May 11, 2006

The best work of American fiction in the last 25 years.

The NYT says it's "Beloved." As this essay explains, they asked "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages."
A few respondents, not content to state their own preferences, pre-emptively attacked what they assumed would be the thinking of the majority. So we received some explanations of why people were not voting for "Beloved," the expected winner...
We're not shown those explanations though!

176 comments:

Joe said...

A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin. Hands down, no debate.
I did not read Beloved, but they had Underworld in second place which I hated. And I only read one Rabbit novel, also hated it. So by extrapolation, I feel no burning need to run out and get Beloved. They do mention Helprin's Winter's Tale, which was excellent.

Maxine Weiss said...

Mario Puzo, Saul Bellow?

Peace, Maxine

PatCA said...

Cold Mountain has to be in there somewhere!

I loved Morrison's Sula and The Bluest Eye--much more accessible and with some astonishingly beautiful prose--but cannot get through Beloved. Some day...maybe in a seminar setting.

I do think these Best of lists, as in Beloved and Underworld, are meant to be elite--it doesn't hurt if your novel is inaccessible.

John Jenkins said...

Isn't this kind of hopeless, given the biases people have for stuff that's RIGHT NOW as opposed to things they weren't around to experience?

The best analogy I have is a list that ESPN did today on the 10 best point guards in the NBA. Three current players are on the list who probably don't deserve it because they are playing RIGHT NOW. Some books or people become canonical and are always included, and everything else is whatever the best flavor of the day might be.

Simon said...

Truly a damning indictment on American fiction in the last 25 years if true.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Here's the thing. Philip Roth had enough votes to win. But the Roth votes were split between his various books. The Times even admits that is Roth has published an omnibus version (now being done through the Library of America, i think) of his best work, that would have collected the most votes by far. It is obvious that Philip Roth is America's greatest living writer at the present. It is also obvious that Beloved is a very good novel, purely from a stylistic, formalist, technical perspective, and is read in most graduate literature programs for a reason. Does it beat White Noise? Sure. Does it beat anything by John Updike? Sure. There is no way it beats the totality of Philip Roith's work. Then again, there is no way that American Pastoral is better than Operation Shylock, and there is no reason for Cormac McCarthy (who is a hack if ever there was one) to be mentioned in the same breath as Don DeLillo, but that's how the cookie crumbles.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I take that back. It doesnt beat Brazil or Gertrude and Claudius or Toward The End of Time. I apologize to John Updike.

Dave said...

Haven't seen the list but if Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks or Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy ain't on the list then it's a piece of crap. Beloved blew.

Banksand McCarthy are white men, though, and the imperatives of affirmative action require that they not be placed at the top of the list, merit be damned.

dave said...

'inaccessability' (often) = complexity
of a kind that makes meaning that much richer, full of a further resonance and power that can only be equalled by the artfully simple. but simplicity is so much harder that's often beyond the scope of even the best writers.
those of us who have the ability and time to decipher 'complex' will reward that which comes closest to expressing something essentially human. often what's best is a mixture of simplicity and complexity, but we're really searching for eloquence and truth - two things rarely achieved by those without the lofty ambitions that often accompany artistic complexity

dave m. [not the same dave as above]

dave said...

dave m again...

I also think that one major prejudice of these lists is [as admitted by A.O.] in favor of works that engage with something quintessentially 'American'. but I don't need the weight of history in my masterpieces...

Elizabeth said...

Banksand McCarthy are white men, though, and the imperatives of affirmative action require that they not be placed at the top of the list, merit be damned.

Sure. It can't possibly be true that there are at least one or two writers who are more appreciated, and are not white men. It's a given that without PC dogma, white men would top the list.

Or not.

Wade_Garrett said...

Have any of you read the Reader's Manifesto? In my opinion, Roth is the best writer of the past 25 years, Updike's Rabbit series is the best extended body of work. The best single novel? Hard to say. The novel I enjoyed the most was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and the novel that moved me the most was The Things They Carried.

Unfortunately, A River Runs Through It missed the cut-off by a couple of years. That's enjoyable, moving, artistic and thematically complicated. It should be read by everybody!

As for Cormac McCarthy, I must say that I don't quite see what the big deal is. One reason I didn't end up majoring in English, despite the fact that I took a bunch of courses in the major, is that the syllabi for the modern American courses always included too many writers like Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Anne Carson. How many times can you read Blood Meridian? Maybe, when nobody can understand what you're saying, its because you're just going over our heads. Or maybe its just a lot of BS.

Walt said...

My, my. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this list. I guess that is the problem when an organization tries to compile any best of list. Haven't we gotten to a point in our society where we realize that canons are arbitrary.

Something as personal as reading a book will never be reflected in any best of list. When I read a book, I am looking, wanting, expecting certain "things" (notice I use the most ambiguous word in the english language), and when you read a novel, you look for specific things. The quantify and qualify those things and make a rubric applicable is as impossible as creating a psychological experiment, sorry for any psychologists out there, but come on.

Anyway, I noticed nobody suggested any sci-fi - snubbed again.

Dave said...

Elizabeth: my comment about white men at the top of the list was somewhat toungue in cheek.

I actually think Toni Morrison is a talented writer, though I don't find Beloved very interesting.

What I was trying to illustrate is the problem that affirmative action foists on writers like Toni Morrison: if they are ranked number one, people will automatically assume that she has been rnaked number one because of her skin color and not because of her talent as a writer.

This is like the situation a former co-worker of mine, a lawyer, faced. He was a black man, and had been graduated from Harvard Law School. He kept a copy of his undergraduate grades (summa cum laude) and his LSAT score (178 out of 180) to prove to people that, skin color notwithstanding he had the grades/test scores to be at Harvard Law School.

A rather sad commentary, not unlike Morrison's place atop a list of best writers of the past 25 years, of the practice of affirmative action.

jult52 said...

Cormac McCarthy is a hack?? I was reading an otherwise sensible post by Critical Observer and then came to that stunner. Haven't read "Blood Meridian" and thought "The Crossing" was a worthy failure but "All the Pretty Horses" is an amazing book and McCarthy is a great writer simply for that effort.

I agree about the praise for Roth and "Cold Mountain."

Maxine W: The list is for the last 25 years. Bellow's best work date from before 1981.

jult52 said...

Two more comments:

1) I am very happy that Norman Rush's "Mating" was named. No one I know seems to have read this novel; I really enjoyed it and I have remembered bits and pieces of it many times in the decade since I read it.

2) I am a BIG Philip Roth fan and "The Plot Against America," a worthy work, does NOT belong on this list.

Tim Sisk said...

Did you see the article author tagline? "A. O. Scott is a film critic at The Times. He is writing a book on the American novel since World War II."

That Scott sure is a slow writer (60 years to write a book and it still isn't finished!). But I'm sure it will be a great book.




