Wednesday, May 24, 2006

What the Best American Novels Tell Us.

Last Sunday, the New York Times Book Review published the results of its contest for the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. The jury was made of 140 writers, critics, editors and other literary sages and they were given no list to choose from. And the winner is… Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) (now a classic and a staple of the college literary curriculum) followed by the following works:

Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997), Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985), Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels by John Updike (1995), American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997).

This is for novels but it is also worth noting that the most often mentioned American novelist is Philip Roth. What is more interesting that this list, however, is the analysis of A. O. SCOTT in his essay In Search of the Best, also published in the Sunday Book Review. Scott begins by asking the expected questions:

What do we mean, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalization, by "American"? Or, in the age of James Frey, reality television and phantom W.M.D.'s, what do we mean by "fiction"? And if we know what American fiction is, then what do we mean by "best"?

– questions to which there is no definite answer of course.

Also, as might be expected, A. Scott underlines the anxiety of American writers reflected in their "perpetual doubt of the coherence and adequacy of American literature". As a result, the jurors have not necessarily chosen the novels they liked best but those that have the most attribute of American fiction. In other words, this list is not so much about the books themselves but rather about our time and culture. That’s what I personally enjoy the most about literature – it is not that it is about universal themes (love, hate, death…), it is also, and in my opinion more interestingly, that it is about our culture and the way we represent it.

According to Scott, this latest survey has one dominant concern: the recovery of the past - especially the more recent past. By looking not only at Beloved but also at the top five titles in the survey you discover “how heavily the past lies on the minds of contemporary writers and literary opinion makers.”. This obsession for the past is also made obvious by the choice of Philip’s Roth novels and precisely, "the Roth whose primary concern is the past - the elegiac, summarizing, conservative Roth - is preferred over his more aesthetically radical, restless, present-minded doppelgänger by a narrow but decisive margin."

Scott also concludes that "this concern with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia is primarily the work of a single generation". He even ventures to say that it reveals that "the baby boom, long ascendant in popular culture and increasingly so in politics and business, has not produced a great novel."

I am not enough of literary buff to have any opinion worth giving you, but I find Scott’s essay quite challenging as it opens new doors to our understanding of this day and age - an age he calls “retrospective”. It even seems to me that a parallel could be drawn with European and particularly French literature which has, of late, often explored the questions of (national) identity and origins.

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