canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Reflections on Reading and Ranking

by Michael Bryson

In May 2006, The New York Times published a feature that attempted to answer the question: "What is the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years?" The Times had asked 125 prominent literary figures to pick a single novel published between 1980 and 2005 that they held in the highest regard. The novel with the most votes was Toni Morrison's Beloved. Others short-listed were Underworld by Don DeLillo, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, the four novels of the "Rabbit" series, Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike, and American Pastoral by Philip Roth.

Most interesting to me was the moderated on-line conversation the newspaper hosted from May 22-26 between two novelists and two critics. The moderator was Gregory Cowles, an editor with the NYT Book Review. The novelists were Michael Cunningham and Jane Smiley. The critics were Stephen Metcalf and Morris Dickstein.

What was interesting about it?

Well, let's begin with the notion of that every list includes not just what's on it, but what's left off. In an essay that introduced the list, A.O. Scott called the results of survey "a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of self-portrait as interesting for its blind spots and distortions as for its details." 

Looking at the list, however, one is not aware of the blind spots and distortions unless one is aware of the blind spots and distortions (i.e., to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you don't know what you don't know). Which is the first reason why the moderated conversation is invaluable; it illuminates the blind spots and interrogates the idea and process of list-making in the first place.

For example, of the 22 titles on the long-list, only two were written by women. One of those titles was the "winner." The other was Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1980), which the newspaper wryly notes "was not reviewed" upon publication.

Now no one is suggesting that a "Best of..." list has an obligation to be sociologically representative; however, two out of 22 is without a doubt a "distortion." Can anyone imagine a similar list reviewing Canadian fiction of the past 25 years yielding a similar result? A CanLit list is more likely to be tilted in the opposite direction, featuring Atwood and Munro dominating the field. So what's going on in the USA? The moderated conversation teased out some interesting possible answers.

I found Jane Smiley's contribution particularly instructive (insofar as she said things outside the boundaries of what I would have expected), even as I found her irritating (perhaps because she took me beyond where I felt comfortable venturing). In the end, I felt as one with Stephen Metcalf, who said: "Jane, we disagree so thoroughly, we're practically soul mates." Though I would have added: "Jane, without you, this trip wouldn't have been worth taking." 


Smiley is the author of many, many books, including 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), an examination of the evolution of the novel through history. Having completed her own survey of the form over a broader period of time and wider context, Smiley was well prepared to discuss the ins-and-outs of the Times' narrower review. First, she asked about the gender composition of the judges (50/50). Then she asked about the gender composition of those who bothered to send in a response (69% male, 31% female). Then she said: 

I had thought of not responding, not playing the game, as it were, so that statistic intrigued me. It does seem to me to be a male game. Here we have the final four, and here we have the champion. Maybe the women novelists who didn't respond did[n't] feel that one novel could be chosen as "best."

Later, she bemoaned the fact that so many female jurors took themselves out of the competition. She also noted a study that reported men read mostly male authors, while women report reading male and female authors about equally. She cited this study as another reason why male authors were more likely to get more votes; because the women authors aren't being read by men. However, no one pointed out that the results of the study could also be used to draw another conclusion. Male readers have their own subjective definition of "best writing," and it doesn't include the work by the authors Smiley considers her peers: female novelists.

Again, no one was suggesting that sociological reading patterns ought to determine definitions of literary quality; however, the clear distinction between male and female authors on this list, and in apparent studies of reading habits, provided the primary background for the discussion that took place. How to define "best writing"? Is it even possible?

No, is the short answer. At least, there was no answer that garnered consensus. A.O. Scott, in his introductory essay, came up with the most plausible definition of enduring literary greatness:

The best works of fiction, according to our tally, appear to be those that successfully assume a burden of cultural importance. They attempt not just the exploration of particular imaginary people and places, but also the illumination of epochs, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject.

