Thursday, May 11, 2006


There's nothing like some good old fashioned rage at the literary establishment to get a girl's blood pumping on a gray Thursday morning:

Early this year, the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

According to those surveyed, the winner is Toni Morrison's Beloved. Hooray, I guess. What a huge surprise. But that's pretty much the last time a woman writer appears on the extended list. Out of 4 runners up and 17 "Books That Also Received Multiple Votes," Philip Roth is cited 6 times, Don Delillo cited 3 times and Cormac McCarthy twice (for a total of 4 books - including a trilogy). There's also John Updike and Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson et al, but the only other woman is Marilynne Robinson for Housekeeping, a "book that also received multiple votes."

Aside from this tally being pretty disgusting (but - blah blah - not surprising), a good question is, why bother? WHAT IS THE POINT of choosing one book that is the very best out of the countless numbers published in the last 25 years?

A.O. Scott has some interesting things to say about that in the accompanying essay, but he also never stops to wonder about the lack of women on the list, though he does note the lack of young(er) writers. He's usually one of my favorite critics, partly because he is so damn smart and versatile - he's the film critic, and he writes for the Book Review all the time! He was on book leave, writing, it turns out, a book about the American novel! But come on. I don't understand why people do surveys about things with such obvious and terribly boring results.

For the record, the judges consisted of 38 women and 86 men. I don't necessarily think that more women judges would have meant more women as "winners," but I do want to 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 that group came up with. Not that anything as simplistic as "balance" is the goal here anyway.

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