(Yes, I know what was meant. I just expected the clearer writing from the NYT.)

Anna said...

I have also read a Reader's Manifesto, and I am sure that the author of that book is laughing at the Times and the "experts" (or maybe crying? hm...)

Coco said...

"I do think these Best of lists, as in Beloved and Underworld, are meant to be elite--it doesn't hurt if your novel is inaccessible."

But the point of the survey is the BEST fiction...not the Best Most Accessible piece of fiction for people who like to read but don't like challenging writing with complex themes. That would be an intersting survey and worthwhile, but its not the point of THIS survey

Also - I can't fathom how Underworld is inaccesible. Have you read it? The first 50 or so pages are about a baseball game and a boy catching (and trying to keeep) Bobby Thompson's famous "Shot Heard Round the World." Pretty accessible stuff. ALso - wasn't it on top of the Best Seller list for a long long time? Commercially popular and very good writing. So may it would make the other list.

ALso - can't let this one go:
"Banksand McCarthy are white men, though, and the imperatives of affirmative action require that they not be placed at the top of the list, merit be damned. "

First - what myopic rubbish. Second - before you make such unecessary knee-jerk comments, why not take a second to look at the actual article - which pictures 4 white males out of the 5 pictures, and all of the mentioned books, except for 2 are by white males...and yes, McCarthy is listed.

"affirmative action foists on writers like Toni Morrison: if they are ranked number one, people will automatically assume that she has been rnaked number one because of her skin color and not because of her talent as a writer." No - only people who would otherwise doubt that a black woman could be such a good writer would think that.

Henry said...
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Henry said...

I was a little surprised to see Cormac McCarthy on the list. I thought there had been some blowback after all the "new Faulkner" hoohah a decade ago.

His inclusion just points out what a dismally predictable list it is. All the winners have been lionized to exhaustion already. Could not at least one obscure novel have bubbled up to prominence in 25 years?

PatCA said...

Coco,

Your haughty disdain proves my point. Watch out--Ann and her commenters watch trashy reality TV, too!

Smilin' Jack said...

I'd say it's between Updike and Roth...if pressed I'd choose Updike. Choosing Morrison #1 was a joke.

It's interesting that a similar absurdity occurred in the last such poll, in 1965, when Ellison's mediocre "Invisible Man" won over such classics as "Lolita" and "Catch-22."

JLR said...

I would have liked to have seen a list that would have included all the books that got one vote each.

That would have created a much more fascinating list.

jeff said...

I generally don't read fiction unless the word "science" comes before "fiction" in the category.

Coco said...

Coco,

"Your haughty disdain proves my point. Watch out--Ann and her commenters watch trashy reality TV, too!"

No, it proves you didn't read what I actually said. And that you have thin skin (only on this issue). I, like most people, read all kinds of books that I would never even consider as discussing among "the best" fiction but nonetheless thoroughly enjoy them becuase of the story, the theme, the characters, etc. That doesn't mean I disdain those books - hell, I read them after all and recommend many of them.

I watch trashy reality TV too...but I wouldn't complain about a list of the "Best Written TV" shows over the past 25 years that did not include "The Real Housewives of OC" on it as being elitist and inaccessible.

I don't see how there can be a disagreement here...As a fan of jazz music I can compose a list of the 10 best jazz performances ever and NOT include a couple tunes by Harry Connick Jr. on the list without disdaining him or other people who like him... I like him but he ain't no John Coltrane.

"The novel I enjoyed the most was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,"

Second!

Seven Machos said...

Here's the issue: let's say Beloved were written by Philip Roth, or John Updike, or Unknown Non-Minority Male Author. Would it be considered as great?

I've never read Beloved, so I don't know. My suspicion is that it would not, though.

jult52 said...

Well, how about reading the books before commenting then? FYI, I've only read "Sula" from Morrison and I thought it was uneven but in parts very good.

The comment about wanting to see the works which received just one vote is right on. I wonder if that info is accessible anywhere?

37383938393839383938383 said...

Banksand McCarthy are white men, though, and the imperatives of affirmative action require that they not be placed at the top of the list

Affirmative action has nothing to do with it. The same people who laud Beloved will tell you how crappy the rest of Morrison's nonsense is. Banks and McCarthy are minor players, simply put. They are aping the pugilistic style, not actually doing it. DeLillo, Updike, Bellow, Roth, Amis and McEwan, even, though not American, crush them both. Banks and McCarthy are GQ featured short-story writers. Please, sir. If they are mentioned in the same breath as John Grisham, that is affirmative action.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Philip Roth, or John Updike, or Unknown Non-Minority Male Author. Would it be considered as great?

That is a silly question, because Beloved is magical realist. The question is if Rushdie or Marquez or Saramago, say, had written Beloved, would it be celebrated, and the answer is yes. The question isn't whether Toni Morrison is a great author -- she is not -- the question is whether Beloved is a very good book, which it is. Given how the votes worked out, it makes sense that she would win (i.e., Philip Roth's votes being scattered). I will note, however, that John Updike's forays into magical realism have been critically-acclaimed best-sellers.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Ellison's mediocre "Invisible Man" won over such classics as "Lolita" and "Catch-22."

I don't much like reading the Invisible Man, but to pretend it isn't great, i.e., ignore the technical mastery that is apparent, is kind of silly. It is certainly more weighty and American than Catch-22, which is rather European and structurally redundant, and Lolita, well, OFFENDED people. And I love Vlad. Read the critical commentary of the time.

Joe said...

Underworld may have been accessible, but it was meandering and pointless as well.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Cormac McCarthy is a hack?? I was reading an otherwise sensible post by Critical Observer and then came to that stunner.

A good half of his sentences are nonsense: they have no cognizable meaning. If I want nonsense, I'll read Sein and Seit.

Seven Machos said...

I knew I'd get a "you should read the book before commenting on it." That's such tripe.

I don't play football but I talk about what the greatest team of all time is. I've never been to France but I comment on the political situation there. I'm not a soldier but I have my opinions about the Iraq War. People comment on what they don't personally know all the time. That includes everyone here.

I don't think my comment was particularly assertive. I'm just asking: if this book was created by someone else, would that affect its greatness? I suspect that it would, because I suspect that certain very complex issues of race and gender are invested in the assertion that a book by Toni Morrison is a great literary achievement.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I'm just asking: if this book was created by someone else, would that affect its greatness?

I gave you an answer, and the answer was NO. Perhaps you did not understand my answer because you have read neither Beloved nor any books by Rushdie, Marquez, or Saramago, nor do you likely know what magical realist is. Knowledge helps, sir. And I would note, again, that John Updike's Brazil was not on this list, but it was both (a) magical realist and (b) best-seller, i.e., not just elitist, critically-praised fare. Beloved is certainly better than Brazil, and I think Brazil is a wonderful book.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I suspect that certain very complex issues of race and gender are invested in the assertion that a book by Toni Morrison is a great literary achievement.

