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Why Is This Man Not Smiling?

sam-tanenhaus.jpgFellow witnesses with whom I discussed the NYTBR BookExpo panel observed that Sam Tanenhaus seemed aggressively defensive about his paper’s “best American fiction” project even before blogger Ed Champion picked a fight with him over a batch of brownies. It was almost, one observer commented, as if Tanenhaus was trying to obliterate any criticism by sheer force of willpower; for all his insistence that the Review was not supposed to have the final word on the subject, his goal seemed to be, as Tim J. Nelson wrote, “to plug the Book Review, its literary merit, and his ‘choice’ of reviewers.” If anything, though, the project appears to have reduced the section’s credibility among public intellectuals of both the print and online varieties: Lev Grossman of Time called the results “aggressively boring,” for example, while Reason’s Tim Cavanagh dismissed the shortlist as “a literary canon written on Depends.” And my favorite response, for style points if not quite for sentiment, is probably that of poet Ron Silliman:

“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.”

As we’ve previously noted, Tanenhaus rationalized the embarrassingly low representation of women on the judging committee by saying that many whom his staffers approached declined to take part—without, however, leaving any room for discussion as to why so many of them would have made that choice. So if you’re a woman who turned the Review down, we’d love to hear your side of the story. Meanwhile, Laura Miller adapts the blog post explaining her refusal to participate into a brief Salon broadside about the project’s “Diner-guy impulse to impose a reassuring hierarchy on a scarily fluid art form,” while another prominent refusenik, Slate cultural editor Meghan O’Rourke, discusses the list’s super-size mentality, observing that “thinking big is only a form of being small-minded.” (Both display great sensitivity and tact by declining to describe the testosterone-laden project as a “measuring contest,” but I have no such qualms!) Miller’s other prominent thrust is that the Review has “completely missed the point of what has happened in American culture in general and American literature in particular over the past 30 years.” By coincidence, the National Book Critics Circle had its own BEA panel on fiction writers under 40 that supplied a counter-argument addressing that specific failing, hitting upon, in no particular order:

“David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tom Bissell, Nathan Englander, Emily Barton, Stephen Elliot, Kelly Link, Daniel Alarcon, Susan Choi, Allegra Goodman, Curtis Sittenfeld, Arthur Phillips, Daniel Handler, Julie Orringer, Benjamin Kunkel, Gary Shteyngart, Chris Abani, Dave Eggers, Colson Whitehead, and Whitney Terrell.”

I’ve made no effort to disguise my belief that the NYTBR “best American fiction” list was little more than a publicity stunt designed to build a BookExpo panel around, and consequently people have asked why I continue to bother with any of the hoopla associated with it. Well, the reason is rather like my feelings about the list itself: there’s got to be a pony in there somewhere.

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