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Who's the best?
May 25, 2006 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Toni Morrison's Beloved named best American novel of the last 25 years. Critic A.O. Scott writes an accompanying article. Some people do not agree. Like this person or this one. The judges. (Bugmenot login: I used veganporn/veganporn.)
posted by papakwanz (130 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Personally, I don't have a real problem with this, as any "best of ______" award is going to be sketchy. I will admit, though, that I haven't read most of the other stuff on this list, as I don't get to read much current fiction. I will say that the first time I read Beloved that I hated it, but when I read it again a couple of years later I really, really liked it.
posted by papakwanz at 12:25 PM on May 25, 2006


Thankfully Oprah and Michiko Kakutani were not sent ballots.
posted by minkll at 12:28 PM on May 25, 2006


Didn't Beloved win with something like 8 votes? I know they said they only bothered polling "the most influential writers" but still. A slightly larger sample size might've given this a bit more weight.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 12:31 PM on May 25, 2006


It's worth pointing out, also, that most of the balloters were only given one vote, not several.
posted by maxreax at 12:39 PM on May 25, 2006


I'm not so sure about Best in the last 25 years... though it definitely makes my short list.

I actually prefer the Bluest Eye to Beloved.
posted by dead_ at 12:45 PM on May 25, 2006


I disagree with the decision, and thus I refute this poll.

Neat post though--happy to see Jesus' Son was up for consideration.

As long as we're throwing opinions around, I'd like to say that Cormac McCarthy is highly overrated. Blood Meridian is the literary equivalent of a slasher flick.
posted by bardic at 12:46 PM on May 25, 2006


I know most of you were waiting to comment until I weighed in with my opinion, and now that I'm here, I'll make mention that I didn't particularly care for Beloved.

I was glad to see The Things They Carried on the list, however.
posted by kbanas at 12:52 PM on May 25, 2006


I liked the Lance Mannion link, and the one at Slate. They both presented decent reasons for why this was a poorly conceived enterprise.
posted by OmieWise at 12:53 PM on May 25, 2006


Being that these books are arguably representative of the post modern where traditional conceptions of authority, Truth, and value are put into question and play, these kinds of rankings seem worthless and are invariably going to evoke the kind of responses found in this post. That being said, I had a modernist lit professor who argued that Toni Morrison ripped off Faulkner--perhaps another charge indicative of the post modern condition.
posted by Dr. Lurker at 12:54 PM on May 25, 2006


Bardic, dear fellow, I often feel we're on the same team but sir you have thrown down the guantlet. Blood Meridian is one of the best books I've read in the past few years, and I flatter myself that I read widely and well.

I can absolutely see where you're coming from, but I absolutely cannot agree. The prose, imagery, and myth of that book continue to stun me. I cannot think of that book while driving lest I become a hazard to myself and others. I read passages from that book determined by the random casting of coins and straws to make fundamental choices about life and art, and to meditate on the nature of existence and morality. You will often find me on streetcorners driving myself to penury by giving away stacks of that book for free, simply because I think the collective soul and intellect of humanity increases some discrete amount with every person who reads it.
posted by freebird at 12:56 PM on May 25, 2006


Interesting post. As has already been said, any 'best of x' is going to spur criticism. All in all, though I may not agree with the poll, Beloved is a pretty great novel.

It's interesting to see that both Delilo and Roth had multiple novels in the running.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:56 PM on May 25, 2006


kbanas, I was waiting because:

A. You're awesome.
B. You have a blog.
C. The chicks dig Banas.
posted by OmieWise at 12:57 PM on May 25, 2006


Dr. Lurker, it's funny you find this list to be too "experimental" and/or "pomo," cause I thought the opposite--with the possible exception of Jesus' Son, it's incredibly milquetoast and bland. As for Faulkner, umm, he ripped off plenty of people too--that's what good writers do. Bad ones get caught (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot).

Freebird, I've been meaning to read it again. You're not the only person who told me I missed something. Frankly, it's been years but point taken. (I do like the part where they use their pee to make gunpowder.)
posted by bardic at 1:01 PM on May 25, 2006


Opinion expressed. Dissent ensues.
posted by Eideteker at 1:03 PM on May 25, 2006


Interesting -- not a bad top choice and, hopefully, will spur discussion.

My two bits: posted by docgonzo at 1:10 PM on May 25, 2006


The chap at the end of the 'or this one' link makes an interesting point: It's unlikely that the only contenders for best book of the last 25 years written by authors who were young when they wrote them were written at the very beginning of the last 25 years. Which is another way of saying: It's unlikely that none of the best books of the last 25 years was written in the last 15 years by a writer under the age of 40.

And just FYI, if you're posting to a weblog like MetaFilter, you can use the special registration free links to the NYT to save faffing with bugmenot.
posted by jack_mo at 1:12 PM on May 25, 2006


On not-preview:

# Underworld is the most pretentious, boring and vapid novel I've ever read. Ugh.

Amen to that.
posted by jack_mo at 1:13 PM on May 25, 2006


I find it somewhat ironic that so many of the people who objected to the types of books on the list had previously refused to participate.

How, exactly, did they expect the books they liked to show up on any list anywhere if they didn't suggest them?

I mean.... really.
posted by Deoridhe at 1:13 PM on May 25, 2006


I'll be the one who goes off on Updike. How I hate him.

I actually quite like his light verse and cartoons, but I plowed maybe 30 pages into Rabbit, Run before I had to hurl the thing away in revulsion and that is not a metaphor. I actually did that.
posted by furiousthought at 1:15 PM on May 25, 2006


I noticed when looking at the photos accompanying the NYT article that 4 of the top 5 are white males. For all our lipservice to multiculturalism, these authors are the ones being read, and the history of literature continues to be dominated by white men.

