Naming The Best, For No Good Reason
One of the quotable bits of wisdom from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is that what matters is “what you like, not what you are like.” It’s a hard thing to deny. People's favorites say a lot about who they are, and so if you’re someone who cares about art and music and books, it’s pretty much impossible not to use these as a basis for connection.
As a serious New York Times junkie, I’ve been spending way too much time analyzing the results of the paper’s query about the best American work of fiction of the last 25 years, which appeared, with much fanfare, in the May 21 issue of the Book Review. Even understanding the incredible significance of people's preferences when it comes to these things, I’m at odds with the urge -- exemplified by the Times here, but observable all over the place -- to formally identify a few choice, “best” examples for some collective “we” to appreciate. I guess the logic is that if we can all agree on the best movie of the past fifty years, or the top ten records, or the next manufactured pop star, these will stand as common ground for a culture largely lacking in it. Maybe the hope is that anointing the best of a particular medium will encourage a sense of community. But I doubt it’s as conscious as that.
Though this incessant public listing probably has to do with some very particular quirks of Americana, I wonder if it might also be attributable to laziness on the part of editors and critics. There’s something terribly depressing about this dedication of energy and column inches to “Best Of” lists, to this asking of fairly meaningless questions that surprise almost no one and explain almost nothing, instead of, say, to reviewing books that don’t have an audience yet. Since the former often comes at the cost of the latter, these lists have consequences beyond the further acclaim heaped on the recognized writers.
This isn’t to say that the writers on the list don’t deserve the praise, though “most deserving” is an even more useless superlative than “best.” “Best” is an empty word. While it has universal qualities, or at least universal ambitions, it is too easily claimed to mean much. An online teaser for the Times article claimed that the answers to the “Best” question “may surprise you.” All that was surprising was the lack of imagination on display.
Except that can’t be true. All 124 judges were recognizable names, writers like Michael Cunningham, Dave Eggers, A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore, to pick a handful that I happen to like. There’s obviously a surplus of creativity among these folks; they just didn’t bother to apply it here. The unspoken consensus seems to have been that this was not an appropriate place for imagination. Instead, this was an opportunity to think about big themes, and a time to contemplate the deep meaning of literature. Not a moment for blasphemy.
So Toni Morrison “won” for Beloved. Out of four runners up and seventeen “Books That Also Received Multiple Votes,” Philip Roth was cited six times, Don Delillo three times, and Cormac McCarthy twice (for a total of four books -- including a trilogy). John Updike, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson et al made appearances. The only woman on the list besides Morrison was Marilynne Robinson, for Housekeeping, a “book that also received multiple votes.” It is the only book on the long-list that the Times didn’t review when it was first published.
For the record, 38 of the judges were women, and 86 were men. It’s not that more women judges would necessarily have meant more women on the list, but let me just point out that 38 to 86 is not any kind of balance, even if it looks a lot like it when compared to the results the group came up with. Not that anything as simplistic as “balance” is the goal.
The predictable absence of women is actually just about the least interesting thing here. I’m much more interested in the motivations behind the votes that led to such boring results. What’s the point of asking a question like this if everyone knows the answer beforehand? It’s clear that these votes were as much a consequence of what each of these writers thought they should say as they are a record of what they most wanted to say. The Times list is concerned with influence, and what the results really point to are the themes and forms these writers were willing to go on record as believing to be important.
Maybe this exercise is supposed to contain lessons about community, or conclusions about cultural values and tastes. Mainly what it does is confirm that we want there to be some. It’s tempting to identify a symbol, especially when it’s as simple as a paperback we can pick up for ten bucks or borrow from the library, and believe that what we see reflected back is what matters. People want something to believe in, and maybe the page seems a more honest format than others. This is a burden well suited for fiction -- with so many possibilities and practitioners -- to bear. The mistake lies in thinking that there’s value in choosing just one work to do it all, or to do it all “best.”