Tuesday, May 30, 2006

On New York Times Top Twenty-Five American Books

I’ve always stayed away from lists such as these primarily because they have always focused only on American Books. This has always struck me as rather stupid and lazy, given that American readers have bean reading Brits and Russians for centuries. Then there’s the painfully obvious fact that the world is smaller now, so much that a list such as this could have included literature of the Americas not just the United States. Then there is the plain ludicrousness (is that a word?) of a list in itself; as if any one great book can truly be placed over another. If I were as lazy a reader as some of us are critics I would have just picked their number one (Beloved) and not read any other.

But lists are also a lot of fun. Nothing starts an argument faster, hence my writing this blog. This list is also more interesting than most since it was made up of a sizable group of writers, not just critics and that fact is in many ways far more interesting than the books themselves. Not saying that the books are bad, some of them are phenomenal, but the list is so predictable that there’s no revelation in store here. I’d wager that not a single reader has stumbled upon an exciting discovery from this list, except for people who don’t you know, read.

But back to my point. Sorta. The list of judges could not be more diverse, and yet the list of books could not be more monolithic, hell more orthodox. Judging from the books at number two down, one is tempted to conclude that the one thing Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Richard Powers and Carlos Fuentes have in common is that they read a whole lotta white men. Straight men too, homosexuals were banished from the list, as were women save for Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson. One could argue that America has always come up short when it came to female novelists (Don’t hate, you know I’m right) but the sheer preponderance of Caucasus Masculinus gives me pause. For these are not just white male writers, but white male writers obsessed with white males, or in the case of Roth white male writers. Roth took seven of the top twenty spots by the way.

What’s disturbing to me is the possible fact that readers are far more sophisticated than writers, or at the very least more diverse. It’s also disturbing to see that perhaps writers are not the best at introducing readers to the breath and depth of American literature. It’s enough to make one wonder what happens in creative writing programs. Then there’s the fact that the highest-ranking writers in the list are now past 70. This to me is kinda sad if not shameful, because these judges are saying several troubling things. 1. Few born after 1945 have written a great book. 2. Toni Morrison is the only Negro living in America. 3. Thomas Pynchon is nowhere as loved as we think. 4. Only foreigners read Southern Literature. 5. Nobody is searching for good books anymore.

Could so many writers and critics really be so isolated by literary exclusivity that they are unaware of Dennis Cooper’s Try? How about Alice Walker’s Color Purple? David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident? Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale? Let me stop there. I realize that I might after all just be bitching about my favourites that did not make the list. But even without pointing fingers, it still troubles me that there were so many writers from so many different backgrounds, orientations and histories and yet somehow they all seem to have the very same idea about what exactly is a good book.