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America loves its lists. There's the Billboard Top 40; David Letterman's nightly Top 10s; and VH1's 100 One Hit Wonders and 40 Most Awesomely Bad #1 Songs... Ever. But institutions with more serious cultural ambitions are susceptible to obsessive ranking as well. The end of the 20th century brought us the American Film Institute's Top 100 films and the Modern Library's 100 greatest English-language novels.
Last month, The New York Times jumped on the bandwagon, announcing the best works of fiction of the past quarter century. The Times arrived at its list by asking hundreds of writers and critics to nominate the single best work of American fiction in the last 25 years. Of these hundreds, 124 responded. The published list included the top five works ranked in order, followed by a listing of all the books that received multiple votes.
Toni Morrison's Beloved was the victor, garnering 15 votes, followed by Don DeLillo's Underworld (11), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom (8) and Philip Roth's American Pastoral (7). Aside from Morrison, Roth was the big winner, racking up a total of 21 votes for seven different novels.
In an essay accompanying the list, A.O. Scott explained the rationale behind the list, but also acknowledged why many potential voters declined to participate.
"More common was the worry that our innocent inquiry, by feeding the deplorable modern mania for ranking, list-making and fabricated competition, would not only distract from the serious business of literature but, worse, subject it to damaging trivialization. To consecrate one work as the best - or even to establish a short list of near-bests - would be to risk the implication that no one need bother with the rest, and thus betray the cause of reading."
Then Scott explained why this deplorable trend was, nonetheless, worth pursuing.
Yet one might argue that the Times list is the most deplorable of all. The Billboard Top 40 is a sales chart. It doesn't claim to represent the best music, just the most purchased. You can debate whether VH1's lists are a cause or effect of a culture obsessed with rankings and whether such a development is productive, but their approach to list-making is unabashedly ironic; if you take them too seriously, the joke is on you. Not so with a list that purports to report - and influence - true standards of excellence.
And there are disturbing elements to the Times list. A.O. Scott makes much of Beloved's victory, noting its profound investigation of race in America. But this self-congratulation about multicultural and social awareness is a bit disingenuous. Of the 22 novels that received multiple votes, only one other - Edward P. Jones's The Known World - is by an African-American. Just as striking, only one other is by a woman: Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. In addition, of the 124 respondents to the poll, only a third were female.
Despite all of this, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that my favorites did quite well. I've written about three of the books - Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Don DeLillo's White Noise (which would have gotten my vote) - on these very pages. Aside from those, McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Raymond Carver's anthology of stories Where I'm Calling From would be near the top of my best-of. Nor would I quibble with the other Roth selections.
Indeed, I was unsure whether to ignore this difficult list on principle or critique it while noting where it resonated. In the end I chose the latter, though for selfish reasons, perhaps. A list of the top 10 articles about the Times ranking is likely being assembled somewhere. Here's hoping that the gods of caprice consider my humble submission favorably.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.