Not if you are responding to the merits of the book, as opposed to the race or gender of its writer. But you can only respond to the merits if you have read the book.

Seven Machos said...

Critical Observer: I don't care what a magical realist is, and I will never read any books by any of those authors.

Toni Morrison's book Beloved is overrated because she is a female, African-American writer. The merits of the book are inflated BECAUSE OF the ethnicity and gender of the author. These things are intertwined.

It sounds like we agree in substance. Is your opinion somehow more valid than mine, even though it is basically the same?

37383938393839383938383 said...

Is your opinion somehow more valid than mine, even though it is basically the same?

You have an opinion, I have propositions that correspond to facts and judgments that are reasonable and reasonably criticizable in light of them. Your opinion may be valid, though for an opinion to be valid, all you need do is have it. My propositions are sound. I would say that soundness beats validity, but you are free to disagree. Though such disagreemnt would be unreasonable, as many here have attempted to point out to you.

Toni Morrison's book Beloved is overrated because she is a female, African-American writer.

You wouldn't know that without comparing the hype about the book to the merits of the book. You can't know the merits of the book because you haven't read it; thus, you can't compare the hype to the merits; thus, there is no way for you to know that what you are saying is true. Your opinion is worthless.

bill said...

Seven Machos, what's tripe is your analogy.

You don't need to play football to comment on it. But you probably need to watch the games and read about the history of the sport before you offer an opinion on the greatest team.

A movie or theater reviewer doesn't need to be an actor or director, but they need to watch the movie or play.

Want to comment on a CD, you need to listen to it. I can say I don't much care for Madonna, but I can't say her new CD is good or bad unless I've listened to it. I could say I probably won't like it, so why bother.

You could say I think novel B is the best ever and I doubt novel A could top it. You didn't say that.

You have not read the book, but you claim it would not be as highly regarded if written by a white male. Why? It's an interesting statement, please support it with something not approaching random bigotry.

I have not read "Beloved," so I offer no comment. I have read you--"I suspect that certain very complex issues of race and gender are invested in the assertion that a book by Toni Morrison is a great literary achievement"--and feel comfortable stating that you are talking out of your ass.

Seven Machos said...

Come on. My arguments have no "propositions"?

I love sports, so here comes a sports analogy. Let's say you are season-ticket holder for USC football. You watch every game intently. You also happen to have watched a lot of Texas games on TV. At the end of the season, you are concerned about the big showdown with Texas because you think USC might be overrated -- L.A. team, big market, Hollywood glitz, beautiful players, celebrities hanging out, etc.

Me, I'm out here abroad. can't watch football, let alone be at games, and only read ABOUT it on the Internet. I call you before the game. I say, "I think USC is overrated."

Is my opinion less valid than yours?

All of this is merely stupid, by the way. I have suggested that Beloved is overrated because of the author's personal characteristics. Does ANYONE disagree?

37383938393839383938383 said...

I will note that I changed my mind, though. Beloved is, as a matter of technique, better than Brazil, though I enjoyed Brazil more. But I do think Brazil should have been on the list.

37383938393839383938383 said...
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37383938393839383938383 said...

Is my opinion less valid than yours?

Validity does not come in degrees. The point is that you have no reasonable basis for your conclusions, and multiple people have claimed your conclusions are unsound. No, "Beloved" is not overrated because Toni Morrison is a black woman. Toni Morrison's reputation as a novelist is overrated because she is a black woman.

37383938393839383938383 said...

The list was about the best book, not the best author. Clearly, Philip Roth would have won the latter contest, as the New York Times (and I, here) made clear.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Adn, according to you, you don't have an argument; just an opinion. I took your words at face value...you know, the way you should take the merits of Toni Morrison's books!

Seven Machos said...

Wow! I've touched a nerve. Now I'm a racist for observing that others might have favored a book because it is by an African-American. It's distressing to know that we can talk about matters involving race without the ad hominem attacks flying right out of the gate.

Here's a better analogy: Many, many people have branded Clarence Thomas an average jurist who only got his job because of his ethnicity. I would be willing to wager that my critics here may even have had such thoughts. Yet these people have not read his opinions. Or have you? (For the record, I have, and I really like Justice Thomas.)

How about this question: suppose some Philip Roth book had been written by an African-American woman. Do you suppose that it might have been given an affirmative-action boost as a result?

So far, my critics have attacked me as stupid and vapid, and have branded me a racist. No one has answered any of the questions.

37383938393839383938383 said...

How about this question: suppose some Philip Roth book had been written by an African-American woman. Do you suppose that it might have been given an affirmative-action boost as a result?

I have answered all of your questions. I did not call you stupid. No one did. I called you unreasonable. That is true.

Now, your question comes from the other side. You're still wrong. Philip Roth has often claimed that he is indebted to writers like Ralph Ellison, and Ellison, in particular, for their treatment of the individual as an outsider in his own community. So, no, I do not think so. The Invisible Man is a good example of a "Philip Roth" book that was rightly acclaimed for its technical mastery.

bill said...

SM: I called you a bigot. I don't think anyone has called you a racist. There's a huge difference.

I have suggested that Beloved is overrated because of the author's personal characteristics. Does ANYONE disagree?

I agree that is exactly what you have suggested. What we're trying to tell you is that without reading it it's a baseless suggestion. If, by chance, you happened to be correct, you would correct by guessing. Guessing is not an argument.

Seven Machos said...

CriticalObserver: I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that Toni Morrison's book is the beneficiary of affirmative action. You may disagree, but it is a reasonable opinion.

You seem to be approaching literary criticism from a much more technical point of view than I am. My viewpoint is more socio-political. I would note that literary criticism is generally viewed these days with some disdain by those of us outside the circles of literary critics. Perhaps the sort of strident elitism you seem to me to be evincing is one reason why.

Seven Machos said...

bigot: n : a prejudiced person who is intolerant of any opinions differing from his own (Primary definition)

racist: Discrimination or prejudice based on race. (Second definition, more germane here)

Source: dictionary.com

37383938393839383938383 said...
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37383938393839383938383 said...

You seem to be approaching literary criticism from a much more technical point of view than I am.

Yes, logic and facts.

I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that Toni Morrison's book is the beneficiary of affirmative action.

It is unreasonable if you have not read the book in question. By contrast, it is reasonable to suggest that her reputation as a novelist is the beneficiary of affirmative action if you have heard that most of her books suck and are aware of her reputaton as a novelist. One can have an inflated reputation as a novelist and yet manage to write at least one great book; this is true of most "great" authors.

I would note that literary criticism is generally viewed these days with some disdain by those of us outside the circles of literary critics.

