Wednesday, November 24, 2021

NY Times Book Review, WHY WHY WHY.

The NY Times Book Review, celebrating its 125th birthday, decided it would be fun to try to choose the best book of the last 125 years. Now, this kind of thing is a total fool's errand, as readers of this blog surely know, especially if you saw Anthony Tommasini's quixotic effort to choose the top 25 (or something) Western classical composers. He excluded every composer before a certain period for reasons that amounted to "I know these composers and my fellow reviewers know these composers and so do musicologists but the average classical music lover has never heard of Dufay, Machaut, or Josquin so fuck everyone born before Bach except maybe Monteverdi."

Okay, I'll take a deep breath and get off that particular hobby horse, especially with Tommasini stepping down from the position of chief classical music critic of the Times. He did get a book out of it, so bully for him. Or something.

ANYWAY. The Times's methodology oh my god had readers nominating books back in October. Today they've got a list of 25 out for people to vote on. And it is just awful, in about 27 different ways. Okay, fewer than that, but bad enough.

Let's start with some statistics. Twenty-five books, of which 7 are by women. Twenty-five books, of which 6 were published before 1950 and the earliest were published in the 1920s. Twenty-five books, of which 7 were published in the last 25 years. Twenty-five books, of which 17 were written by U.S. writers. (I have omitted Nabokov from those 17 because, you know. He is a man of unclassifiable nationality.) Twenty-five books, of which 3 were written by non-white people. (I'm counting Garcia Marquez as white here.) Twenty-five books, and I think only One Hundred Years of Solitude was written in a language other than English.

Let's include a few books that just. don't. belong. on. this. list. Top of the heap, the hideously racist Gone with the Wind. Second, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, which isn't a particularly good book! Third, The Catcher in the Rye. DOES ANYONE REALLY LIKE THIS BOOK? 

Let's go into a few of the missing. First, practically everyone who published in a language other than English! So, no Kawabata, no Mishima, no Tanizaki, no Mann, no Proust, Camus, Grass, Singer,....well, list out your favorites here. No Kristen Lavransdottir, which is so very much better than Gone with the fucking Wind. 

After that, my gosh, no poets, although the nomination process was open to poets and memoirists. So just put every great poet of the last 125 years on your list. Never mind giants like Yeats, Eliot, Bishop, and on and on.

And there's a serious recency issue here. Way too many of the books were written since 1980. Among the missing: James, Wharton, Cather, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Conrad, Woolfe. 

Leaving aside the recency issue, no Rushdie! No Lessing! Nothing by any number of great writers.

As I said, it's a fool's errand, and the Times shouldn't be doing this. They could have moderated the utter stupidity of the list they wound up with by, say, inserting themselves between the votes of nostalgia-ridden former teenaged boys and the final list. Or, even better, asking a whole bunch of outstanding living writers and critics to name their views of the best books of the last 125 years and publishing those as opinion pieces.


Deborah said...


Sacto OperaFan said...

Seems "Catcher in the Rye" is a favorite of adolescent boys. I personally found it depressing, but many of my friends loved it and still do.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sacto OperaFan, hence "They could have moderated the utter stupidity of the list they wound up with by, say, inserting themselves between the votes of nostalgia-ridden former teenaged boys and the final list. "

Vajra said...

I glanced at it yesterday and was appalled. However, I would no longer include Lessing on my personal list of greats, where she once resided. I tried to reread a couple of the novels this year and was really disappointed. Muriel Spark, however, continues to shine.

Alan Frank said...

Catcher in the Rye is the most banned book in the U.S., so Salinger must have been doing something right.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I read some Lessing many years ago. Could not get into "The Golden Notebook" but did like her s.f. somewhat.

Alan, welcome. :-)

astrodreamer said...

Leaving other considerations aside, So how did you cast your three votes?

Lisa Hirsch said...

I did not vote.

David Bratman said...

You asked "Does anyone really like" Catcher in the Rye? Hence the replies that some do. Not me, certainly; I found it terribly whiny. But my nephew named his son Holden.

Harry Potter #1 may not be one of the great novels, but it's an impressively sprightly children's book, very good of its kind. The sequels not so much.

Factual correction to the list: The Fellowship of the Ring is only 1/3 of a 3-volume book.

Sacto OperaFan said...

I have read the Harry Potter series and probably won't again. There really isn't too much going on other than what is on the page.

That said, I am glad Potter was written: it got children (and their parents) to read again and it made a one time welfare receiving mother very wealthy and she is very public about it. Rowling has said that without the social net, she would not have made it. A message I hope isn't forgotten the next time they want to cut assistance to the poor.