That said, I thought Blood Meridian was a better novel than Beloved.
posted by butternut at 1:15 PM on May 25, 2006


No Walker Percy? Philistines.
posted by tweak at 1:15 PM on May 25, 2006


There's also a great Bugmenot Firefox extension that works from the right-click menu. Couldn't be easier.
posted by CRM114 at 1:17 PM on May 25, 2006


No Dan Brown? Snobs.
posted by QuietDesperation at 1:17 PM on May 25, 2006


DFW killed postmodernism.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2006


Underworld is the most pretentious, boring and vapid novel I've ever read. Ugh.

With Infinite Jest pulling in a veeeeerrrrry close second.

Nobody that was polled found a John Irving novel worthy of inclusion? Not even A Prayer For Owen Meany? hmmm.

And, just because because nobody's done it yet:
your favorite book sucks.
posted by pdb at 1:18 PM on May 25, 2006


I'd like to say that Cormac McCarthy is highly overrated. Blood Meridian is the literary equivalent of a slasher flick.

You know, I ain't gonna disagree with you on this, but damn: it's such a good slasher flick.
posted by Greg Nog at 1:24 PM on May 25, 2006


Can't say that I'd want to have to choose and defend any novel, having intensely loved so many, but "Beloved" seems like a suitable choice to me: a bold pick, yet a safe bet; both classically American and strangely modern. I don't generally consider or list it as one of my all time favorites, yet each time I've finished reading it I've thought, "Wow, this is one of my all time favorites."
posted by hermitosis at 1:25 PM on May 25, 2006


I actually think Song of Solomon is her best novel, but I can see why so many people worship Beloved. Looks like I'm tackling Philip Roth's oeuvre next.
posted by danb at 1:26 PM on May 25, 2006


I really liked The Crystal Shard.
posted by Cyrano at 1:29 PM on May 25, 2006


4 of the top 5 are white males

If white males do nothing else well (which I'm willing to grant may be a possibility), they do write very good novels. No other gender or skin color can compete. Every so often, a literary Larry Byrd shows up. But he or she is an anomaly. White males can write like hell.
posted by Faze at 1:30 PM on May 25, 2006


DFW killed postmodernism.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 1:18 PM PST on May 25


Sometimes you have to destroy the village in order to save it.

Incidentally, I have no problem with people who don't like IJ but calling it boring is fucking crazy talk.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:31 PM on May 25, 2006


Is there a book Philip Roth wrote in the last 25 years that did not make the list?

Absolutely. He averages one every 2 years or so, according to his own estimates.

My favorite (which isn't his best), The Dying Animal, did not make the list.
posted by dobbs at 1:33 PM on May 25, 2006


And, just because because nobody's done it yet:
your favorite book sucks.


Dammit. Beat me by a mere 15 minutes, give or take.
posted by frogan at 1:33 PM on May 25, 2006


Ooh, yeah, Rule of the Bone. Although I liked Cloudsplitter even better.

It's plum silly how many works by the same authors clog up this too-small list.

Faze: bwah ha ha. Too funny.
posted by hackly_fracture at 1:34 PM on May 25, 2006


OmieWise - you're apparently in the minority on that one. However, carry on. I'll not complain. :)
posted by kbanas at 1:36 PM on May 25, 2006


You folks have to be kidding about Rule of the Bone. That book was dreadful; laughably bad. I felt like I was watching a TV show or movie where adults clearly decorated the kid's room--Banks central character was in no way believable as a contemporary kid. In fact, I hated it so much, I haven't read another Banks novel since, and Continental Drift is a favorite of mine.
posted by dobbs at 1:38 PM on May 25, 2006


I'll give you Owen Meany, pdb -- yeah, nothing from Irving? They got a hate-on for him for being a part-time Canuck? -- but I think IJ is anything but boring. C'mon: wheelchair-bound Quebec terrorists? That bit about the home invasion? Classic.
posted by docgonzo at 1:39 PM on May 25, 2006


and to everyone who's talked me out of Underworld -- thanks. Liked White Noise, thought Libra was interesting but in no way worthy of a top-25 list.
posted by hackly_fracture at 1:39 PM on May 25, 2006


Is Rule of the Bone the one where the kid runs off to Jamaica and becomes a rasta? That was terrible.

Agree that IJ should be on the list.

And shocked that Blood Meridian rather than, say, the Border trilogy, was so high up on the list.
posted by Mid at 1:41 PM on May 25, 2006


dobbs - Okie doke, but methinks you'd dig Cloudsplitter, anyway.
posted by hackly_fracture at 1:43 PM on May 25, 2006


4 of the top 5 are white males

You know, if I don't look at the picture of the author, if it's included at all, their race or even gender is the last thing I think about, you PC-hypochondriac.

I bet 3 of the 4 white males are JEWS too, part of the illuminati to keep repressed minorities out of Barnes and Noble!
posted by tweak at 1:44 PM on May 25, 2006


docgonzo writes "I don't know what to think about the resolutely high-browedness of the list. Yes, all these books are on the fast-track to the canon, but they are not the novels of interest to anyone but a minority of the UES, Manhattan, New York, the US."

I don't know what to think of this comment, but it always strikes me as rooted in a misunderstanding of the question at hand. Populism=/= quality, and given the sorry state of education in the US I'd guess that it almost guarantees a lack of quality. I'd have to really see an explanation of why the list shouldn't be "high brow" (Roth is anything but) in order to understand why it shouldn't be.