While we are in the business of defining things, "literary critics" is not synonymous with "all people who read books before offering opinions on them".

It is true, though, that by that definition, you are not a literary critic.

I would also note that it is not elitist to judge a book only after reading it. That is simply what average Americans who voted for Bush and don't use words like disdain call "common-sense".

Balfegor said...

Not if you are responding to the merits of the book, as opposed to the race or gender of its writer. But you can only respond to the merits if you have read the book.

I have. It is a very tedious book. Was made to read it twice in high school, for two different classes, and was left with the burning desire never to read anything by her again. Characters were flat, stilted. Dialogue and descriptions didn't awaken any sympathetic spark in me. Just words on a page.

Since I am not much impressed with the intrinsic literary worth of the work (equating my own gustibus with literary worth, for the moment - hah!) I imagine there's some other reason standing behind, for all these people to have praised this tedious novel so highly. Given the predilections and prejudices one imagines the reviewers carry around, and the White Guilt one imagines they feel, it doesn't seem unreasonable that they're giving her the nod at least as much because of the oh-so-weighty subject matter as because of any skillful or moving treatment of the same. Her being Black and Female gives her license, in our culture, to comment more freely and more credibly on the subject topics than a White Man might, however much research he did, so there's the leg up there.

In the alternative, it may be that they found the book genuinely moving, perhaps because of their particular cultural perspective. There are certain moments in human history -- American slavery being one, I think -- which look different and have different emotional meaning based on where your "identity" stands with respect to it. For those -- possibly the reviewers here -- whose family histories are tied to slavery in some sense (even merely by having been part of that enslaving society), it may have a deeper resonance with and call up other emotions, which I, at a greater distance, simply don't feel.

In any event, the novel was very blah for me. But I have difficulty thinking of a modern American author I really enjoy (who is not in the SciFi ghetto or something like that). I was going to say Salman Rushdie, only he's British and subcontinental or something, isn't he?

Seven Machos said...

Re: "guessing is not an argument."

What did scientists and philosophers do before the advent of modern science? I would characterize everything of any consequence that Leibniz (1646-1716) ever said about the material world as a "guess." Did he make no "arguments"?

37383938393839383938383 said...

But I have difficulty thinking of a modern American author I really enjoy (who is not in the SciFi ghetto or something like that). I was going to say Salman Rushdie, only he's British and subcontinental or something, isn't he?

One could make the same vague criticisms of Midnight's Children that you just made against Beloved. And your suggestion that former slaves control politics in Oslo is astounding.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I would characterize everything of any consequence that Leibniz (1646-1716) ever said about the material world as a "guess."

Liebniz had an inflated reputation because he was German. But his philosophy, when it comes down to it, was tedious. Maybe if you're German, or a descendant of Germans, you might like it. But I have no idea why he is studied in philosophy courses today.

Yes, this is sarcasm.

Balfegor said...

Oh, she got the Nobel too? Cor. I thought it was just a Pulitzer. Well de gustibus and all that. I won't say it was a rotten book, but it was dull as dust.

Incidentally, I'm not suggesting that slaves control voting anywhere -- I'm suggesting that people who feel some sense of ancestral responsibility are more inclined to vote for works that touch those bits of their memory. This is obviously not the case for Norwegians, but for a lot of the American elite, I think it is.

Re: Leibniz
But his philosophy, when it comes down to it, was tedious.

But it wasn't. That's the thing. And in certain areas (e.g. the calculus), it's kind of foundational in a way that Beloved is not yet.

Seven Machos said...

Person A, a strongly traditonal Christian, has never actually read Genesis, but believes the Adam and Eve story. I would suggest that this is a very high percentage of strongly traditonal Christians. Is this person unreasonable?

Person B, an atheist, has never actually read Origin of the Species, but believes the evolution story. I would suggest that this is a very high percentage of atheists. Is this person unreasonable?

And Critical: thank you for neatly affirming that literary critics are unbearable elitists. Not sure how George W. Bush is germane to the conversation, but you found a way, man! You found a way to insult him and the people who voted for him in a discussion of Beloved. Brilliant, dude!

37383938393839383938383 said...

But [Liebniz] wasn't [tedious]. That's the thing. And in certain areas (e.g. the calculus), it's kind of foundational in a way that Beloved is not yet.

Actually, much of it was a retread of Newton, and the one book he was remembered for when he died was lampooned by Voltaire in Candide. You know, Dr. Pangloss and all that. His reputation was revivified after his death because of a resurgence of German nationalism. I was being sarcastic, but not inaccurate.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Not sure how George W. Bush is germane to the conversation, but you found a way, man! You found a way to insult him and the people who voted for him in a discussion of Beloved.

I am a common American who voted for Bush. You completely misread my comments. The point is that you are a hypocrite: you are an elitist who doesn't even bother to read what he reviews. People like me voted against people like you when we rejected John "phony" Kerry at the polls.

Balfegor said...

Actually, much of it was a retread of Newton.

Oh? I had not known that -- I had thought they were contemporaries who independently arrived at it. But perhaps the Hun has coloured my education.

One could make the same vague criticisms of Midnight's Children that you just made against Beloved.

Well, I could specifically go through, page by page, and enumerate how the characters felt like little puppets the author was forcing to go through the motions, just to finish out the story, etc. etc. How I found the prose-style flat and uninteresting -- prose style, incidentally, is one of the things I like in Rushdie. But I don't see how that would contribute anything useful here. I read it, twice, and neither time did it make any impression on me, other than bo-ring.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Person A, a strongly traditonal Christian, has never actually read Genesis, but believes the Adam and Eve story. I would suggest that this is a very high percentage of strongly traditonal Christians. Is this person unreasonable?

Person B, an atheist, has never actually read Origin of the Species, but believes the evolution story. I would suggest that this is a very high percentage of atheists. Is this person unreasonable?


No. But they would unreasonable if they commented on the literary merits of those works of literature without having read them. They would be more unreasonable if they fought this inescapable conclusion.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Oh? I had not known that -- I had thought they were contemporaries who independently arrived at it. But perhaps the Hun has coloured my education.

You're fudging. They were alive simultaneously, and so contemporaries. But they didn't make their discoveries contemporaneously (at the same moment). If someone (independently) discovers it before you...your discovery is a retread.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I read it, twice, and neither time did it make any impression on me, other than bo-ring.

Lots of people find calculus boring. That doesn't mean calculus lacks value.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: I apologize for the Bush comment. I see that I misread your post.

Seven Machos said...

Person A, a strongly traditonal Christian. I have never read Genesis, but I think it is true and I think it is great because it is the word of God.

Person B, an atheist: I have never read Origin of the Species, but I think it is true and I think it is great because it is the truth of science.

These people are being unreasonable? This is your assertion?

37383938393839383938383 said...

