DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. What is the single greatest work of American fiction published in the last 25 years? That question was recently posed to 200 of the world's greatest novelists, editors and critics. One hundred and twenty-four of them responded, and their choices appear in tomorrow's New York Times Book Review. The editor of that section of the paper is Sam Tanenhaus. He's here with me in the studio. Drum roll, please.
(Soundbite of drum roll)
Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, New York Times Book Review): It is Beloved by Toni Morrison, published in 1987.
ELLIOTT: And how many of the people who answered your letter picked this book?
Mr. TANENHAUS: Fifteen, which may not sound like a lot until you keep in mind that you're talking about 124 people who were given no list to choose from. Any book that crossed their minds, and we got some very interesting selections, and others did very well.
We actually identified four runners-up: Don DeLillo's Underworld, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels, and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. And I urge listeners to look at A.O. Scott, Tony Scott's brilliant essay - I call it the Kinsey Report - that analyzes and interprets all the data. We showed him everything.
ELLIOTT: Now this comes along with...
Mr. TANENHAUS: Along with it, and he explains what the survey really means, what he thinks it means. One way of crunching the numbers, and lets be honestly vulgar about what many consider a crass exercise, if you put together Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Morrison and McCarthy, you have something, as novelists -because I'm gonna get to another point soon - you have either half or more than half the total votes, which is quite extraordinary, again, when you consider the range of fiction.
The real winner, some would say, is not Toni Morrison. Beloved is the winner as a single work of fiction. It's Philip Roth as an American novelist. No fewer than six of his novels received multiple votes. So one way to read this survey is to say, maybe we don't have a great American novel, but we may have a great American novelist.
ELLIOTT: Now when you asked people to make these votes, did you give them any sort of criteria, anything to use as a jumping off point?
Mr. TANENHAUS: No, that's what made it so tough. We got a letter from a very famous American writer who said, if you had asked me to choose the greatest work between the years 1915 and 1940, I could rattle some titles off for you. He said, but it's a lot harder since 1980. And I replied to him, and I said, that's the point.
Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, because, and now we get into some of the meta-story here, what this survey is really about is looking at the state of contemporary American fiction. There's been a sense for a generation now that it's harder to define what constitutes a really permanent work in the literature.
Our survey actually is based on an earlier one the old New York Herald Tribune did in 1965. That's where we got the idea, because I remember as a kid reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. If you remember that paperback, there's a line on it somewhere that says, I'm paraphrasing, Chosen by X number of American writers, novelists, critics, editors, as the most distinguished work of fiction published since World War II. So we thought, okay, let's try it again and see what we get.
ELLIOTT: Now, given the results that you got, is there something there that tells you what about these books makes a great American novel?
Mr. TANENHAUS: This is what's extraordinary about A.O. Scott's essay. He actually finds points of convergence among these very different novels, and I'm so persuaded by what he wrote that I'm just gonna parrot some of it to you, because it also happens to accord with my sense of it as well.
He noticed a couple of things. If you look at the idea of the great American novel, which, a term that came up more than century ago, this concept of it, what it appears to require is a novel that assumes, as Tony Scott puts it so well, a large cultural burden. In other words, people didn't necessarily vote for the novel they liked the most. They voted for the one that they think has the most attributes of great fiction. And great American fiction seems to want to address the culture in some way.
And now if you look at where we stand culturally, because the important thing to remember about a survey like this is, it's not only about the books that are chosen, it's about the moment in which they're chosen. 1965 was a key moment in American culture, American politics and economics for the race question. And Ralph Ellison, who wrote an extraordinary work, extraordinary on many levels, is the one who seemed to universalize that issue. So now you look back 40 years later and you see Toni Morrison wrote a novel that tries, in a way, to reconstitute American history so that the question of slavery is more central to it.
ELLIOTT: Let's remind people now about Beloved. It's the story of a former slave and how she struggles with a daughter that had died during slavery.
TANENHAUS: That's right. It's a reexamination of American history from many vantage points. And what becomes central to it is the burden of the legacy of slavery told through, you know, some multiple voices. What's interesting about that is if you have the job I do, editing the book review, and see all the titles, all the books come in in different areas, including history - I've written a lot of history myself - slavery remains the most pressing question.
There are new books right now reexamining, reevaluating slavery. And so what Morrison did was to say, in effect, if you're going to have a truly expansive, inclusive American literature, and if American fiction now as the country begins to feel older - and that's the other element we're getting at - is that America doesn't feel like a youthful country so much anymore as a kind of old empire, or maybe ascending empire or declining empire, nobody knows.
Then the original question of slavery becomes more and more important to our identity. What kind of democracy are we? Have we deluded ourselves about the kind of people we are? What stories didn't we tell? She got onto that question in a very challenging way. And that's why hers is the novel, as A.O. Scott points out in his essay, that has entered the canon. Which used to say, if you're an undergraduate in college and you take an American Civ or American Lit course, you're gonna read Beloved.
ELLIOTT: Is there one person you think should have made the list and did not?
TANENHAUS: I thought The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen would be a top contender. And it wasn't. That really surprised me, because it's a wonderful novel. It captures the moment. My own theory about that novel is although it was published just before September 11th, that it's actually the great September 11th novel. And he did something very ambitious in the American grain that we're talking about. It does have a sense of history. It does have a sense of geography of the largeness of the country and the complexities of generational familial problems. There's a kind of fraughtness and richness to it. And yet, although we had many younger jurors participating, they weren't choosing it.
ELLIOTT: You know, something A.O. Scott pointed out in his essay that was interesting was the age of these writers.
TANENHAUS: Isn't that amazing?
ELLIOTT: Yeah, they were all born in 1930s.
TANANHAUS: Yeah. That's right.
ELLIOTT: What does that, you know, say, that most of these writers are in their 70s now?
TANENHAUS: It's fascinating, isn't it? It seems to indicate that that particular generation had a very large sense of literary ambition, that they thought the novel could do anything. And they are the inheritors, I think, of the great modernist tradition. That's the tradition of Joyce and Faulkner and Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. They came along enough later that they could absorb those influences without feeling intimidated by them.
And let me throw one more factoid into this. You know the 1930s is the decade that did not produce an American president. There are presidents born in the 1920s. Jimmy Carter and George Bush I believe are both born in 1924. And we've had presidents from the 1940's, born in the '40s, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. No president born in the 1930s. Now without - we grant that all this is just, you know, like a pot-smoking speculation.
That may have been a decade that internalized it's ambition, whose great figures were actually men and women pounding out novels on typewriters instead of being leaders. Why? They are the products of the silent generation. Remember, they were born in the '30s but they came of age in the '50's. And we all know what the '50s were like or were supposed to be like. Supposed to be a time of conformism and quietude. Those are obstacles that seem to feed the imagination, because if you're living in an era of placidity, maybe the way you rebel against it is by writing that very ambitious literary work.
ELLIOTT: Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the Times Book Review. Thanks for coming in.
TANENHAUS: It was my pleasure.
ELLIOTT: For a link to the complete results of the best American novel survey, go to our website npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.