Also, I have to say that I'm shocked by people's liking for and respect for Infinite Jest. I bought it when it first came out and I've tried to read it three or four times, once with a bet on, and I couldn't get through it. I was bored, I thought the humor was banal and the whole edifice so tottery that I was literally pissed off. There were some good parts, mostly the kind of sociology of pot smoking, but the rest seemed endlessly puerile. And just to put my comment into perspective, I live for the kind of book IJ is supposed to be. Pynchon is probably my favorite living novelist (in fact I'm rereading GR right now), I have an undergraduate degree in post-structuralist theory, my blog is about reading Proust...in other words I'm a big and unapologetic reader of books that many people consider boring, puerile and insufferable. I think I was most angry at DFW and IJ because I had to seriously question whether the philistines that like to suggest that such pursuits are twaddle might not be right.
posted by OmieWise at 1:44 PM on May 25, 2006


Actually, white women write pretty good novels, too (if they do nothing else well, etc.)
posted by Faze at 1:44 PM on May 25, 2006


White males can write like hell.

That's the dumbest thing I've read today, and the sentiment and reasoning behind it even moreso.

You were joking, right? Melanin levels determine one's penchant for novel-length fiction?

Meh. Ralph Ellison is the greatest American novelist ever, with Melville close behind, and unklike Roth Ellison said everything he needed to say in one novel, albeit a fairly long one. Updike? Good lord--the man should be sent to the salt mines on the basis of his execrable poetry alone.
posted by bardic at 1:50 PM on May 25, 2006


What OmieWise said. I have tried to read Infinite Jest four times, because I generally like David Foster Wallace's work; each time all I could think of was that the book seemed to be about how clever DFW thought he could be, rather than about anything he intended it to be about.

Puerile's a good word for it, definitely - and yes, I was bored by it too. Maybe if I'd gotten more than 125 pages into it, I would have seen something that I missed.
posted by pdb at 1:54 PM on May 25, 2006


i'm not particularly well read, and much of what is mentioned here i have not read (though i did read 'beloved')...but i really enjoyed infinite jest...in part because there are so many layers of it i know i'll never get (in part because i'm not particularly well read), and i love that kind of richness...i've been thinking this is the summer to pick it up again...
posted by troybob at 1:55 PM on May 25, 2006


The question the panel was asked was to put what they thought was the best American novel of the past 25 years. Right?

Had the question been for them to list the ten best American novels of the past 25 years the list would, no doubt, be different. And Philip Roth would probably not have as many books in the list.
posted by Rashomon at 1:55 PM on May 25, 2006


Actually, white women write pretty good novels, too (if they do nothing else well, etc.)

With the exception of a couple of books by Connie Willis, I cannot say that I have enjoyed any novel that I have read that was written by a white woman. God knows I've tried to push my way through Atwood and Kingsolver, Margaret Laurence, Doris Lessing, Le Guin, Munro, and so on. All have been rough slogs that didn't leave me with any feeling of enjoyment. Technically well-crafted, sure. Important works, I'll grant you. But unless I can say that I enjoyed the process of reading it, I won't agree that it's a good novel.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:55 PM on May 25, 2006


OmieWise - how many pages did you read? Seriously. Most people (myself included) could not finish IJ in one go. It took me like three or four starts, but I eventually got deep enough into the book that I didn't want it to end. You have every right to hate it, but I'd recommend taking another stab at it some other time. Do you like any of Wallace's other writing? A Supposedly Fun Thing seems almost universally liked.

I also thought Underworld was pretty terrible. I am a big Updike fan, but even I thought it was cheating to combine all four of those novels into one entry.

It's interesting that Toni Morrison wins this poll and people complain about white males coming in second and third!
posted by mattbucher at 1:56 PM on May 25, 2006


Updike? Good lord--the man should be sent to the salt mines on the basis of his execrable poetry alone.

Gasp ! Updike wrote the best poem ever. About a man with the last name of Anantanarayanan. It's pretty easy to find online.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 1:58 PM on May 25, 2006


Of course white people write good novels too -- no one is going to dispute that. My point is simply that the novels that consistently get attention -- get "canonized" so to say -- are for the majority by the privileged races and gender. Now, if you want to argue why that is, it's a whole different question that would involve fields other than that of literary criticism. It is not about being PC. It's about being aware of cultural bias, which is there whether you look at an author's picture or not. Please, people, I am not complaining. I am observing a phenomenon -- albeit a phenomenon of an ultimately silly exercise.
posted by butternut at 1:59 PM on May 25, 2006


I think I was most angry at DFW and IJ because I had to seriously question whether the philistines that like to suggest that such pursuits are twaddle might not be right.

Anti-Oedipus is twaddle. IJ is fun. Pretty much any book (or "text," if you're one of those people) is super fucking boring when approached as something to analyze first and enjoy later.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:02 PM on May 25, 2006


I hated beloved. It is the worst book I've finished reading. I liked confederacy of dunces and blood meridian best. I liked the things the carried a lot but I get the feeling it won't wear well, then again feelings are stupid. Infinite Jest is fun to read from but shitty to read. I could understand loving Underworld if you only read the very beginning (which is incredible) but it is far too long for what it says.
posted by I Foody at 2:07 PM on May 25, 2006


Which all goes to prove that we each see things as True and assume the Truth for others is wrong....you like this and I like that...the game of
Best Book is no different than the childish game of if you were on a desert island and could have only one book etc

For me,the collected speeches of George W Bush represents the best fiction of the century.
posted by Postroad at 2:08 PM on May 25, 2006


Please, people, I am not complaining. I am observing a phenomenon -- albeit a phenomenon of an ultimately silly exercise.

Not really that much of a phenomenon when you consider that white people (especially men) have traditionally gotten the best educations in America for well nigh 380 years now, give or take. Obviously, this trend is balancing out, so I'm sure in a generation or two we'll see the demographics of 'great' authors change a bit more.
posted by tweak at 2:10 PM on May 25, 2006


Oh yeah, and rich people often have the most leisure to write as well.

Postroad: shutup, you are an idiot utterly sans of any savant of any kind, ever.
posted by tweak at 2:11 PM on May 25, 2006


butternut writes: My point is simply that the novels that consistently get attention -- get "canonized" so to say -- are for the majority by the privileged races and gender. Now, if you want to argue why that is, it's a whole different question that would involve fields other than that of literary criticism.