These people are being unreasonable? This is your assertion?

No, "literary merits of fiction" does not equal correspondence to reality. My assertion is you can't glean the literary merits of a work of fiction without experiencing it.

Balfegor said...

If someone (independently) discovers it before you...your discovery is a retread.

This is true in one sense, but if two people independently discover something, and dissemination of that thing is retarded by limited communications technology in that time, I think there's ample reason to regard both independent discoveries as relevant to a history of ideas, and to a history of what ideas came after. But I am not familiar with the history of ideas of that time, and so I have no idea how Newton and Leibniz stand with regard to one another and the calculus -- all I know is what I put up there before: that they were contemporaries, who (allegedly) independently arrived at the calculus.

Lots of people find calculus boring. That doesn't mean calculus lacks value.

Yes, but there is, in its applications to engineering and the sciences, a clear measure of value with which we can support that assessment of value. I mean, one can say, "Calculus is dull. Ergo it lacks value," but an easy answer is to point at a computer, or a CD player, or some other non-dull thing that could not have been achieved without it. Of course, a Luddite may still find the Calculus a boring, and even an immoral thing, having enabled all these loathsome technological developments, but in general, this applicability gives us some reason to think that a hierarchy of value that ranks the calculus high is not entirely out of whack.

What is our support for the metric of value assigned a literary work? I mean, I could propose one, but even the applications of a standard (e.g. "engaging prose style," "well-developed characters," "effective plotting," "makes me feel something," "meaningful thematic development" etc.) are (A) going to be keyed to my personal predilections, which are old-fashioned, and (B) impossible for me to substantiate, in the way that a metric valuing the calculus highly can be substantiated. I might even venture that (C) -- even all these qualities put together still doesn't capture that je ne sais quois that makes a given work great.

As it is, I stated my premise before: My gustibus is my measure of literary value here, and Beloved does not agree with my gustibus. I cannot make some easier claim, such as that it is incompetently written (she's a perfectly competent writer, after all), or that it is morally abhorrent (because it is not). Nor is it incoherent, or disorganised gibberish, or anything of that sort. All I can say is that it is boring. Because it is.

I have heard people complain of Tolkien that he writes page after page after page of expertly rendered prose in a dead language of poetic epics. And that they find him dull for that reason. Well, it is pretty much the same with Morrison and Beloved. Just words on a page.

Balfegor said...

Actually, here's a fun parallel: the slang phrase Zenbei ga naita.

That's kind of what Beloved is for me. Clearly, there are people for whom it is engaging/moving/whatever, but I am not one of those people. I am inclined to attribute it to cultural differences. But maybe it is my heart of blackest coal. I do not know.

37383938393839383938383 said...

But I am not familiar with the history of ideas of that time, and so I have no idea how Newton and Leibniz stand with regard to one another and the calculus

My point, which covered this, was that Leibniz had a crappy reputation during his death and was Lampooned throgoughly by Voltaire in Candide -- Dr. Pangloss and his absurd optimism is a satire of Leibniz. Voltaire was in France, not Germany. His reputaton was resurrected after his death because of German nationalism, whereas most in the Western world credit Newton with discovery of calculus. My claims stand.

Yes, but there is, in its applications to engineering and the sciences, a clear measure of value with which we can support that assessment of value.

Likewise, one can look to mastery of technique, structure, and so on and whether or not Beloved has taught other novelists how better to construct novels, etc. Like I said, it is taught in graduate schools for a reason, and it is not because Morrison is black. Toni Morrison was teaching at Princeton because she knows her stuff, not because she is black. Now, most of her books stink (i.e., most people, including us, find them boring), but that doesn't mean they lack technical mastery.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: I guess I just don't understand. I'm saying that the people who voted gave Toni Morrison's affirmative-action boost because she, the author, is an Afican-American woman. I don't have to have experienced her book to argue this.

Back to sports: if I argue that Larry Bird gets an affirmative-action boost when people rank him as the best player ever (over Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J, and Wilt Chamberlain), is my argument flawed if I have never seen him play? What if I never saw Wilt Chamberlain or Dr. J. play, either? Can I not participate in the discussion until I have watched all of the players? What level of credentials must we mere plebes have to enter your realm and offer an opinion?

Balfegor said...

Now, most of her books stink (i.e., most people, including us, find them boring), but that doesn't mean they lack technical mastery.

I suppose that would fall under my (C) above, then:

even all these qualities put together still doesn't capture that je ne sais quois that makes a given work great.

I rate technical mastery very high, but I don't think it's enough to catapult a competently -- or even an expertly -- written book to the rank of "great."

37383938393839383938383 said...

I'm saying that the people who voted gave Toni Morrison's affirmative-action boost because she, the author, is an Afican-American woman. I don't have to have experienced her book to argue this.

You have no way of knowing this. This is a guess; and has no more creibility than a cow fart.

I would also note that Philip Roth received the most votes. Toni Morrison won because his books were not printed in an omnibus edition. She didn't win on her reputation; on the reputation vote, Roth won (i.e., got more votes).

Smilin' Jack said...

Well, I read as much of "Beloved" as I could stand--about 100 pages--so maybe I'm not qualified to comment on the book as a whole. But when you read that much of Updike or Roth or Bellow there are whole paragraphs you want to memorize, scenes that stay with you forever. Morrison just doesn't have their gift of language or power of expression--all I remember of "Beloved" is wishing I had the time back.

Re calculus: Newton discovered it first and discovered more, but didn't publish anything until pressed by Leibniz's independent work...sort of like Darwin and Wallace. I highly recommend Gleick's short biography of Newton. And unlike scientific discoveries, a boring work of fiction can have no value.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I don't speak French, so I disregarded that part of your analysis.

37383938393839383938383 said...

And unlike scientific discoveries, a boring work of fiction can have no value.

It obviously wasn't boring to everyone.

Elizabeth said...

Dave, sorry I missed your tone. There are FOUR white men in the top five, so they seem to be doing fine to me.

I'd have a hard time naming 25 best of the past 25 years. I'm not happy with what I'd call high-art fiction in that period. If I have to read another Raymond Carver short story, full of spouses with silent resentments and more bourbon on ice than anyone, anyone, can drink in an evening, well, I'll puke.

I'll put Octavia Butler's Kindred up against Beloved any day.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I'll put Octavia Butler's Kindred up against Beloved any day.

Ok, Octavia Butler is just a retread of Ursula K. LeGuin, and only has her reputation because she is a black woman. And I mean it.

Balfegor said...

Seven Machos:

I don't have to have experienced her book to argue this.

