13 May 2006

That's when I fell for (vroom vroom)--Leader of the Stacks

Well, we know that you are simply dying to know BEST works of American Fiction from the last quarter century--and, are you ready for the toppermost of the poppermost (drum roll from a monkey wearing a shriner's cap...)--it's Toni Morrions's Beloved.

Or, so say "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, and other literary sages" solicted by The New York Times Book Review editor, Sam Tanenhaus. My letter, sent no doubt by carrier pigeon, must have been intercepted by someone who photographed my Toyota Corolla driving around Chicago, thus proving, tail feathers stuffed in the exhaust, that I am far from "prominent."

Danger be damned! I'll offer my opinion now.

Ok, Toni Morrison is a great writer; I met someone who claimed to be her personal assistant recently, and he had nothing but warm fuzzies for her (although, he, a poet, seemed unable to parley his work with Morrison into an academic job). And, I dig much of her work, Song of Solomon particularly, which I teach once every two years or so.

Of course, I teach it as a great novel, but also in terms of the "Oprah effect" (no explanation required--and it terms of multicultural tokenism on the college syllabus. Quick quiz Johnny Junior: name prominent African American women novelists of the last 1/4 century.

Uh...ummm...Toni Morrison?

One of the four runner-ups for the NYT is Don DeLillo's Underworld. This is nowhere near DeLillo's finest novel; it may be his longest, and it might mention baseball the most, and it may skew toward the experimental, but... Now, DeLillo is definitely a great writer, and White Noise is really a fantastic gem (also a notable on the list).

Philip Roth hit multiple times (6 of 27 books!), with The Human Stain as a book receiving "multiple votes" (American Pastoral is a runner up). Please--if this (also not his best work) is one of the greatest of the last 1/4 century, we are in as much trouble as Coleman Silk passing for whitey. Big trouble.

...with a capital 'T'

and that rhymes with 'P'

and you know what that stands for, kiddies!

So, a call to other "prominent" critics and writers, and assorted raconteurs whose invitations never made it throught the chatter. Care to proffer an alterna-list? Best American novels of the last 25 years?

Who's willing to take on the Times?


Dimitri Anastasopoulos said...

Davis, I scratched my head a few times looking at that list. Roth certainly has his fans. Morrison, of course she'd be there. I had the same reaction to the DeLillo stuff as you did, though I was surprised he was up there. Libra? The greatest? Really. I liked that book, but I can think of thousands of novels before I'd get to that one.

Anyhow, I have difficulty trying to get a line on "American" fiction these days, and I'm teaching my classes with this in mind. I simply don't teach American fiction or British fiction anymore (I don't label them as such, that is), and even when colleagues ask me why I'm teaching lit in translation ("Oh, you mean transcontinental fiction?" I say, which seems to confuse them, because they think it's some genre or category that's out there.) Anyhow, I read Lawrence Norfolk's Shape of a Boar recently, and it knocked me over. Percival Everett's Erasure is one of the best books of the last 5 years. But right now I'm on a J.G. Ballard kick and I think he was way, way ahead of his time.

Lance Olsen said...

I'm extraordinarily uncomfortable composing laundry lists, in good part because to begin to engage with one is inevitably to begin to engage with an act of unintentional exclusion and reductionism. Which is to say: lists are a fool's game—an illuminating fool's game, naturally, and one we as critics and authors and publishers can't and shouldn't ever stop playing.

First, a comment on Beloved: by my lights, it's a wildly overrated novel whose goal, apparently, is to teach us a universe of things we already know. Slavery is bad? No shit, Sherlock. The past haunts us? You don't say. There are some beautiful passages throughout, but none more beautiful than those one can find, say, in works by Vladimir Nabokov or Julian Barnes. There are some vaguely interesting sociopolitical observations, but none more interesting than those one can find, say, in works by Acker or Ourednik. If you need some multicultural tokenism for your college syllabus, as Davis suggests, Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren is a thousand times more complex, resonant, intelligent, unique, and moving. In fact, it's one of my favorite books. Period.

Roth isn't worth a comment, just an adjective: bland.

Delany's Dhalgren, it strikes me, is a good place to launch that list Davis is looking for. In addition, I would want to make sure not to leave off Acker's Blood & Guts in High School, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Delillo's White Noise, Danielewski's House of Leaves, Carole Maso's Aureole, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas Calvino's If On a Winter's Night, Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, Gibson's Neuromancer, Gibbon's and Moore's The Watchmen, Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, Wenderoth's Letters to Wendy's, Marcus's Notable American Women, Hunt's The Impossibly, Tomasula's VAS, and such digital writing as Jackson's Patchwork Girl and Moulthrop's Reagan Library and (it goes without saying) Joyce's Afternoon.