Interestingly, both Metcalf and Dickstein said they were certain that Beloved would win -- and they voted strategically with hopes of dethroning it. Metcalf even wrote a stinging essay in Slate outlining his objections to the book: "No other American novel of the past 25 years has so elegantly mapped the psychobiography of its ideal reader." However, Metcalf's salvo seemed only to confirm Scott's argument about what makes a great book great. Beloved is the ideal book for the readers of its period. Metcalf can't critique the book without also critiquing the period (quite legitimately, one might add). 

In other words, while both Metcalf and Dickstein didn't want Beloved to win, they also assumed it would. Why? Because it has, as Smiley noted, "the historical scope that a 'best' or 'most important' novel would have." And this fact is so broadly recognized that jurors opposed to it surmised it would win even before the list was drawn up. As Scott noted:

Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals. With remarkable speed, Beloved has, less than 20 years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic.

Smiley was Beloved's defender in the conversation, and as its advocate she was articulate and forceful. The list, however, had another subtext, one that required her to make a confession and do some homework. 

While Beloved was the survey's clear winner, Philip Roth placed many more books on the long list than any one else. Seven of the 22 were by Roth; DeLillo was second with four titles on the list. Roth may not have written the "best" novel of the period, but as Scott noted, he was clearly the "best writer" as judged by his peers. Smiley, however, confessed she hadn't read a Roth novel since 1969; so she quickly picked up American Pastoral and offered her on-the-go comments (not complimentary).


Which brings us back to this perplexing relationship between book and reader. Why do some readers admire certain creations and not others? Metcalf said it clearly, but all involved in the conversation appeared to agree: "The selections say as much about the selectors as they do about the winners and losers." 

The list that gets made depends on who's making the list, though the participants also seemed to agree that if there was no way to objectively rank titles, there was at least still room for reasoned judgment. Cunningham, for example, told the story of how eight professors at Brooklyn College made a list of their ten favourite books, and "five of the eight of us selected Alice Munro's Open Secrets and four Denis Johnston's Jesus' Son." 

Much more interesting was Smiley's argument about why certain readers respond to certain books:

My first premise about what we like or don't like (or respond to or don't respond to) is that our affinities aren't necessarily reasonable or based in any sort of objective standard of aesthetic quality. They are more on the order of crushes or friendships -- there is something about a novel that is perceived emotionally and that draws us into willingly suspending disbelief or not. Arguing about which novel is best, or even about the virtues and faults of a particular novel is like arguing whether your sister should be dating that guy -- basically, the arguments don't matter while the sister still feels drawn to him.

When I first read this, I thought -- yes, but sometimes (objectively speaking) the sister shouldn't be dating that guy (abuser, molester, all around prick). The second time I read it, I thought, Okay. Add some qualifications and this is a reasonable working premise, though Smiley moves on from it to explain why she "just can't enjoy" The Great Gatsby:

None of the characters or themes or incidents seem to me to be developed -- rather, Fitzgerald seems to me to be talking about them at length, but more as a way of exercising his eloquence than as a way of exploring or revealing the situation -- but really, my reason is a made-up justification of an already formed lack of affinity [emphasis added].

And this was what irritated me about Smiley. She provided a reasonable, objective argument to explain her reaction to Gatsby, and then she undermined her own argument and insisted that her rationality was just covering up the subjectivity of her gut reaction, which must obviously dominate, just as she assumed every other reader must primarily be guided by their gut, no matter what other reason-based explanation they might provide.

The critics of this crew, of course, were having none of this. Metcalf: 

I'm fascinated by how a discussion featuring two prominent novelists hasn't yet talked about aesthetics!! Isn't this what makes our concerns so parochial in time?? In fifty or a hundred years, who will believe we talked race, class, gender, geography, and even autism, before mentioning good writing?

I shared Metcalf's frustration, though was pleasantly surprised at how well these four outlined the issues that abound in contemporary literary culture -- and how respectfully they discussed them.