Actually, you kind of have a point here, but it's garbled in uncritical assumptions. According to one of the most important theorists of the English novel, Ian Watt, the novel arose at the same time as a functioning middle class did in Europe (and consequently, a leisure class as well), and especially England, and it was thought of as very much a "lowbrow" thing compared with "real" literature like epic and lyric poetry (covering a lot of ground quickly here, but the point remains).

But you're overlooking some really important issues--for the first 200 years or so of the history of the novel, most were written by women, easily. It was very much a looked down upon genre and profession "for ladies only" so to speak, as opposed to the manly men like Milton who could wrestle with Epic form and come out victorious (just one example).

All of which is to say, you mention the English canon like it's some natural, scientifically determined thing--it's not. It's inherently political, and not at all based on what people used to actually read and/or what is actually best, but rather, later critics who had an ax to grind in terms of amending the "facts" to support their late 20th century critical view--the novel is the supreme example of literary form, and only "masterful" men, particularly white ones, can handle it (and I realize I consider Ellison and Melville to be the two greatest American novelists, but so be it).
posted by bardic at 2:12 PM on May 25, 2006


Freebird, I got your back on Blood Meridian, just like The Kid and Toadvine. But not at all like The Kid and Tobin.

I am reading Housekeeping right now because I have read Beloved and Marilynne Robinson is the only other woman on this list.

I loved Infinite Jest. I hated Underworld, but I didn't finish it so that's not totally fair to say. I'm not a big Updike fan, either.
posted by jennyb at 2:12 PM on May 25, 2006


Notable that it's not Best Novel, but Best Book, and as such includes short story collections like The Things They Carried. I myself would have liked to see some Ann Beattie love. But she's so modest and soft-spoken in her writing style, I'm not surprised no one thought of her.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 2:13 PM on May 25, 2006


Sheesh, that's a pretty worthless comment, unless you're stalking me at the library. Sorry. I mostly just wanted to say something nice about Blood Meridian.
posted by jennyb at 2:13 PM on May 25, 2006


Most of the canonized novels are by white people in this country because most of the people in this country are white. If black people were exactly as good at writing novels (Which I expect they are) and exactly as inclined to write a novel (which I have no clue about) then they still probably wouldn't write as many great novels as white people. I don't know about women though, I do tend to not like their writing.
posted by I Foody at 2:14 PM on May 25, 2006


My comment is worthless, I meant, not fugitivefromchaingang's comment, which is very worthful.
posted by jennyb at 2:14 PM on May 25, 2006


(So be it in particular because of that point--they were both incredibly well-read, and Invisible Man and Moby Dick are comments on literary history as much as they are paradigm-shifting works of literature in themselves, IMO.)
posted by bardic at 2:16 PM on May 25, 2006


Oh, and Margaret Atwood can spread the vast majority of writers smoothly on toast, and have them with tea while making pleasant yet cutting conversation. Any such list that does not include her should be burned and the ashes mixed with flour to make scones fed to critics and schoolchildren the world over.

Margaret Atwood doesn't have to sweep her own floors, she can just arch an eyebrow at Chuck Norris and he mops them with his tongue because he is so terrified of her powers.
posted by freebird at 2:25 PM on May 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Again, I find the inherent assumption that the novel is somehow the greatest of literary of forms to be hilarious. Daniel Defoe would be happy, and quite shocked, to hear that what he wrote in Robinson Crusoe is now considered literature worthy of study in school. I mean, I love good novels as much as the next person, but the cultural imperialism here is rich--why don't you guys just ask where's the Congolese Shakespeare?

Many Africans have written many great novels (to mention just one author). And that's further testament to many non-Western authors' ability to adapt, if not co-opt and befuddle, the master narratives and cultural forms of the occupying people (e.g., "White" culture, so to speak).

But ya know, let me turn my initial question around--how come John Updike has never produced a satisfying Anansi tale? I mean, look at these silly white males with their silly novels, completely oblivious to the literary traditions of the rest of the world. I mean, they're kind of musical in a limted way, but ignorant to "real" art, probably just downright incapable of it.
posted by bardic at 2:26 PM on May 25, 2006


Somebody please wake me up when the epoch of multiculturalist redress, curriculum activism, and "important" books ends, and we can finally go back to celebrating books we've enjoyed reading. If Harold Pinter can win the Nobel Prize, Beloved too can be the bestest whatever.
posted by ori at 2:29 PM on May 25, 2006


Actually, John Updike's book Brazil could be read as a kind of Anansi myth. He also wrote a book about Africa (The Coup).
posted by mattbucher at 2:29 PM on May 25, 2006


....Any such list that does not include [Margaret Atwood] should be burned and the ashes mixed with flour to make scones fed to critics and schoolchildren the world over.

....And Neuromancer.....

Kids: "best American novel of the last 25 years. "
posted by ori at 2:34 PM on May 25, 2006


yeah, ori...it would be kinda cool if writing could get to a place where the culturally/philosophically important elements just happen to be embedded in enjoyable works of the time rather than self-consciously injected for the sake of relevance...and i guess infinite jest gets that criticism as well, but i always took it as more a kind of (self-conscious? oops!) criticism of that phenomenon...
posted by troybob at 2:36 PM on May 25, 2006


Any such list that does not include [Margaret Atwood] should be burned and the ashes mixed with flour to make scones fed to critics and schoolchildren the world over.