And never, never forget Gass's The Tunnel, I'd say. Gass put thirty years of his life into this gorgeous, intricate, and embittered book about an anti-Semitic, bigoted, existentially sour German scholar who lives in his head in his basement below his blundering overweight wife, trying to write the introduction to his new work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, but ending up alternately composing the meditation we read; digging a tunnel beneath his house, through his life, among his raging thoughts; and inventing the platform, uniforms, armbands, and flags for his very own Party of Disappointed People, of which he is the only member. This is a difficult novel of consciousness that privileges language, idea, and emotion over plot, people, and scene. Ah, but what magnificent language, some of the most euphonic in English: "It occurs to me, suddenly, staring at my keys [on my typewriter], considering how their arms leap up and how their formed fists strike the page, that every line has been made by a blow, is a row of bruises, a record of attack—thwack—flurry of lefts—tack—ticktack—tack—another shot to the head—thwack—thump to the mid—thumb to the I—brief pause for the bob and weave of thought—bore in again—rattack tickclack—gun them one after one so they die on the page, with only a trace of the rage that did them down . . ." Be still, my heart.

jdeshell said...

I'm still grading, so this is off the top of my head. I agree with Lance, while this might be fun, I'm not sure how useful, but. . .

Not all novels, not all exactly within past 25 years:
American Division:
Maso The Art Lover or Defiance, Tillman American Genius, Hunt The Impossibly, Hawkes Travesty, Caponegro Complexities of Intimacy, Hauser The Talking Room, Ducornet Fanmaker’s Inquisition, Sheffield Gone (I know), Molinaro Fat Skeletons, Levine My Horse, Acker Great Expectations, Cha DicteĆ©

European Division:
Jelineck Lust (or others), Bernhard Correction (or others), Robbe-Grillet Repetition, Brooke-Rose Textermination, Ballard Crash etc.

Overrated Division (limited to writers I’ve actually read):
Roth, DeLillo, Marcus, Sebald, Pynchon, Bachman, Acker, Ourednik (sorry Lance, but I wish I could have heard Evanson. . . in my eyes an interesting conceit that goes on too long), Pamuk (can taste the Nobel), Cheever. . .
This list could go one forever.

Professor VJ said...

Congrats on the new group blog - good to see it up and running!

Re: the NYT Top 25, in an essay that attempts to help contextualize the survey for us, A. O. Scott writes:

"...late-20th-century American Lit comprises a bustling menagerie, like Noah's ark or the island of Dr. Moreau, where modernists and postmodernists consort with fabulists and realists, ghost stories commingle with domestic dramas, and historical pageantry mutates into metafiction. It is, gratifyingly if also bewilderingly, a messy and multitudinous affair."

You can't argue with that. But when you read the final list of 25 "best works of American fiction," you will notice how those who are still published by the multi-national media companies are the only ones who are capable of making the cut. Those who control the publishing industry from "on high" while sitting atop their perches in the corporate towers of the American Publishing Industry will be happy to know that not a single author of my generation, and most especially any one author published by a small, alternative, or literary press, made it on to this elitist-conformist list.

More here from Thursday's post at professorvj.blogspot.com

Ted Pelton said...

Also (avoiding) grading...

There's so many authors I feel I have yet to get to, and I'm also feeling like I'm forgetting a lot, but here's a list of top books and honorable mentions. All by US authors, since 1980. But I cheated and added short fiction books, as for me they're hard to distinguish. (I don't consider Ben Marcus a novelist; but overrated? ha--I think we're living in the Age of Marcus)

2 things on the Times: I think the Beloved placement is earned. While many of us have read it so many times, teaching, etc., that parts of it begin to cloy, it is also remarakably complex, moral, and wise, as well as being something of a clinic on the writing of sentences. To this reader, anyway.
What is it with The Times & Updike? Sorry, Rabbit is Boring. I'd rather read Joyce Carol Oates, even. At least she understands one should do new things, and pay some attention to language innovation and drama.

Here's my top list:
Toni Morrison - Beloved
Ben Marcus – Notable American Women
Jane Smiley – A Thousand Acres
Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
David Markson – Reader’s Block and/or This is Not a Novel
Joe Wenderoth – Letters to Wendy’s
Walter Abish – How German Is It
Stacey Levine – Frances Johnson
Charles Johnson – Oxherding Tale
Jeffrey DeShell – Peter (seriously; but then I'm the publisher, so maybe this is a cynical manipulation)
Denis Johnson – Jesus’s Son
Harold Jaffe – 15 Serial Killers
Thomas Pynchon – Vineland

Honorable Mentions:
David F. Wallace – Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Matthew Derby – Super Flat Times
Raymond Federman – To Whom it May Concern
Brian Evenson – Altmann’s Tongue
Kevin Killian – Little Men
Elizabeth Sheffield – Gone
George Saunders – CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and/or Pastoralia
Nina Shope – Hangings (sorry, compromised again)
Kenneth Bernard – From the District File
Robert Gluck – Margery Kempe
Carole Maso – Ava
Thersesa Hak Jyung Cha – Dictee
Thaddeus Rutkowski – Tetched
Sandra Cisneros – Woman Hollering Creek

I want to read more so I can do better. I know I'm forgetting some. But not nearly what the TIMES has forgotten. I couldn't believe that list was for real.

