Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Toni Morrison's Beloved Tops Poll of Best American Fiction

The best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?

(drum roll, please ...)

The winner: Toni Morrison's Beloved, according to a poll of 200 prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary types, conducted by The New York Times. The rest of the Top 5, in descending order, are Don DeLillo's Underworld, John Updike's compendium Rabbit Angstrom, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Philip Roth's American Pastoral.

A few observations and thoughts related to the poll, according to A.O. Scott's essay:

"One best-selling author ... reflected on the poverty of our current literary situation by wondering what the poll might have looked like in 1940, with Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald ..."

"Late-20th-century American Lit comprises a bustling menagerie, like Noah's ark or the island of Dr. Moreau, where modernist and postmodernists consort with fabulists and realists, ghost stories commingle with domestic dramas, and historical pageantry mutates into metafiction."

And what kinds of books stand out from the pack, suggesting real potential for durability?

"...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 epoch, communities, of the nation itself. America is not only their setting, but also their subject."

All of authors in the Top 5 were born between 1931 (Morrison) and 1936 (DeLillo). The books by Morrison and McCarthy share "a vision of the past as an alien realm of extremity, in which human relations are stripped to the bare essentials of brutality and tenderness, vengeance and honor."

And the works by the other three authors on the list "are variations on the same novel, a decades-spaning tale rooted in the old cities of the Eastern Seaboard," according to Scott.

A final tidbit: If the poll had asked for the single best fiction writer over the past 25 years, Roth would have won -- seven of his books racked up 21 votes.

Among the other books receiving multiple votes: John Kennedy Toole's comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, DeLillo's White Noise and Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From. And no Mailer?

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