<pedant>She's not an American.</pedant>
posted by Armitage Shanks at 2:36 PM on May 25, 2006


I love how Anansi is the only African mythological figure anybody knows.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:38 PM on May 25, 2006


Oh come on, everyone is American these days.
posted by freebird at 2:40 PM on May 25, 2006


actually, many americans have become distinctly un-american...
posted by troybob at 2:44 PM on May 25, 2006


same thing.
posted by freebird at 2:46 PM on May 25, 2006


We're all New Yorkers now.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:48 PM on May 25, 2006


We're all sick of The New Yorker by now.
posted by bardic at 2:52 PM on May 25, 2006


and this thread.
posted by mattbucher at 2:56 PM on May 25, 2006


My vote goes to Confederacy of Dunces, if I can still vote for a 1980 book. I find it to be the best American novel in quite a time---where "American novel" is defined as something that is quintessentially American. It is the best Mark Twain novel that Samuel Clemens never wrote.

The real sad part about thinking about this list is how light it is. Thinking about which books will be "timeless" or which will be read 50-100 years from now leads to a very, very short list.
posted by dios at 2:57 PM on May 25, 2006


Can someone please explain the infatuation with Toni Morrison? Seriously!
posted by shoepal at 2:58 PM on May 25, 2006


Oh, and Margaret Atwood can spread the vast majority of writers smoothly on toast, and have them with tea while making pleasant yet cutting conversation. Any such list that does not include her

One of my most favouritest memories was loudly and drunkenly declaiming my fourteen reasons why Margaret Atwood is the worst piece of literary phlegm burped up by the CanCon movement to a clutch of fellow undergrads... only to have one of them be her daughter. (I didn't know at the time. Honest.)

Kids: "best American novel of the last 25 years."

Peggy Atwood is, unfortunately, one of ours; luckily, William Gibson lives in Vancouver -- but is listed as an American by wikipedia.
posted by docgonzo at 3:03 PM on May 25, 2006


The real sad part about thinking about this list is how light it is. Thinking about which books will be "timeless" or which will be read 50-100 years from now leads to a very, very short list.

I disagree with this. Novel-wise, it may sometimes seem like there isn't much that will last out there right now, but short-story-wise, there is an absolute embarrassment of riches.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 3:05 PM on May 25, 2006


I know I should love Confederacy of Dunces, but I couldn't. It just felt self-indulgent and sad to me. It was funny, but it seemed like the same painful funny page after page. I know it's supposed to be the great outsider novel of the century, but I didn't find it so - granted: I didn't finish it so maybe the exciting plot twist at the end would change my opinion. But "Mark Twain"? I can't agree - old Samuel had way more going on on way more levels.

docgonzo - I already disagree, but I'd love to hear your 14 blasphemous reasons to dislike Atwood.
posted by freebird at 3:06 PM on May 25, 2006


We're all sick of The New Yorker by now.

Just Gladwell.
posted by Mid at 3:14 PM on May 25, 2006


Actually, John Updike's book Brazil could be read as a kind of Anansi myth. He also wrote a book about Africa (The Coup).

If John Updike had written "Brazil" under the pseudonym Machado de Bonsera, and "The Coup" under the name Mkwame Ubutsu, both de Bonsera and Ubutsu would be hailed as two of the greatest writers on the planet, and "Brazil" and "The Coup" (second-rate Updike that they are) would probably be numbers three and four on this list.

I -- like the literary establishment that has mistakenly cannonized "Beloved" and its talentless author -- long for the world to produce great novelists of color, but the fact is, since Ellison and, ohhhhhh.... Baldwin (like young Zadie, a great writer, but a lousy novelist), they simply haven't appeared.

White men rule rule this field by virtue of merit, and do it so powerfully and decisively, by every concievable objective measure, that to deny it is to commit an ugly offense against reason. Lots of these stupendous white men are gay. A lot are Jewish. Most are assholes. The best of 'em are from Great Britain or Russia or America.

White men are incredibly good at writing, and I suspect that if -- a hundred years from now -- white men are at the bottom of the world's social structure, and white men are picking through the garbage dumps for the scraps from the tables of the non-white ruling class, that white men will still write the best novels -- unless they are segregated out of the game, as major league baseball and the NBA once segregated the best players of their games out of contention.

And "Confederacy of Dunces" blows, for heaven's sake. Will you people grow up?

posted by Faze at 3:18 PM on May 25, 2006


what could anyone have against Atwood? she was an admirable whistleblower, and meryl streep portrayed her so well...
posted by troybob at 3:18 PM on May 25, 2006


Whoopsie-doodle. Lost control of my italics there.
posted by Faze at 3:19 PM on May 25, 2006


freebird: I read Confederacy the first time as a clean slate, knowing nothing about it. I thought it was a Mark Twain novel. Because it had what was great about Twain: the humor, the commentary, the local color, the characters, the absurdity of "the damned human race." Of course, I am a big Twain homer. So, in my estimation, anyone who comes within his universe is doing well by himself.

I really do see a lot of Huck Finn in Confederacy. Which is not to say that I think they are equal. Just in the same vein. I often hear that, in comparison, Confederacy is too absurd, the humor is too forced, but I don't agree with that. I think that Huck has suffered brutally from its sacrosanct position in grade schools in that it is not seen as the humorous book it is. Too much emphasis is put on its slavery theme and importance in that regard. The story itself has truly absurd characters and is very funny.

There are clear differences, but I think Huck Finn's greatness is independent of its slavery themes. And the things in Huck Finn that I find to be great and timeless are things that I see in Confederacy, as well.
posted by dios at 3:24 PM on May 25, 2006


I enjoyed the hell out of Infinte Jest --- like many good books, it was slow-going at the beginning, but once I got past page 150 or so, I was engrossed. Wallce has a knack for empathy (at least as a writer; don't know him personally) that makes his characters complelling and interesting.
The book is designed to be confusing at the begining because Wallce means for you to go back and re-read the beginning once you've finished (for those who've read it, the novel Infinite Jest is structurally the same as the film after which it is named).