Ted Pelton said...


1. What do you think was the average age of the Times list of 125 invitees that comprised that ridiculous list? What do you think is their average income? How many times, on average, have they left the islands of Manhattan or Long to go someplace other than Newark (transatlantic flight to another place of isolation in Europe)?

2. There were a couple of mentions of chafing at the nationalist bit, wanting to include world writers, but did any one of you, in making your list, feel drawn to put on a book of so-called poetry? Quickly: Lisa Robertson, Debbie: An Epic; Charles Bernstein, Dark City; Lee Ann Brown, Polyverse; Robert Creeley, everything from Mirrors on; David Antin, Talking at the Boundaries, etc. Especially as regards someone like Antin, the definitions between genres get tres blurry, and hard to disentangle. The guy tells stories.
I've just gotten in the mail "Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative," from Coach House Books, Toronto (2004); interesting to me because at least half of the writers appear to be so-called poets. Will report, au moment voulu. But one of our party, Doug Rice, was in this book -- any comments, Doug?

Anonymous said...

I listed my nifty American books (fiction) of the past twenty-five years in a discussion elsewhere (Earlier discussants had established the mainstream author/genre author taxonomy, and I found it convenient to maintain it). Glad to see Ted bring up the average age and income of the judges --their average gender and color (it seems as if it was much easier to become a judge if you weren't black) is also relevant. The class issue is one reason why a book like Dhalgren is never going to make such a list; the gender imbalance might help account for the overrepresentation of phallocratic authors. The issue of publication has been covered expertly by Prof. VJ.

What other kinds of content keep a great book from being noticed by the Forces of Legitimation?

--Josh Lukin

Frank Sauce said...

Katherine Dunn's “Geek Love.”

All the clamor that abounds about this list, everywhere, and not one mention of Jim Dodge! "Fup", "Not Fade Away" and his opus: "Stone Junction"

The big seller=DFW's "Infinite Jest"-not a big fan, but I love his voice and this is a very ambitious work. In fact, I read it twice. Stoned out of my mind.

Doug Rice's "Blood of Mugwump"-Freak! Brilliant.

And while we're at it: 1970ish almost counts, right? Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light" and Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Unicorn"-OK- 1967 & 1968 . . . but fuck it, I'm only 39.

So maybe this is my favorite short list, and I don't do lists very well (so I'm riffin') since 1966, which is 40 years, not 25, that I'm blabberin' on about after going to a reading tonight.

Greg Bear's "Blood Music"

Shoot, there sure are a lot of guys here.

But then again, there's mostly guys on this blog and I'm a guy.

I have to confess that I was deeply moved by Morrison's "Song of Solomon" and I LOVE that the hero walks with a limp (one foot in heaven and one on earth), but I like the soul of "Tar Baby" a lot more, plus it's metaphors are more complex and subtle and it's my favourite novel of hers.

As for the cyber punk, it's all about "Count Zero" for me. "Neuromancer" introduces the style and voice, but Zero makes it literature.

Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" for it's unique voice.

I'm getting Stacey Levine's book from Clear Cut and I have HIGH expectations, y'all. Don't let me down.

In the end, though, fiction, or literature, nowadays is chump-change, if you're looking for the “Make It New.” Writing is often an easy pill to swallow and it's not that new. We have expectations. I want something that defies my expectations. Something that I didn't expect, like words on a string that leave me breathless. Lidia's “Her Other Mouths” did this to me years ago, but it's a collection of “short stories” even though it really is a complex connection of the same story, told with different things around the mind and body of a shared voice, kinda like Woolf's “The Waves” employment of different voices that are a shared voice and just as compelling.

Unfortunately, we want a package that fits our expectation, thus “short stories,” “novel,” or “fiction” goes on the back of the page. L.A. Ruocco's “Xero” or her other book, the title of which escapes me, blows me away every time I pick it up to read on the shitter.

The greats are long dead and everything else often pales when we're using the forms they employed. We know this, yet we still employ the same forms. Why?

Post-Structuralism fuckin' rocks as a theory, but the work that Post Structuralism is based upon was created by writers and poets 40-50 years before the philosophy of the Frenchies came to light. The ideas posed by the theories of Post-Modernism was written by writers and poets who were creating around WWII, everyone else is writing on the coat-tails of the theory. Theory comes about to express the complexity of the art, not the other way around.

And second to second to lastly: “Poetry is pretentious nonsense” - Andy Rooney

The same can be said for those in Academia. You can't change the form from within, just like a politician.

We need to “Let go!” Write the mind, heart and soul! That's what now is the what that's happening now. You:US:me. Our minds, heart and soul happening right now.

In the end, as a reader, that's all I need, but who has the skill to write it?

Oh, and Baumbach's “B”.

Gass' “The Tunnel”? Opus of one of the greatest writer/essayist of our time. His essay on the word “And” shines, but then I love the word, the glue and the goo it creates.

~Frank Sauce