What I couldn't wrap my head around was Smiley's privileging of subjectivity when she was so clearly more than capable of close reading. Yes, she had a negative gut reaction to reading Roth, for example, but she also provided an in-depth analysis of the weaknesses of American Pastoral. So cogent was her analysis, that Dickstein, who'd voted for Roth's Sabbath's Theatre as the best book of the past quarter-century, was quick to affirm her argument against the Roth novel that landed on the short list. It turned out, he didn't like it much either. (A matter of the gut? Not for him.)

Dickstein, in fact, provided the deepest (best?) analysis of the group. For example:

The most striking feature of the five books on the short list is what they are not: first, as we've already said, they are not small, perfect books like Marilynn Robinson's two novels. But, except for the Updike tetralogy, they're also not large, circumstantial works in the tradition of Balzac, Trollope, Tolstoy, or Dreiser, books that build up a world, brick by brick, and allow us to inhabit it as we're reading. Instead, they're highly metaphorical works, historical parables that are sharply focused and almost meditations drenched in violence and written in white-hot anger. They read more like essences, distillations, than like life itself.

This might be the place to mention that Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man topped a similar list in 1965, and the group seemed to agree that no one in the past forty years had written anything that could top it. Race may be a sociological category, in general, but it is also the dominant subject of America, and Invisible Man is its dominant statement.

Comments about Marilynn Robinson also repeated through the dialogue. Her novel Housekeeping made the long list, but I also got the sense from the group that they thought this novel was gaining in gravity as time went along. For example, Cunningham asserted that "if history is any indication, we can assume that every generation is wrong about its enduring works of art. ... I suspect we're seeing a shift away from the monolithic ur-book toward a more motley assortment of books that bite of smaller bits of the world but chew them more exquisitely." 

On the other hand, Smiley said "the form of the novel has always seemed to alternate (or fail to decide) between 'perfect' and 'abundant.'" She cited Austen and Henry James as examples of the former and Dickens and Zola as examples of the latter.

It was also pointed out that the writers celebrated on this list -- well, only two of them were born after World War II. They're old! Has the "younger generation" (now into their 50s; and so also old!) not written any "great novels"? In response to this question, Cunningham provided a list of books written since the mid-1970s "that strike me as potentially enduring." And Smiley said the whole exercise had missed the point, or at least had missed what had really going on in recently in American letters:

I do not think that the last twenty-five years in the American novel was the era of Roth, Updike, McCarthy, and DeLillo. In my world, the last twenty-five years is the era Virginnia Woolf predicted in "A Room of One's Own" -- the period when women routinely gained a place to be and an education, and put both of these to use and wrote books. In my world, the last twenty-five years is the era of, in no particular order, Valerie Martin, Gish Jen, Susan Cheever, Anne Tyler, E. Annie Proulx, Francine Prose, Alison Lurie, Diane Johnston, Alice McDermott, Geraldine Brooks, Marilynne Robinson, Sue Miller, Linda Hogan, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Sontag, Andrea Barrett, Marianne Wiggins, Joy Williams, Urusla K. LeGuin, Alice Hoffman, Alice Walker, Carol Shields, Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan, Anita Shreve, Joan Didion, Octavia Butler, Ann Beattie, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Lee Smith, Gail Godwin, Ellen Gilchrist, Cynthia Ozick, Mary Gaitskill, myself, and plenty of others I didn't think of in the first five minutes. To me, it's the women, young and old, who have been doing new and interesting things, both large and small, and that's who I've been reading. And when I suggested this to David Lodge at lunch, he agreed.

Well, then. I guess that settles it. (What, no Atwood?)


Stephen Metcalf:

Time purges the past of its irrelevance; so said a wise professor of mine once. In the end, no demographic category matters, on the part of the author or the reader; power relations melt away; what is left is good writing. Nothing rots faster and more conclusively than bad writing. Even a hint of the meretricious will kill it off. If it so happens that a series of bulletins from the over-inflated male ego turn out to best capture the soul of a demented culture, so be it; then Roth will triumph. Or maybe not. Some very smart money is on a book called Housekeeping. Or maybe the heart and patience of posterity will have room for both.

Ha! Well, we'll see....

Michael Bryson writes short stories and edits this website. More on him here.







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