Beloved, to me, was difficult to read, and not as compelling as Sula or Song Of Solomon or Paradise.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:27 PM on May 25, 2006


...and Wallace's chapter on the future-past failure of videophone technology i thought was perfect...
posted by troybob at 3:35 PM on May 25, 2006


...the title of which chapter happens to be:

WHY—THOUGH IN THE EARLY DAYS OF INTERLACE'S INTERNETTED TELEPUTERS THAT OPERATED OFF LARGELY THE SAME FIBER DIGITAL GRID AS THE PHONE COMPANIES, THE ADVENT OF VIDEO TELEPHONING (A.K.A. `VIDEOPHONY') ENJOYED AN INTERVAL OF HUGE CONSUMER POPULARITY CALLERS THRILLED AT THE IDEA OF PHONE INTERFACING BOTH AURALLY AND FACIALLY (THE LITTLE FIRST-GENERATION PHONE VIDEO CAMERAS BEING TOO CRUDE AND NARROW APERTURED FOR ANYTHING MUCH MORE THAN FACIAL CLOSE UPS) ON FIRST-GENERATION TELEPUTERS THAT AT THAT TIME WERE LITTLE MORE THAN HIGH TECH TV SETS, THOUGH OF COURSE THEY HAD THAT LITTLE `INTELLIGENT AGENT' HOMUNCULAR ICON THAT WOULD APPEAR AT THE LOWER RIGHT OF A BROADCAST/CABLE PROGRAM AND TELL YOU THE TIME AND TEMPERATURE OUTSIDE OR REMIND YOU TO TAKE YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE MEDICATION OR ALERT YOU TO A PARTICULARLY COMPELLING ENTERTAINMENT OPTION NOW COMING UP ON CHANNEL LIKE 491 OR SOMETHING, OR OF COURSE NOW ALERTING YOU TO AN INCOMING VIDEO PHONE CALL AND THEN TAP DANCING WITH A LITTLE ICONIC STRAW BOATER AND CANE JUST UNDER A MENU OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS FOR RESPONSE, AND CALLERS DID LOVE THEIR LITTLE HOMUNCULAR ICONS—BUT WHY, WITHIN LIKE 16 MONTHS OR 5 SALES QUARTERS, THE TUMESCENT DEMAND CURVE FOR `VIDEOPHONY' SUDDENLY COLLAPSED LIKE A KICKED TENT, SO THAT, BY THE YEAR OF THE DEPEND ADULT UNDERGARMENT, FEWER THAN 10% OF ALL PRIVATE TELEPHONE COMMUNICATIONS UTILIZED ANY VIDEO IMAGE FIBER DATA TRANSFERS OR COINCIDENT PRODUCTS AND SERVICES, THE AVERAGE U.S. PHONE USER DECIDING THAT S/HE ACTUALLY PREFERRED THE RETROGRADE OLD LOWTECH BELL ERA VOICE ONLY TELEPHONIC INTERFACE AFTER ALL, A PREFERENTIAL ABOUT FACE THAT COST A GOOD MANY PRECIPITANT VIDEO TELEPHONY RELATED ENTREPRENEURS THEIR SHIRTS, PLUS DESTABILIZING TWO HIGHLY RESPECTED MUTUAL FUNDS THAT HAD GROUNDFLOORED HEAVILY IN VIDEO PHONE TECHNOLOGY, AND VERY NEARLY WIPING OUT THE MARYLAND STATE EMPLOYEES' RETIREMENT SYSTEM'S FREDDIE MAC FUND, A FUND WHOSE ADMINISTRATOR'S MISTRESS'S BROTHER HAD BEEN AN ALMOST MANICALLY PRECIPITANT VIDEO PHONE TECHNOLOGY ENTREPRENEUR . . . AND BUT SO WHY THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT BACK TO GOOD OLD VOICEONLY TELEPHONING?
posted by troybob at 3:39 PM on May 25, 2006


....And Neuromancer.....

Kids: "best American novel of the last 25 years. "


Gibson was born in South Carolina in '48, dodging the draft in '68 by relocating to Canada according to wikipedia. So he was born and bred stateside.

Far be it from me to decide if draft dodging exludes him from writing American novels, however.
posted by Sparx at 4:00 PM on May 25, 2006


kids, speed (-reading) kills.
posted by gorgor_balabala at 4:02 PM on May 25, 2006


Sparx, he's been living in Vancouver for thirty-four years, now, and the book itself is signed off "Vancouver, July 1983". Ondaatje is not a Sri Lanken novelist, is he?
posted by ori at 4:11 PM on May 25, 2006


Faze, I couldn't disagree more but for one point--better novels are generally being written by British and/or Indian and Asian authors living in Britain. Rushdie puts to shame almost any living American novelist. The reasons for this are numerous, but have a lot to do with the "gift" of literacy given by Imperial powers to their swarthier brethren, and how they took it and made it completely their own.

If there's no irony in what your saying, it's ignorant and racist tripe btw.
posted by bardic at 4:13 PM on May 25, 2006


I think of Huck as a story of self-determined freedom, 'lightin' out for the territories,' Confederacy as quite the opposite, a story of a character trapped, quite literally, at the Mississippi's bitter end.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy both. But Twain's humor in Huck Finn is, ultimately, expansive and self-creative — not Dunce's relentlessly satiric diminishment of identity.

Altho' the appearance of Tom at the end of Twain's book is a disaster. And the rafting scene in Life on the Mississippi is a Huck orphan. And isn't The Kid in Blood Meridian and Ignatius J. Reilly just later versions of a disillusioned Huck, devoured by the American Nightmare? But what does that make the Invisible Man? Jim with a record player?
posted by Haruspex at 4:13 PM on May 25, 2006


White men are incredibly good at writing, and I suspect that if -- a hundred years from now -- white men are at the bottom of the world's social structure, and white men are picking through the garbage dumps for the scraps from the tables of the non-white ruling class, that white men will still write the best novels -- unless they are segregated out of the game, as major league baseball and the NBA once segregated the best players of their games out of contention.

