A few of you have written in with your thoughts about the NYTBR‘s “best American fiction” list, and not just to point out that the period between January 1, 1980 and Decemeber 31, 2005 comprises twenty-six years, not twenty-five, or that the list of judges appears to conflate the American literary establishment with Sam Tanenhaus’ Rolodex. “This proves to me that they continue in their delusion that they are on top of literary culture and have their ears to the ground,” said one anonymous reader. “They don’t. They are tone-deaf, myopic, condescending, and elitist.” Or, as Ain’t It Cool News critic Frank Bascombe wonders: “To say this list is flawed would be the understatement of 2006. Then again, why does this list even exist?” The uncharitable among us might well suggest that it exists in order for there to be a good, splashy reason for Tanenhaus to moderate a panel at next week’s BookExpo convention with Thomas Mallon, Cynthia Ozick and Liesl Schillinger.
Picking up on my observation that writers and critics of genre fiction were sharply excluded from the judges’ ranks, fantasy writer Elizabeth Hand wonders how the Washington Post Book World might have handled the project. “Okay, I’m biased—I’ve been writing for them since 1988,” she admits, “but in addition to having Pulitzer Prize winners in Michael Dirda and Jonathan Yardley, Book World has a proven track record of taking genre fiction seriously, and has a number of regular reviewers—John Crowley, Paul DiFillipo, Richard Grant—who have never been afraid of crossing the border between ‘straight,’ ‘literary’ fiction and The Other Kind.” Instead, as one agent put it, there’s “six Philip Roth novels… Six?” (And who the heck voted for The Plot Against America? We have to have some Roth on the list, but that’s just silly.)
Rebecca Swain of the Orlando Sentinel attacks the “cultural irresponsibility” of the whole project, emphasizing its limited scope: “The winning books got only a handful of votes each—Morrison’s commanding lead was a mere 15 votes. So 15 people agreed on something? That hardly makes it a landmark decision.” When I ran into Maud Newton last night at a book party, she expressed frustration that the Review had chosen not to list any books which received nods from only one of the 125 judges; David Orr was one of many who voted in that manner, and he reveals his outlying selection: Little, Big, a fantasy novel by the aforementioned John Crowley. Now I feel better about wanting to pick Robert Anton Wilson’s Masks of the Illuminati, which perfectly fits Orr’s guiding criterion: “strange and smart enough to deserve consideration.” Twenty-plus years after my first reading, the novel still has the power to keep me up at night just from thinking about it. (That said, DeLillo’s Underworld is my “respectable” backup choice.)