What a Contrast
Clothed With Power

Contemporary American Fiction

Recently A. O. Scott wrote a great piece on contemporary American fiction for the New York Times. It was prompted by the Book Review polling various literary figures asking them to determine the great American novel of the last 25 years.

As was guaranteed, the request brought lots of agonizing responses and analysis of the meanings of the terms in the question. And it brought agonizing comparisons with similar periods in American lit past.

The five winning books were:
5) American Pastoral by Philip Roth
4) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
3) "Rabbit Angstrom" the one volume compilation of the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, though only two were actually published within this 25 year period
2) Underworld by Don DeLillo
1) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Scott then goes into a really nicely done analysis of these books and what they might have in common that compels us to rank them high. He is not surprised by Beloved and says that no one should be, since it is the one novel from this period that has so quickly and clearly become canonical. Almost all of these books are reflections upon our past, which is quite interesting.

Also of note is how diverse the voting was. It only took 15 votes to win. There is great diversity of opinion currently in American letters as to what is the best. Philip Roth was clearly considered the greatest writer, with more of his novels receiving votes than any other author, which also meant that votes for Roth were spread out.

One interesting point is this:

So the top five American novels are concerned with history, with origins, to some extent with nostalgia. They are also the work of a single generation. DeLillo, born in 1936, is the youngest of the five leading authors. The others were born within two years of one another: Morrison in 1931, Updike in 1932, Roth and McCarthy in 1933.

Scott notes that the Baby Boomers haven't produced great writers. Almost all the great writers currently living were born in the Roosevelt era or before. Only Marilynne Robinson and Tim O'Brien (Baby Boomers) received votes. This is unlike previous periods in American lit. The last time a vote like this was taken, in 1965, almost all the authors on the list were under fifty.

Also surprising is that none of the vibrant work of the younger generations made the list -- Franzen, Wallace, Chabon, etc.

Read this essay, it is quite good. And I've love to sit and drink wine and discuss its conclusions, if anyone is interested.

Comments

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mary casey

when you gonna come see my new apartment?!

Anita Highley

Scott it has been a long time since we have made contact with each other. I want you to know I am thinking of you and praying for all good things to come your way. I am sorry it has taken so long to contact you. Just know that I love and support you no matter what. I know we have grown up and now have very busy lives but if you ever need to talk I am here.
My Duncan turned 2 years old this March just after our 32nd birthday. I think I told you he is very much like me in more ways than I want to admit (his temper is awful). It must be because we share the same sign. He talks, sings, and everything he puts in his hand automatically becomes a gun or car and of course he makes the sounds to go along with. I see so much through his eyes that I never noticed before. I am thankful that God saw fit to send him my way.

I hope to hear from you.

Love,
Anita

Charlie

Hi Scott, I just blogged about the same esssay on my page. I enjoyed the essay, but the story on NPR about this story was also very insightful. Not sure if you can listen to it on NPR, but if so, it might be a nice companion piece to this story!

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