White people are "good" at writing novels because it's an artform created and promulgated by white people. "White culture"--mostly Anglo, but most of Western Europe to some extent--has been writing, reading and consuming novels for several hundred years--most of the rest of world's cultures have not.
posted by maxreax at 4:20 PM on May 25, 2006


I was trying to find the text of Leslie Fiedler's "Come Back to the Raft A'gin, Huck Honey," a seminal work of criticism on American literature and culture, but found this essay with Fiedler instead, including his take on which American novelists wills stand the test of time, taken down shorty before he died. Interesting stuff all around.
posted by bardic at 4:21 PM on May 25, 2006


White people are "good" at writing novels because it's an artform created and promulgated by white people.

Hm. I was under the impression that The Tale of Genji was the first novel.
posted by solid-one-love at 4:25 PM on May 25, 2006


maxreax, I agree with up to this: most of the rest of world's cultures have not

I'd argue that the best, or at least the most innovative novels, of the last half-century are written or have been written by people between cultures. The novel itself, as a genre, is a dominant form in almost any literature culture today. However, it no longer "belongs" to any nationality or race, much to the chagrin of rightist culture warriors. That's the central bone I have to pick with Faze's comments.
posted by bardic at 4:30 PM on May 25, 2006


Cool. Now I can happily continue to ignore American literature.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:31 PM on May 25, 2006


Much as I hate that 'winning the thread' thing, bardic is, in the sense he's just made me think about Moby Dick in a new light. And calling out Faze for edging horribly close to being a racist (though I'll take that back if some of the mess of italics I took to be his words were quotes from upthread).

Updike wrote the best poem ever.

No, fool, Eliot wrote the best poem ever, The Waste Land. By which I mean threads like these are doomed to be a 'your x sucks'-fest, for the most part. And also that The Waste Land is the best poem ever, and I shall fight with fists anyone who disagrees.
posted by jack_mo at 4:39 PM on May 25, 2006


Tweak: you are one clever person.You post a comment in keeping with what is nearly always a conservative's response: venom,rancor and name calling. Go to time out corner.
posted by Postroad at 4:53 PM on May 25, 2006


...or to the white house...rove's departure left kind of a vacuum...
posted by troybob at 5:01 PM on May 25, 2006


If a best of list gets people talking about literature, thats good enough for me.

I thought Russell Banks should have placed on the list and was surprised he didn't.

White Noise is brilliant, but I found Underworld very parochial.

is it just me, but is the best fiction for the last 25 years in English written outside of the US? By a long shot. Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Alice Munro, Kazuhiro Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, J.M. Coetzee, Mark Behr-- any of these would place a book ahead of Morrison, in my book, that is.
posted by Rumple at 5:02 PM on May 25, 2006


but is the best fiction for the last 25 years in English written outside of the US?

No argument here. Same is true for poetry, even moreso.
posted by bardic at 5:08 PM on May 25, 2006


Ori: I don't know? Is Rushdie an American Novelist as that's where he lives now? Or Indian, where he was born and lived until his 20s? Or Pakistani where he lived after an English education ? Or British where he started out? Is Shalimar the Clown an American Novel and Midnight's Children a British one?

Can you only write an American novel if you've only ever written in America? To be honest, I don't know, but it's an interesting question.
posted by Sparx at 5:13 PM on May 25, 2006


Can someone please explain the infatuation with Toni Morrison? Seriously!
posted by shoepal at 5:58 PM EST on May 25


She's black.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 6:20 PM on May 25, 2006


Pynchon not mentioned by the NYT? Just confirms my opinion of that paper. Vineland and Mason & Dixon were truly excellent. I'm eagerly awaiting his next book.

I haven't taken on Infinite Jest but did enjoy The Broom of the System.
posted by A dead Quaker at 6:39 PM on May 25, 2006


Does it bother anyone that several of these books were written/published more than 25 years ago? They can't follow their own rules?
posted by kcalder at 7:04 PM on May 25, 2006


Life-Expectancy of Bestsellers Plummets, Finds Study. Concept of cannon is shot. Post-moderinism eats its self.

The best "list of" are the sales stats on Amazon.
posted by stbalbach at 7:21 PM on May 25, 2006


Thanks Mean Mr. Bucket. I appreciate the candor.
posted by shoepal at 8:08 PM on May 25, 2006


Thanks for the Fiedler link, bardic.

Every time I feel tempted to say that "so-and-so will last," I find myself remembering a late-Victorian book review that confidently announced how Mrs. Humphry Ward would be remembered when George Eliot was forgotten.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:32 PM on May 25, 2006


Delillo, Roth, Updike? Why not throw Irving in there and complete that All-American tetrad of tedious, dick-obsessed crap hats?

And the fact that they fudge the twenty-five year thing so as to get all those precious Rabbit books in there, while giving no love whatsoever to frickin' Pynchon... goddamn, what a load of infuriating hooey.

I don't like A Confederacy of Dunces either.
Just sayin', is all.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 8:49 PM on May 25, 2006


V
posted by Bixby23 at 9:14 PM on May 25, 2006


I've read a decent amount of Roth in the past year or so (four books, I think, which is decent relative to his massive output) and my affection for him decreases with every one. Portnoy's Complaint is fucking brilliant, but he's been mining the same territory ever since, and it's getting old, Philip. The Plot Against America? The last third of that book was a spectacular disappointment, and its place on that list at all makes me feel like folks voted for Roth because they didn't know what else to do.

I have Edward P. Jones' The Known World sitting on my bedroom floor, waiting to be read. I've loved every short story of his I've read.