I think the precondition there would have to be that her book isn't particularly good. For all you know, contra everything I've been saying, it could be a book of luminous prose, where every sentence pulls you onward through the tale, until at the end, your life is changed, and you sit there, weeping at the enormity of it all. In which case her race and gender would be entirely beside the point.

re: Critical:

For the "je ne sais quois" thing, it's just "I don't know what." I had thought it was a widespread borrowing, there with "deja vu" and RSVP and all that. You can use it like a noun, which is the appeal.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Morrison just doesn't have their gift of language or power of expression

Hmm, that's a hard one to agree with. Maybe you should have read the whole thing. I hated the book, but she can do dazzling wordplay. She can get up there with Updike, sometimes.

37383938393839383938383 said...

For the "je ne sais quois" thing, it's just "I don't know what."

Well, "I don't know what" doesn't means anything, so it can't have any effect on the analysis.

Balfegor said...

Well, "I don't know what" doesn't means anything, so it can't have any effect on the analysis.

Yes -- but my point was precisely that the analysis of technical points doesn't get you up over the lip of greatness. Or at least, it doesn't do it for me.

Seven Machos said...

If a guess is correct, and an elabroate argument is wrong, does the elaborate argument get accepted?

We spent some time the other day discussing Jane Jacobs. She argued from her little apartment in Greenwich Village that modern architecture is crap. I bet she never read a single tome by Le Courbosier (however that is spelled). I bet she never laid eyes on St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Was she wrong?

Critical: I think you are spending too much time outside the real world.

Balfegor said...

I bet she never read a single tome by Le Courbosier (however that is spelled). I bet she never laid eyes on St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Was she wrong?

Critical: I think you are spending too much time outside the real world.


In general, I agree with the sentiment you're expressing, but seriously: We're talking about novels. We're not talking about the real world.

Elizabeth said...

I have heard people complain of Tolkien that he writes page after page after page of expertly rendered prose in a dead language of poetic epics. And yet he was recently named the greatest British writer of his century, by fellow Brits. I love Tolkein, but I found that hard to understand.

Those of you arguing about the calculus, Leibnitz and Newton, read Neil Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. It's a relief from these "best of" arguments. That debate over who discovered what first is one of the core plots.

37383938393839383938383 said...

the analysis of technical points doesn't get you up over the lip of greatness.

How are you defining greatness? All I said was that lots of people think the book is great, technically the book is very good, and the way the votes broke down, the book winning makes sense. How is that some bizarre, obscure theory? It's what happened. It's Seven Machos who claims to know the internal dynamics of every voter and knows that each vote Beloved received in this contest was due to racial bias. It's a much simpler theory that those who voted for it thought it was the best on the merits and it happened to win. So, even by Occam's razor, I win.

And, I do get out. I'm not the one who brought up Liebniz.

bill said...

Merriam-Webster:
racist: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
bigot: a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices

Dictionary wars are boring. I did not call you a racist. To be technical, I did not even call you a bigot. I said your statements were "approaching random bigotry." A fine line, but there it is.

As for the rest, CriticalObserver seems to be enjoying this more than I, so I'll let him continue. Except for:

I'm saying that the people who voted gave Toni Morrison's affirmative-action boost because she, the author, is an Afican-American woman.

The question I have--and my apologies for leaving football, calculus, and Larry Bird out of my question--is why are you saying it?

Give us something, anything. You haven't read Toni Morrison, you haven't mentioned reading any of the other authors, you haven't mentioned reading any analysis that supports your view. All you are saying is that she is a black woman, therefore she isn't that good.

Back to sports: if I argue that Larry Bird gets an affirmative-action boost when people rank him as the best player ever (over Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J, and Wilt Chamberlain), is my argument flawed if I have never seen him play? What if I never saw Wilt Chamberlain or Dr. J. play, either? Can I not participate in the discussion until I have watched all of the players? What level of credentials must we mere plebes have to enter your realm and offer an opinion?

You might as well be arguing that blind people can't have opinions, which is not what we're saying. To address your example, will you at least read opinions of other people? Or are you saying you should be allowed to argue in a vacuum? What I get from your statements is that if someone gave you two pieces of paper with two names you had never heard of, it would be perfectly valid for you to argue which was the best author or best basketball player?

37383938393839383938383 said...

I bet she never laid eyes on St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Was she wrong?

She might have been right. That doesn't change the fact that she didn't know what the &*%$ she was talking about. My horoscope was right yesterday. By luck. Broken clocks are right sometimes. They're still broken.

Elizabeth said...

criticalobserver: Ok, Octavia Butler is just a retread of Ursula K. LeGuin, and only has her reputation because she is a black woman. And I mean it.

I trust you have read her and thus I'll respect the fact that you stand behind your opinion. But I'll stand behind my disagreement. In any case, in Butler's work, Kindred stands apart as her best, and is in no way a retread of Le Guin. Every writer has his or her forebears, and Le Guin plays that role for Butler, perhaps; I can think of several black sci fi writers that were inspired by Le Guin's creating a multi-racial world in Earthsea, but that doesn't make them retreads of her. Nalo Hopkinson comes to mind.

bill said...

joe, first comment: A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin. Hands down, no debate.

Good book. I prefer his Memoir From Antproof Case.

Seven Machos said...

Balfegor -- Very good point, and point taken. I guess I just can't get around applying what I know ABOUT THE WORLD to the vote which, after all, took place IN the world.

By all accounts, Beloved is a good to great work of literature. But are there variables beyond the content of the novel itself which could explain why Beloved was ranked the best? I think there are because I suspect that many people want to have a great African-American woman author, and they factored this desire into their vote. There's nothing bad or wrong about that. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with affirmative action in the private sector. (Public sector, different story.)

37383938393839383938383 said...

criticalobserver: Ok, Octavia Butler is just a retread of Ursula K. LeGuin, and only has her reputation because she is a black woman. And I mean it.

I trust you have read her and thus I'll respect the fact that you stand behind your opinion. But I'll stand behind my disagreement.


I would note that you do more than stand behind it, you then back it up with an argument based on facts. Thank you. So nice to have a reasonable discussion. I will confirm that I have read her. But I do not think the similarities between she and LeGuin are accidental or as general as you claim. Though I grant you that black sci-fi writers other than Butler may have been (apparently) influenced in a very general way by LeGuin that does not merit calling them second-rate LeGuins.

37383938393839383938383 said...

But are there variables beyond the content of the novel itself which could explain why Beloved was ranked the best?

Yes. Philip Roth didn't print an omnibus edition of hiw entire work.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I think there are because I suspect that many people want to have a great African-American woman author, and they factored this desire into their vote.

And invisible Martians might live in your closet.

Balfegor said...

How are you defining greatness?

Well, I at least think a piece of art ought to make me feel something. That's back down to tastes, again. But a piece of art that provokes no meaningful reaction in the viewer (boredom doesn't count) isn't a piece of art, as I see it; it's totally inert.

