The Best Work of American Fiction In the Last 25 Years

Posted on May 12, 2006

The New York Time Book Review and a panel of judges have named Toni Morrison's Beloved as the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years. The runner up was Underworld by Don DeLillo.

In an lengthy essay, critic A.O. Scott discusses the difficulties of chooses the best novel written in the last 25 years.

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." The results - in some respects quite surprising, in others not at all - provide a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details.

And as interesting, in some cases, for the reasoning behind the choices as for the choices themselves. Tanenhaus's request, simple and innocuous enough at first glance, turned out in many cases to be downright treacherous. It certainly provoked a lot of other questions in response, both overt and implicit. "What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose?" Gertrude Stein once asked, and the question "what is the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?" invites a similar scrutiny of basic categories and assumptions. Nothing is as simple as it looks. What do we mean, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalization, by "American"? Or, in the age of James Frey, reality television and phantom W.M.D.'s, what do we mean by "fiction"? And if we know what American fiction is, then what do we mean by "best"?

The essay goes on in this vein for quite a while longer, agonizing over the choices, pondering the state of fiction today etc. After all that, it's amazing they even came up with a winner. Scott also looks ahead to selecting another best work in 2030.

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