Thursday, January 01, 2009

Best American fiction of the past 25 years

Here's an interesting list of the top 25 best American novels of the past 25 years, as selected by a couple of hundred people in the literary business.

Beloved Toni Morrison (1987)

Underworld Don DeLillo (1997)
Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy(1985)
Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels John Updike
Rabbit at Rest(1990)
Rabbit Is Rich(1981)
Rabbit Redux(1971)
Rabbit, Run(1960)
American Pastoral Philip Roth (1997)

A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole (1980)
Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson (1980)
Winter's Tale Mark Helprin 1983)
White Noise Don DeLillo (1985)
The Counterlife Philip Roth (1986)
Libra Don DeLillo (1988)
Where I'm Calling From Raymond Carver (1988)
The Things They Carried Tim O'Brien (1990)
Mating Norman Rush (1991)
Jesus' Son Denis Johnson (1992)
Operation Shylock Philip Roth (1993)
Independence Day Richard Ford (1995)
Sabbath's Theater Philip Roth (1995)
Border Trilogy Cormac McCarthy (1999)
Cities of the Plain(1998)
The Crossing(1994)
All the Pretty Horses(1992)
The Human Stain Philip Roth (2000)
The Known World Edward P. Jones (2003)
The Plot Against America Philip Roth (2004)

Apart from the winner, it is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white. Now I'm not interested in polls (or competitions) that feel compelled to include women or black writers just for the sake of balance, and I think that this list is probably a fair reflection of the best of the best known writing in the US in the past 25 years. But doesn't that suggest a problem? I would suggest there must be other writers in the US who are producing equally good work, but they cannot break through into the cabal of old, white men led by Roth and Updike and McCarthy. They are not becoming well known.

It's an important point, because it feels to me that current American literature is not reflecting current American culture, nor is it leading it, in the way that my old mate Kurt Vonnegut insisted it must.

It is also noteworthy how few books have come from the 2000s. This, I would suggest, is related to the previous point: no matter how fine late period Roth is, for example, there is still a stasis in American fiction that will not be remedied until it allows some fresh blood to flow into its veins.

Step forward, for example, Percival Everett.


Alex Keegan said...

Oh Dear!

I have most of these, have finished very few.

I presume that speaks of ME!


Tom Conoboy said...

Or of American literature in the past 25 years. To be honest, it doesn't feel a terribly strong list. I'm not sure how many of them will still be around in another 25 years, or 100 years.

One that isn't on there but I thought might be is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which I detest. I'd be interested in your opinions on that one, Alex.

Alex Keegan said...

Not read it Tom.

Don't have it.

Will look it out.