More on the NYT “best of” American fiction list

A note I posted on a thread at The Valve:

It seems to me too that the NYT list exercise is in many ways absurd and seriously deficient — does that need to be pointed out? Despite some accomplished works on the list, it fails to provide even a glancing overview of the vital works of contemporary American fiction, or even much insight into what might be more truly representative of or understood as “the best” — singly, let alone, variously, defined.

Considering “the best” might not be the most fruitful way to go, but if one wants to seriously consider standards of high excellence it might not be terrible if the exercise were thoughtfully constructed. So, “the best” according to some 100+ literary figures who know one particular literary figure, or viewed much more broadly, in ways both more representative and eccentric? And “the best” culturally? intellectually? emotionally? ethically? aesthetically? (defined how?), the best in effect? or in execution? or in conception? or…?

It may be that a “best” list exercise can’t be done in a way that does justice to the value of literature. Considering which novels or short fiction may be exceptionally vital, in many ways defined, seems more fruitful and appropriate. But even then one would want much fuller contextualization of the selected works and their relation to other valuable works that don’t measure greatly or at all on any such list.

Evidently, the NYT list is the result of an exercise (by connected establishment figures) with no serious thought to design and understanding. Though there are some strong works on the list, the exercise is in many ways an embarrassment, not least given its obvious limits coupled to its grandiose claim. Should people take it seriously, it seems to me that it would be destructive to literature and culture, as it fails to highlight much of the most valuable writing, let alone the diverse “best,” and a lot of the otherwise vital and lively work being produced.

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