Some thoughts on the New York Times “best American fiction” discussion:
In my view, a lot of what the NYT discussion group said was valid and interesting, and thus part of a useful exercise, but in many ways the discussion also seemed inbred and stunted, or oblivious. First, through no fault of the members of the discussion group, the narrow makeup of that group reflected the narrow makeup of the polled group, and then who could be surprised that the discussion would revolve largely around those writers featured prominently in the poll, even if partly in dissent? The main problem with the poll, as has been widely remarked, was the set-up, which the discussion group itself reflected, even as they to some extent pointed out some of the flaws in the set-up…lending an underlying bizarre flavor to the entire discussion.
Beyond that, “American” (that is U.S.) economic and social and cultural influence is so expansive that it is in significant ways strange to think of American fiction as being confined to U.S. citizens/residents (or, that is, _set apart from_ a lot of fiction abroad), let alone the small nonrepresentative group involved in the poll and the discussion both. There were many calls, rhetorical at least, from citizens of countries all around the world for the right to vote in the most recent U.S. presidential election because the quite accurate view is that what the U.S. does has often a significant or even profound and decisive impact on conditions abroad, which cannot help but include and affect literary production as well.
So think of what might have been added to the discussion if a literary figure like Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy had been involved:
Arundhati Roy with Amy Goodman at Democracy Now:
AMY GOODMAN: “I want to ask in our last 30 seconds: the role you see of the artist in a time of war?”
ARUNDHATI ROY: “Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, you know, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight, you know? But in a country like India, I’m not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists, you know? It’s all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.”
There are also a number of U.S. literary figures who make similar observations about the state of U.S. literature. During these past decades of nonstop U.S. covert and overt military action, with U.S. military installations in something like 150 countries around the globe, and hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers also spread around the globe, and U.S. weaponry even more pervasive, what are we to make of this statement by Ron Jacobs?: “Not since Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  has there been a novel for the US market that so clearly addressed war from an oppositional viewpoint.” This may be something of an overstatement but the underlying deficient reality, it seems to me, is enormously telling. Something akin to a “medieval beheading” is evident in a variety of ways in U.S. literature, in the NYT poll, and in the discussion itself.
As I’ve commented elsewhere: “In a time of state aggression and state terrorism and non-state terrorism; in a time of nuclear proliferation; in an increasingly perilous time of environmental catastrophes, those arrived and those impending, it’s long since time for skilled novelists…to get up to speed in these areas not least” in a modern and contemporary society/culture that bears more than a little resemblance, it’s surely not too difficult to imagine, to a “Good German” culture of the Nazi era…:
Am I asking the NYT poll and discussion to do something it was not designed to do? Yes, absolutely. And, no, not at all.
This post and more thoughts of my own and others: here.