Loading the Canon of the Last 25 Years

Lest you see the New York Times list of “Best Works of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” as sharing more in common with Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Rock Albums Ever,” than the books it purports to survey – A.O. Scott made sure to leave us with a long rumination on the topic that we shouldn’t confuse the two. Where a Rolling Stone Best Of list is full of spontaneous energy and risk taking, the NY Times makes a list as solemn as it is predictable. Still, one cannot ignore that both periodicals write lists and that both lists are geared towards promoting canon. In Rolling Stone’s case, frequently that canon is being generated through the list itself (Kanye West’s inclusion on a Greatest Music Ever list the year of his first release points to this). The NY Time’s list is more a gesture and nod towards convention. There are no surprises on the list – merely confirmations.
Yet, as a young Jewish writer, certain questions arose as I read the list. Primarily is an instinctive need to question the canon of the NY Times. Philip Roth is, of course, well represented. I am as much in awe of his writing as anyone else. I found “I Married a Communist,” “American Pastoral,” and “Operation Shylock” to be brilliant novels. I even found “The Plot Against America” thought-provoking and shocking, despite my peer’s dismissal of it. Nonetheless, it is my peer’s dismissal that forces me to reevaluate the list. They tended to find the book boring. Some called it a relic of a disappearing vision of American Judaism. They said it was tedious and inconsequential to the realities of today.
The “Plot Against America” appears on the list. As does “The Human Stain,” “Sabbath’s Theater,” “Operation Shylock,” “The Counterlife,” and “American Pastoral.” Does the Jewish contribution to the canon of the last 25 years really only include Philip Roth? The Rolling Stone list included dozens of Beatles’s albums, and people demanded that some be dropped to include other musical acts. Perhaps we should ask the same here. Can Roth spare some of the room on the list for other writers? Younger writers? Writers with different visions of Judaism?
This is not just a question of some editors on a lark. Looking over the list of voters show us exactly who did the voting. A cursory read on my part shows Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Jonathon Safron Foer, Jonathon Lephem, and Ben Marcus. I am not the only one surprised by the lack of younger authors on the list. Even Scott himself questions the trend:

Is this quantitative evidence for the decline of American letters – yet another casualty of the 60’s? Or is the American literary establishment the last redoubt of elder-worship in a culture mad for youth? In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers – by which I mean writers under 50 – were mentioned.

He answers, in a note that strikes me as condescending, that the list is a “sorting out the past, which may be its way of clearing ground for the literature of the future,” and that “all you aspiring hippogriff breeders out there: 2030 is just around the corner. Get to work.”
Still, I don’t want to collapse two distinctive, yet overlapping, rants. On one hand, there is my personal shock at seeing a dearth of young authors on the list – one that ostensibly speaks for the canon of modern literature. On the other is my dismay at seeing Philip Roth being the summation of Jewish literature of the last twenty-five years. In some places those two rants coincide – such as in Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”
As young (youthful?) Jewish (Jewishish?) adults on this website – well-read, literate, and thoughtful – let me pose this question to the readers, as I did to myself. If we were asked today to write a list of the most important Jewish books of the last twenty-five, would we be caught muttering Philip Roth to ourselves, no other choices to be discussed? When, and if, we are dissatisfied with the canon, we have every right to present our own. Philip Roth is great, and belongs on the list, but let’s give him only a couple spots and fill the remaining ones with others. I wonder how a list born out of active creation, and not a response to the cultural trends of institution, would read.

13 thoughts on “Loading the Canon of the Last 25 Years

  1. Your peers who dismissed The Plot Against America should get busy reading Mearsheimer and Walt, not to mention their advocates like Cole.

  2. Roth deserves to be on the list — and book for book, clearly blew away the top pick, Beloved. But Updike’s Rabbit books?
    I suspect the same cast of characters would have cast different votes if they were writing for a publication that they didn’t see as hide-bound and irrelevant as, well, Rolling Stone.

  3. “Does the Jewish contribution to the canon of the last 25 years really only include Philip Roth?”
    I don’t think they were thinking “Let’s put in X number of Jewish books” and then filled all those slots with Roth. It just happens that Roth has written some of the most profound and entertaining works of American literature of the past 25 years. But yes, they probably overdid the Roth focus. For Jews, I would include others too — including Stephen Dixon’s “Frog,” which, regardless of the author’s religion (I don’t know if he’s Jewish), is a fascinating Jewish story. And Gary Shteyngart and Francine Prose.
    As far as youth goes, they do have young authors — or authors who were young when they wrote the respective book (e.g. John Kennedy Toole). It just took time before people realized how amazing the works were. I think the same will happen with contemporary writers.

  4. I have to say that I have been pondering a similar question for many years – aren’t there any good young Jewish writers? It’s a two-sided question, with one side being about writers for whom “Jewish” is just a reflection of how they grew up – that’s the side I would expect to see reflected in the Times, and which might have included something by Cynthia Ozick or, certainly, I would have hoped, “Kavalier and Clay”.
    And then there are the writers whose work actively reflects what living Jewishly or being Jewish means, and I’m not sure I’ve read any in years that spoke to me and my own Jewish identity. I’m not sure I’ve read many in the last 25 years that seemed like good fiction, either. But this paragraph opens up a whole different discussion.

  5. I’m not being captious, I just can’t figure out what this post is talking about. In what sense whatever does this list implicate “the canon of modern literature?” From what I understand, the list reflects a compilation of responses by a couple of hundred prominent authors and editors, not to the question of what belongs in the canon, but to the identity of the single “best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.”
    I’d agree that the question is shitty; given its failure to have respondents select at least several books for inclusion, there’s simply no way it could produce a list that’s anything other than narrow and parochial. But if that’s the case, why not just say so? Where does the question suggest anything about Jewish literature, much less that Philip Roth is its summation? And even if, for arguments sake, this list did represent someone’s notion of the canon, why should I care about the age of the authors included therein? If you want to promote the work of young writers, go right ahead, but what’s remotely shocking about their absence from this list as it stands?
    Also, could someone please, PLEASE, explain what is meant by a “list born out of active creation, and not a response to the cultural trends of institution?” No matter how long I look at the words, I cannot figure out what that sentence means.

  6. wait wait i’ll stop for now if you clarify one thing…were you suggesting that cole krawitz is an advocate for the mearshimer/walsh paper, or were you referring to juan cole? if it’s the latter i’ll stop fucking with you.

  7. Such compelling editorial content. “I eat my own poo?” Sheesh Dan, what are we, in nursery school?? Cuz personally I prefer paste to poo, but to each their own.

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