I know this might be an unpopular position, but I kind of secretly thought that Bonfire of the Vanities was fantastic. That book is the New York I know, even today. Not that everything Tom Wolfe writes is good - his last novel was a trainwreck, but still.

I'm also kind of surprised that Franzen's The Corrections garnered not more than a single vote. I personally found it overrated, but I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I thought it came out accompanied by all kinds of fanfare and Great American Novel pronouncements?

Oh, and where is Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex?

As for British authors out-writing American ones of late, I can't agree more. Zadie Smith (remember, folks: Zadie's barely thirty; I think she's got plenty up her sleeve yet), Kazuo Ishiguro, David Mitchell, Monica Ali, Ian McEwan, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (if you haven't read any of her stories, you should), Nadeem Aslam, and so on and so forth.
posted by anjamu at 10:14 PM on May 25, 2006


I don't like A Confederacy of Dunces either.
I'd like to chime in on that one. I gave up about halfway in, and I have no interest in picking it up again.
posted by anjamu at 10:16 PM on May 25, 2006


I'd really like to read more Roth--Portnoy's Complaint is hilarious, and Goodbye Columbus is too, but poignant as well. (Having gone to a private college not far from big bad Ohio State made me wonder why it wasn't mandatory reading for both schools.)

Neat thread though. And I'll fling one more totally subjective opinion--I couldn't stand Middlesex. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but it was just grasping to be so damn clever that I couldn't make headway. And I like fidgety, gadgety novels, but I need someone to thoroughly convince me that Eugenides is worth taking on again.

Of course, I'm on a big sci-fi and Russian history kick right now, and I'm not sure if I'll ever come out of it. And I've actually been meaning to pick up A Million Little Pieces--I might be a masochist, but I've been told it was pretty good. I can leave it out next to the bargain-bin copies of Kid A I use as drink coasters.

Final random thought--Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes (1968). Incredibly dark--begins with the alcoholic narrator having a heart-attack. But kind of amazing too.
posted by bardic at 10:46 PM on May 25, 2006


Postroad: I assume you'll check back because you can't avoid making a comment about Bush in a thread that has NOTHING TO FUCKING DUE WITH NATIONAL AMERICAN POLITICS. GIVE IT A REST FOR THE LOVE OF ALLAH YOU CRUSTY PERVERTED OLD MAN. Nobody cares that your only interests are getting your old wang hard jerking off about how much you hate neocons and how you like girls 40 years younger than you in skimpy outfits. Go get some sunlight you fucking dork. If there were a way for me to flag comments as retarded I would patiently take the time to flag everything you've ever written on this website.

Yours Ever. Tweak.
posted by tweak at 11:14 PM on May 25, 2006


omg I got so upset I phonetically replaced 'do' with 'due.' Almost never happens. I have bene semi-trolled.
posted by tweak at 11:14 PM on May 25, 2006


I wouldn't say semi.
posted by furiousthought at 11:25 PM on May 25, 2006


I have Edward P. Jones' The Known World sitting on my bedroom floor, waiting to be read. I've loved every short story of his I've read.

Read it. Right now. Seriously.
posted by maxreax at 11:33 PM on May 25, 2006


I've read surprisingly few of these. What is it with Philip Roth, anyway? I read The Human Stain and The Plot Against America and they were good, but I didn't think they were... y'know, that good.

Really loved Beloved though. One of the few books I've read in one sitting.

(As to the side discussion on Infinite Jest: HAAATE. With the fire of a thousand suns. And I like long books.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:53 PM on May 25, 2006


The last time they did this, in 1965, Invisible Man won. Black people are better novelists, end of story.

The real question: are black women better than black men? We have yet to determine the winner from for the whole half decade! Ellison v. Morrison... I'm gonna have to go with Ralph.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:41 AM on May 26, 2006


...half century. Sigh.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:43 AM on May 26, 2006


Ellison v. Morrison

No contest, anotherpanacea. Morrison isn't even in the running. Ellison is an actual writer, fit to stand with the best of the white male writers. Morrison, with her crude, unmusical, unreadable prose, doesn't even qualify as folk art.
posted by Faze at 6:40 AM on May 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


You folks have to be kidding about Rule of the Bone. That book was dreadful; laughably bad. I felt like I was watching a TV show or movie where adults clearly decorated the kid's room--Banks central character was in no way believable as a contemporary kid.

I loved it. I don't know many teenage kids, so I'm willing to believe you're right. But I don't care. While I was reading it, I had no desire to read a portrait of a real teenage kid. What mattered to me was that the novel was true to itself -- if it set something up in chapter one, it carried it through to chapter ten -- featured evocative language, and contained human truths.

By "human truths," I simply mean that characters got sad when sad things happened to them and were happy when good things happened to them. THAT'S the sort of "mirror up to nature" that I demand. Other than that, I don't care how "pulled from life" a novel is. I'm happy to accept books like "Bone" as sci-fi novels -- or parallel world novels -- in which the author creates is own Earth-LIKE planet, with his own idea of teenagers on it. As long as he's truthful to his own creations; as long as his psychology is accurate.
posted by grumblebee at 6:49 AM on May 26, 2006


No contest, anotherpanacea. Morrison isn't even in the running. Ellison is an actual writer, fit to stand with the best of the white male writers. Morrison, with her crude, unmusical, unreadable prose, doesn't even qualify as folk art.

Now I'm starting to doubt that you've read any Morrison at all. There are many valid criticisms of Morrison's work, but "crude, unmusical [and] unreadable" aren't any of them.
posted by maxreax at 8:30 AM on May 26, 2006


Let's just say the desert is an impulse.
posted by xod at 9:36 AM on May 26, 2006


Unsurprisingly, The Ax by Donald E. Westlake isn't on there. Which is pretty fucking sad.
posted by Football Bat at 7:39 PM on May 26, 2006


what bardic said
posted by celerystick at 10:08 PM on May 26, 2006


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