Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Great American Novelists

Sam Tannenhaus of the New York Times did a survey to find the best American novel of the last 25 years. The results are here.

A. O. Scott discusses the results in this article. One quote stands out:
In some ways, the mode of fiction McCarthy and Morrison practice is less historical than pre-historical. It does not involve the reconstruction of earlier times - the collisions between real and invented characters, the finicky attention to manners, customs and habits of speech - that usually defines the genre. But to look again at the top five titles in the survey is to discover just how heavily the past lies on the minds of contemporary writers and literary opinion makers. To the extent that the novel can say something about where we are and where we are going, the American novel at present chooses to do so above all by examining where we started and how we got here.

I wonder if he meant to echo Orwell from 1984?

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
Serious question. Because Scott admits that these novels do not really care about the history. They just use a fictional hitorical setting to play out their modern obsessions.

Missing from the list is Tom Wolfe. That is no surprise. Wolfe does not win literary prizes and is despised by many of the biggest names in the literary pantheon. (Check out "My Three Stooges" in Hooking Up). But Wolfe has this going for him: if the mark of greatness is having something to say about "where we are and where we are going", he trumps everybody on the list. Does anyone in Denver look up from her Sunday paper and say "this sounds just like a John Updike novel"? How many people turn on the cable news programs and think "Is Philip Roth scripting this"? Yet from Tawana Brawley to the Duke Lacrosse case, Tom Wolfe scouted the territory before anyone else.

By the way, Wolfe gave the 2006 Jefferson Lecture. RTWT here. It is too good to summarize or excerpt.

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