Writing about Slate writing about the Times writing about recent fiction

The New York Times conducted a survey to determine the best American fiction of the last 25 years (register irony). Beloved was the top selection, Roth had six books make the short list, and what would have been my pick had I been given a vote (Blood Meridian) scored an Honorable Mention. I miss Mason & Dixon. For a more extensive discussion of the list, see Jim's blog.

Slate critic Meghan O'Rourke argues against a perceived big-book bias; when she finally offers some short works worthy of consideration, however, she does something odd:

"Among the ones I'd begin by nominating for our parallel tradition are, in addition to Housekeeping, Denis Johnson's Angels (Philip Roth called it "a small masterpiece"), James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, Edmund White's Forgetting Elena, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and (going further back), Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. When it comes to celebrating the American novel, thinking big is only a form of being small-minded."

Only one of these works is from the last 25 years (Johnson's Angels); the rest (not just Winesburg, Ohio) are out of the scope of the Times' list. I understand she's setting up an alternate tradition, but if the point of the piece is a critique of the Times' survey, then shouldn't she have offered a list of books that were eligible but not included? As it is, she seems to prove the validity of the list's bias.


At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Clay said...

You know, you could have substituted "recent writing" for "recent fiction." Might just give the title that little, extra "writing."

At 12:55 PM, Blogger ErrantDigeratus said...

Always substantive, Clay.

Steve pointed out that none of the "top five" writers were under 60. What do you think of that? I have my opinions (I'm unmoved, actually), but I'm curious about yours.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger hanged lone loon said...

I have various, somewhat contradictory, analyses of the situation, some combination of which probably isn't far off. I'm not terribly moved either.

It's not like we're talking about physicists here; writers often do their best work late (granted often after producing staggering but flawed first books), so it makes sense that many of the authors on the list have been around.

The preponderance of oldsters could be seen, at least partially, as a byproduct of the form of the survey: only established figures were given a vote, it usually takes time to become established, and their tastes might correspond to the fashions of a few decades ago. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, allowing the choice of only one book likely biased the survey toward works that have been widely and consistently recognized or authors who have had careers of note.

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