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Saturday, May 13, 2006

What REALLY is the Best Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years?

The New York Times today posted a teaser on its website for an upcoming story that it purports will identify "The Best Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years."

I will neither offer my tit-for-tat reaction to each of the nominees nor spoil what work it deemed Winner (mostly because I haven't read it). However, I am pleased to note that two of the titles I immediately thought of when I saw the headline were recognized by the voters as "runners-up".

Yet, when I look at the list, I wonder this is a legitimately representative sample of America's bookworms. While I agree with the list wholeheartedly, I wonder if it's fair to say that Don DeLillo and Philip Roth wrote nine of the 27 best books published since 1980. After all, each have societies worshipping their work.

The study includes this essay explaining who voted and why they were selected. Seems fair enough, but it runs counter to a very pointed article I read in the Atlantic Monthly several years back, "A Reader's Manifesto," by B.R. Myers.

Apparently, the furor inspired M. Myers enough to publish the thesis in long form. Just note the title and take my word for it – he/she hates DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, David Guterson, Annie Proulx, and (I would venture to suggest) Roth, too. Also within Myers' sights is Toni Morrison, who you likely now know wrote the best book in the past 25 years. As the Amazon listing relays from Publishers Weekly:

Myers reports in this audacious broadside upon current American literary writing that, "at the 1999 National Book Awards ceremony, Oprah Winfrey told of calling Toni Morrison to say she had to puzzle repeatedly over many of the latter's sentences. Morrison's reply was, `That, my dear, is called reading.' "But Myers proclaims that it is in fact called "bad writing."

The article caused such a furor that it even has a Wikipedia entry.

Many critics did to Myers' Atlantic piece what Myers did to DeLillo, et al, e.g. this Salon writer. Here, a Slate writer tried to meet Myers half-way but couldn't do it. It took a Canadian to pull that off:

While DeLillo is capable of writing prose and dialogue as bad as anyone's (see
my review of The Body Artist), it seems to me that Myers is missing a lot in not
getting the humour of White Noise. … Here is another example of a passage where the author is trying to "bore us into laughing":

"What do you want to do?" she said.
"Whatever you want to do?"
"I want to do whatever’s best for you?"
"What’s best for me is to please you," he said.
"I want to make you happy, Jack."
"I’m happy when I’m pleasing you."
"I just want to do what you want to do."
"I want to do whatever’s best for you."


Now, for the record, I don’t like this very much either. But I like even less what Myers has to say about it:

"To anyone who calls that excruciating, DeLillo would probably respond, 'That’s my whole point! This is communication in Consumerland!' Note also how the exchange loses its logic halfway through; perhaps it was only written to be skimmed anyway. It’s always the very novelists who scorn realism as the slavish recording of reality who believe that an incoherent world dictates incoherent writing."

Note how this critique loses its logic halfway through. Why should the fact that this dialogue is illogical or incoherent make it unrealistic? In descriptive writing, as
opposed to dialogue, this might follow, but these are supposed to be people
talking. Most of what gets said in real life is just sound - it’s meant "to be
skimmed anyway." As Northrop Frye was fond of pointing out, none of us speak in prose. We speak in a childish, rhythmic and irrational prattle. In this regard,
DeLillo reads more like the "slavish recording of reality" than "incoherent
writing." And, finally, why should any of this be interpreted as evidence of
DeLillo’s belief in an "incoherent world"?


The dialogue in a book cannot be taken as expressing or representing the author’s vision of reality. Myers is on shaky ground here. He even cautions himself at one point, saying "it’s always risky to identify a novelist’s thoughts with his characters’." But this doesn’t go far enough. It’s always wrong to identify a novelist’s thoughts with his characters, and that’s an end of it. Something about the nature of fiction itself is getting away from Myers here.

It's worth noting that Myers has among his/her fans one Nicholas Sparks, who here blesses us with his formula for gauging good writing. That ought to tell you something. Notably, Mr. Sparks includes neither Roth nor DeLillo on his list of "Must Reads," while jabbing writers who "do get wordy at times, but hey, no one's perfect …" Except, presumably, he who blessed us with this piece for the ages.

I guess the only point I can make from all of this is that I am a little conflicted. I feel a little pleased that those the New York Times deemed worthy of rating the best books of the recent past includes stuff I liked and loved. However, I'm not certain that the reason I liked these books bears any relation to abstract notions of "best in 25 years." I'm pretty sure B.R. Myers, if nothing else, shares that belief.


2 Comments:

Anonymous megan said...

while I'm annoyed at the list, I do love that my uttermost favorite in the entire sloppy world is on there...being "confederacy of dunces." but what's alarming is how this list ignores anything too experiemental...and just by allowing a bit of postmodernism to poke through like weeds (yay for delillo and jones, and of course johnson), much of the list pays a kind of weary homage that seems more habit that anything else. for instance, updike is tired. and the "rabbit" chronicles speak to a specific audience (in my opinion). and don't even get me started on "beloved."

furthermore, while I do enjoy delillo, as well the piece of "white noise" dialogue you discussed (I love that stuff...why can't you just embrace it for what it is? spare, terse, utterly stripped of epiphany, etc.?)...he isn't the end all of the heavyweights. There are so many writers tackling the craft, and doing/subverting/digging about with hopes to keep the idea of literature evolving...why ignore them? Dennis Cooper, for instance. George Saunders. Mary Gaitskill and even Margaret fucking Atwood.

sorry for the rant...but these kind of articles/lists just seem so pointless...elitist, too. time to discard of that kind of tweedy, mock turtlenecked snobbery, because it's getting pretty dull.

2:45 PM

 
Anonymous marty biesler said...

men are from mars...?

2:32 PM

 

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