A checklist of technical criteria is all very well, and if the luminaries of the literary world think that's enough, then bully for them. I'm not saying their response is obscure or anything like that -- it's in line with what's gone before, seeing as she's got all these other prizes anyhow.

I just disagree.

I'm saying their choice is wrong, because I don't remember getting anything else out of Beloved -- nothing but dry technical mastery (which doesn't really stick in my mind, either). A book that's supposed to be the best American book ought to have a bit of spirit to it, a bit of life, a bit of verve. Something that makes the reading experience a real experience, not a dutiful chore, like academic Latin.

Now, maybe the judges who voted for her got that out of it -- maybe my cultural reference frame is such that the things that move them in Beloved leave me cold. I've highlit that possibility repeatedly. And heck, maybe as technical craftsmen themselves, they're in awe over her awesome mastery of technique! Perhaps it is a delight not accessible to us down here in the laiety. Mahler and Wagner take some getting used to too.

But I'm sure we've produced something that is technically exquisite, but engaging and moving all the same. We may be the dregs of humanity, cast out for being incapable of hacking it in civilised countries, but we're not that bad. As I said, I don't know what that work would be, but I'm sure there is such a work.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I wouldn't have voted for it, either.

But I wouldn't discount the votes of those who did so on some racialist basis.

Seven Machos said...

Bill -- I think you miss my point. I really do. I have nothing against Toni Morrison. I rest assured that she is a great novelist. I have never said that she is not good. Please stop imputing these ideas to me.

My argument is about the views and beliefs of the people voting. I suggest that they are applying affirmative action and bestowing a benefit to Morrison's book because of her gender and ethnicity. I'm talking about them, and their perceptions, and their desire to have a female African-American writer in the canon of great literature. They have overrated Beloved.

Again: I don't have to have read Beloved to suggest that the voters may be allowing THEIR beliefs to affect the votes.

I am pleased that you have decided that I am only a borderline bigot and racist, and that I only approach random bigotry. I am honored that you have distinguished me from Bull Connor in this way. Thank you.

Seven Machos said...

Well, it's good to know that we can't yet have an honest conversation about affirmative action. It's good to know we can't even suggest that it might be a FACTOR in society.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I don't have to have read Beloved to suggest that the voters may be allowing THEIR beliefs to affect the votes.

We agree that it is true that one need not read Beloved to have ESP.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: You are being absurd now. Are you suggesting that it is not possible to suggest someone's beliefs or state of mind based on their actions?

You can't possible believe this.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Seven Mahcos: I suggest that they are applying affirmative action and bestowing a benefit to Morrison's book because of her gender and ethnicity. I'm talking about them, and their perceptions, and their desire to have a female African-American writer in the canon of great literature. They have overrated Beloved.

You only know what their internal thought process is if you have access to their thoughts, e.g., ESP. Or perhaps you have analyzed their dreams?

jult52 said...

Critical:

"His grandfather was the oldest of eight boys and the only one to live past the age of twenty-five. They were drowned, shot, kicked by horses. They perished in fires. They seemed to fear only dying in bed. The last two were killed in Puerto Rico in eighteen ninety-eight and in that year he married and brought his bride home to the ranch and he must have walked out and stood looking at his holdings and reflected long upon the ways of God and the laws of primogeniture. Twelve years later when his wife was carried off in the influenza epidemic they still had no children. A year later he married his dead wife's older sister and a year after this the boy's mother was born and that was all the borning that there was. The Grady name was buried with that old man the day the norther blew the lawnchairs over the dead cemetery grass. The boy's name was Cole. John Grady Cole."

No "cognizable meaning", huh? Look, you may not like some of the mannerisms of All the Pretty Horses -- I would understand that, although I think the mannerisms are taking -- but quit with the bs, dude.

37383938393839383938383 said...

No "cognizable meaning", huh?

I never specifically referred to that passage as being nonsense. I could go pull out some nonsense passages from Cormac McCarthy's work, if you would like.

Seven Machos said...

Person A drinks water. Why?
Person B eats food. Why?
Person C lays down in bed and closes her eyes. Why?
Person D goes reaches for a tissue and puts it to his nose. Why?

jult52 said...

No, you just said "a good half of his sentences" have no cognizable meaning. You've actually been quite level-headed and precise in this thread but you resorted to a ridiculous statement when it came to an author, McCarthy, whom you don't like. Question: have you actually read "All the Pretty Horses"?

37383938393839383938383 said...

A good half of his sentences, sure. That doesn't mean that any passage will have 50% meaningful and 50% meaningless sentences. It just means half of his sentences wil be meaningless, regardless of the distribution in his various books. I have read all of his books, by the way. I stand by my statement.

Seven: There are various explanations for any of the actions you offer as examples, e.g., some people drink because they are thirsty, others because they are bored, others because they are trying to swallow a pill, others because someone just put a gun to their head and said drink or I blow your brains out, etc. To assume a given action necessarily means a certain thought is just plain wrong.

bill said...

I suggest that they are applying affirmative action and bestowing a benefit to Morrison's book because of her gender and ethnicity.
Why?

I'm talking about them, and their perceptions, and their desire to have a female African-American writer in the canon of great literature.
Why do you *feel* they have these perceptions? Why do you have these perceptions.?
They have overrated Beloved.
Why?

Here, you have made some very concrete statements. We're not talking about vague biases in the general population. You are accusing specific people of lying and being dishonest by selecting a book they know to be inferior. Why?

Do you believe that all white males are liars?

Seven Machos said...

Good, Critical. But is it unreasonable and wrong to suggest why you think they took the actions? Will it be the case that sometimes your suggestions will be correct? Do you need an elaborate argument to make the suggestions? Are comments to a blog really the forum to make an elaborate argument?

I thought you were making solid arguments until you went off on the ESP tangent. That was just silly. Of course it is possible to ascertain what others are thinking. It is certainly within the bounds of respetable discourse.

Seven Machos said...

Bill -- Is it possible that the voters voted for Beloved BECAUSE it was written by an African-American woman AND ALSO BECAUSE they think it is a great work of literature? Is it possible that their views on race and gender were factors in the way they chose to rank the books they ranked, or vote the way they voted?

When a white male applicant and a female member of an ethnic minority are vying for a coveted spot in a prestigious school, is the admissions staff "lying and being dishonest by selecting" the minority candidate if she has lower grades and test scores, and a generally weaker application? I don't think they are. But, by your logic, they most certainly are.

You want to strip what is obviously a complex and interesting social phenomenon of all its depth and say that everything is about race, and you are eager to label people you perceive disagreement with as "approaching random bigotry." This is no way to approach issues, to discuss policy, or to come to agreement.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Will it be the case that sometimes your suggestions will be correct?

Horoscopes are sometimes correct. There is no reason to believe you are correct here. That said, you are less credible than a horoscope. Or ESP.

37383938393839383938383 said...

