Thursday, May 11, 2006

Oprah again confirmed as cultural bellwether

The New York Times Book Review has named, based on a poll of 125 notable authors and critics (although really: what the hell is Curtis Sittenfeld doing on that list?), Toni Morrison's Beloved as the best American work of fiction published in the last twenty-five years. Beloved received fifteen votes, which, as Times critic A.O. Scott points out, doesn't sound like much until you consider the thousands of eligible titles. (Upon reflection, it still doesn't sound like much.)

Now, one camp of children's literature enthusiasts is probably going to carp that no children's books are among the twenty or so (Updike's Rabbit books and McCarthy's Border Trilogy are counted as single titles) that received more than one vote (again, this exercise gets limper and limper the more one thinks about it). Not me. I certainly haven't done enough reading of adult books of the last twenty-five years to fairly judge the field, but I have read the children's books of that timespan, and I would be hard put to think of a title that belongs on that top-twenty list. Maybe one: Holes.

P.S. Blogger spellchecker weighs in: it wants me to replace Morrison with moroseness.

14 comments:

Gregory K. said...

"Moroseness" is an improvement over early Word spellcheckers that suggested "moron" as a replacement for Morrison. Older IBM mainframe spellcheckers obviously didn't think much of me, as they suggested I replace my own last name with "Panics."

Melinda said...

Man, you forgot His Dark Materials. Totally trumps Holes. And if you disagree, I'll arm-wrestle you over it. Or get into an intellectual debate, whatever.

Actually, on my bookshelf, Pullman's one book over from Beloved. (The Brothers Karamozov separates the two.) How about that?

llemma said...

I could easily get behind Holes as the best children's book of the last twenty-five years. (Though, yes, a silly exercise; the NYT methodology points to not so much a preference for Beloved as a Beloved camp and a much larger but more divided neurotic-white-guys camp.) I love children's literature as much as or more than the other sort, but even that book doesn't quite hold up in the company of Beloved and them, though, does it? I can't imagine somebody with the capacity to read both getting more out of Holes.

Roger Sutton said...

When we talked about this question in the office a couple of the editors suggested His Dark Materials, but it's/they're not American. I think llemma is right about Holes lacking the density of Beloved; on the other hand, Beloved has more than its share of wind.

Bruce Black said...

Why are we still so wrapped up in the need to elect "the best" book... as if writing books is a popularity contest? Nothing against Beloved or Holes. They're wonderful books, and Morrison and Sachar are terrific authors. But to nominate any title as the single "best" title is to diminish the insights and work of hundreds of other excellent writers. Each writer contributes a unique view of the world. Is one view "better" than another? Or the "best"? If you take fifty books written by fifty equally gifted writers... could you really say one book is the best? Our time is better served discussing what these books have to say about the human experience... and the way in which the authors have chosen to tell their stories... and less time worrying about which book outranks another. In the end such rankings are more about our own egos (and the adults who value such things) than about the merits of the books themselves.

Jane said...

HOLES? You have GOT to be kidding. It's occasionally funny and manipulative in its plotline. And more than once I wanted to whap all those kids up the side of the head. Not to mention the pratfall villains.

What about TUCK EVERLASTING or SARAH PLAIN & TALL (maybe they are too old.) What about DESPERAUX or even Godhelpus THE GIVER? What about THE MADWIFE'S APPRENTICE or my favorite, CATHERINE CALLED BIRDIE?

Jane

Jane said...

HOLES? You have GOT to be kidding. It's occasionally funny and manipulative in its plotline. And more than once I wanted to whap all those kids up the side of the head. Not to mention the pratfall villains.

What about TUCK EVERLASTING or SARAH PLAIN & TALL (maybe they are too old.) What about DESPERAUX or even Godhelpus THE GIVER? What about THE MADWIFE'S APPRENTICE or my favorite, CATHERINE CALLED BIRDIE?

Jane

mapletree7 said...

I definitely want your vote.

Elizabeth said...

First, let's review the Times' rules. Fiction published in the last 25 years by an American author. That means Sarah Plain and Tall IS eligible, at least for our conversation, and Tuck Everlasting (and Bridge to Terabithia) are not. In fact, how did Updike's 4 Rabbit novels become runners-up when only two were written in the last 25 years? But I digress...

The Times' list did get me thinking about how many of our most acclaimed children's novels are not necessarily our most groundbreaking or ambitious, (whereas a lot on the adult list were fairly "style heavy") but that's another conversation. My nomination for "best" American children's novel of the last 25 years, or one that could most rightly take its place with those on the Times list, is One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox.

Melinda said...

Shoot! That American thing zipped right past me.

Roger Sutton said...

Hey Jane--THE MADWIFE'S APPRENTICE. Is that by Margaret Atwood? Too bad she's Canadian. ;-)

And Bruce--of course such contests and debates are subjective and not even logical, but they help extend the discussion of literature as a whole. You can't always talk book by book, and once you're talking more than one, comparisons inevitably arise. As James English writes in The Economy of Prestige, awards only have legitimacy when people are fighting about them.

Elaw, the Updike books were considered as an integrated series, and two (I think) were published in the specified timespan. I'm with you on the superiority of One-Eyed Cat, but I don't think it's claimed a place in the canon--either critical or popular--that would get it on the list. A.O. Scott discusses this problem in his accompanying essay. NB: Fox was one of the judges.

Roger Sutton said...

P.S. I feel bad about my Curtis Sittenfeld crack. Prep is an excellent book: a lot of our YA writers could learn something from it about creating a fully dimensioned narrator. It's just, like, where's the gravitas?

rindawriter said...

I'm GREATLY enjoying reading the discussion here...enlivens my thinking day up quite a bit...thanks all..
I'm out of my realm of books I cherish, though, as clearly, PB are not involved at all here as possibilities...

KT Horning said...

Though there are many great children's books out there, including some that have been written this year, I'd vote for "Holes," too. It's accessible to younger readers, yet it has enough complexity to hold the attention of most adults (except, apparently, for Jane).

As for another mangling of the afore-mentioned title, I once had a kid ask me for a Newbery book called "The Midwife's Appetite." Now that sounds like a book you could sink your teeth into!