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 ...1
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