updike's four-novel Rabbit Angstrom sequence (8 votes), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (also 8 votes), and Philip Roth's American Pastoral (7 votes). Five additional Roth novels, two more by DeLillo, and McCarthy's Border Trilogy were among the other 17 works that received "multiple votes" (evidently meaning more than 1 but less than 7).
Some literary types look askance at such projects, but I like them. Hats off to Sam Tanenhaus for the idea, inspired by a similar survey conducted by the literary supplement of the New York Herald Tribune in 1965. (The span in that case was the postwar era; the winner was Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.) The resultswell, that's a different matter, but part of the point is to generate good arguments. I've never been a Toni Morrison fan, but I know a number of highly intelligent readers who strongly disagree. To me she epitomizes the air of middlebrow High Seriousness that apparently weighed heavily in the judging. And while Philip Roth is a superb writer, the overrepresentation of his books on the list tells us more about the culture of the judges than about the relative merits of, say, Operation Shylock (a mediocre Roth outing, I thought) and Charles Portis' Gringos (a wonderful novel that is nowhere mentioned in the survey).
Since the results were posted on the web a couple of weeks before the issue appeared, I had time to conduct a little informal survey of my own. In most cases, there was a very clear correlation between the opinion of a given "judge" and his or her ideological bent. A Catholic friend, for example, disappointed me by choosing Walker Percy's 1987 novel The Thanatos Syndrome. I love Walker Percy, but this book, while certainly worth reading, is a hit-and-miss affair. Some of my "judges," on the other hand, were unafraid to choose books categorized as "mystery" or "science fiction," entirely missing from the NYTBR results.
And of course it is easier to carp at a given choiceto roll one's eyes at the apotheosis of Morrison and the clout of the Roth Lobbythan it is not only to name but also to justify one's own. Nominations, anyone?
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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Other Christianity Today articles on the afterlife include:
Harleys in Heaven | What Christians have thought of the afterlife, & what difference it makes now. (June 6, 2003)
Hell's Final Enigma | Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (April 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 9, 2002)
What's a Heaven For? | C.S. Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing. (Oct. 26, 1998)
The Believer's Final Bliss | The regeneration of man requires that old things must pass away and all things become new. By John Murray (July 7, 1958)
The Glories of Heaven | While heaven will be glorious, the greater glory will consist in our transformation. By Stanley C. Baldwin (May 22, 1964)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? By L. Nelson Bell (May 24, 1968)
Illusion or Reality? | Heaven is a place. There is a city we are going to see and walk in. By Edith Schaeffer (Mar. 12, 1976)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. By Philip Yancey (Sept. 7, 1984)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, "Will life on the new earth be boring?" the Bible points to much activity there. By Anthony Hoekema (Sept. 20, 1985)
What Will Heaven Be Like? | Thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity. By Peter Kreeft (from Tough Questions Christians Ask, 1989)
The Eternal Weight of Glory | If only we could have the positives of earthly life without the negatives. By Harry Blamires (May 27, 1991)
Afraid of Heaven | We do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. By Kenneth Kantzer (May 27, 1991)