You want to strip what is obviously a complex and interesting social phenomenon of all its depth and say that everything is about race

No, Seven. That is what you want to do. And we know that because of what you have written here. You do not have similarly sufficient proof of why Person X cast his vote for Beloved.

Seven Machos said...

So to suggest that ethnicity plays a part in something is to suggest that everything is about ethnicity. Got it. And it's impossible to correctly figure out what other people are thinking. Check. And because I think the voters used a form of affirmative action in their voting, I am a bigot. Noted.

Thanks for the memories.

37383938393839383938383 said...

And because [without any proof] I think the voters used a form of affirmative action in their voting, I am [unreasonable].

Coco said...

I don't know Seven Machos but I have a relatively extensive body of work of his that I have personally read on the issue of why he thinks the specifc literary critics who were polled for the survey at hand voted for Beloved as the Best American Novel. And I find his opinions to be wholly uninformed and without any concrete basis. In fact, they are so uninformed that I can only draw one conclusion: that is he is projecting his personal viewpoints about blacks on to the literary critics. Becuase he thinks a certain way he assumes all others must think that way. It is possible of course that he doesn't hold such views and just merely assumes that all polled white male writer holds such views but he certainly hasn't presented any evidence to suggest that is the case.

Seven Machos said...

Coco -- Awesome, dude. Another person calling me a racist. Again: I think affirmative action on the part of the voters played a role in the way they voted. How does this have anything to do with what I think of African-Americans? What are my "personal viewpoints about blacks"?

"Becuase he thinks a certain way he assumes all others must think that way." Not so, And, clearly, to judge from this exchange, it would be unwarranted to make such an assumption.

And one more thing, it's the best novel of the last few decades.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Again: I think [without any evidence] that affirmative action on the part of the voters played a role in the way they voted.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: This is a red herring. How could I have any evidence? I don't know the voters. What is your evidence that they thought Beloved was the best book. I guess you have ESP.

37383938393839383938383 said...

What is your evidence that they thought Beloved was the best book.

They voted for it in a "What is the Best Book?" contest. The only way you can reach your result is if they didn't really think it was the best when they voted for it. That requires going inside of their heads prior to their casting of the vote.

37383938393839383938383 said...

How could I have any evidence? I don't know the voters.

Thanks for proving my point.

Balfegor said...

And I find his opinions to be wholly uninformed and without any concrete basis. In fact, they are so uninformed that I can only draw one conclusion: that is he is projecting his personal viewpoints about blacks on to the literary critics.

Er, right. Uh-huh.

Becuase he thinks a certain way he assumes all others must think that way. It is possible of course that he doesn't hold such views and just merely assumes that all polled white male writer holds such views but he certainly hasn't presented any evidence to suggest that is the case.

Well, he has that they are Americans. And he knows, I would imagine, that White Americans can be and often are awfully patronising to minorities, especially when they feel a particular minority has gotten a hard shake in some particular area. With Blacks, for example, you see (or used to, a few years ago) White news reporters draw attention repeatedly to how "well-spoken" (or whatever) Black public figures are. Very good, young man. You can speak English. Such an achievement! And all that. And then, of course, there is the demeaning "Magical Negro," trope, in Hollywood movies (or for Asians out to get offended -- the mysterious Asian spiritualist/martial arts master).

We don't see much of the negative stuff in public anymore, of course, but the "positive" stuff is there all the time, for those of us whom a University Education has equipped to go looking for the slightest hint or shadow of racial prejudice. It's only natural to wonder, when a group largely composed of probably-well-meaning white people decide that a Black woman's magnum opus is the greatest work of American literature in the past 25 years, whether those White people might not be up to the same thing again.

Now, whether or not we go beyond suspicion and actually accuse them would depend on the nature of the work itself.

For my part, I think the work is technically fine (I remember it as technically fine, at least), and artistically empty, for which reason I suspect there must be something else (although that "something else" may just be my cultural distance from "American" culture). But the suspicion can be at least aired.

Accusations of racism are terribly damaging, yes, but for the most part, they shouldn't be 100% off limits. Race prejudice and race condescension are a factor in our society, even if by most standards, we're actually extremely good about suppressing them.

Balfegor said...

For an example of a grievance monger getting worked up about a description of a Black candidate as "articulate," incidentally, see here. In general, I think the "articulate" (or "well-spoken") charge is a fairly weak one, but it's one I've heard repeatedly, as a kind of examplar of this species of racial condescension.

Seven Machos said...

Thanks, Balfegor. I want to iterate, because I don't guess I have made it clear: there's nothing bad or wrong about choosing Beloved as the best book. Nothing evil. No lies. It's a private list made by free individuals. More power to them. And more power to private-sector ogranizations that want to use affirmative action. I certainly would do it if I were in a hiring position and if I could give someone, particularly an African-American, an opportunity.

I merely suggest that affirmative action played a role in the selection. That's what I think. What could possibly be bigoted about that? How could that evince some view -- and what is implied is a negative view -- of African-Americans?

37383938393839383938383 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
37383938393839383938383 said...

I merely suggest that affirmative action played a role in the selection.

Admittedly without any evidence.

37383938393839383938383 said...
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Balfegor said...

Except Morrison, the person, did not receive the most votes. Philip Roth received the most votes, thus destroying that theory.

Uh, how? They vote as individuals, not as a hive mind.

I think this is B implicitly calling Seven a racist. That makes the only person here not to call Seven racist, or am I miscounting?

You are. I don't see how I'm accusing him of racism; I certainly don't mean to. He's just suggesting the possibility and then you're all jumping on him for it.

37383938393839383938383 said...

B: It's only natural to wonder, when a group largely composed of probably-well-meaning white people decide that a Black woman's magnum opus is the greatest work of American literature in the past 25 years, whether those White people might not be up to the same thing again.

Except Morrison, the person, did not receive the most votes. Philip Roth received the most votes, thus destroying that theory.

37383938393839383938383 said...

hey vote as individuals, not as a hive mind.

You seem to be suggesting that theere was behind the scenes vote-brokering. My point is that Philp Roth received the most votes, so that vote brokering likely didn't take place. Unless you're a conspiracy theorist, I don't see your theory working out.

For the reocrd, I never called Seven a racist. I simply called him unreasonable. I really don't care why he is unreasonable, and not all racists are unreasonable, anyway.

37383938393839383938383 said...

If you don't understand how Philip Roth received the most votes, then you didn't read the article we have been arguing about...?

37383938393839383938383 said...

He's just suggesting the possibility and then you're all jumping on him for it.

No, he is suggesting it actually happened in reality. He is not merely saying it is possible.

Balfegor said...

You seem to be suggesting that theere was behind the scenes vote-brokering.

How on earth do you get that!? Cor. All you need is for some voters to feel on the margin the need -- conscious or otherwise -- to give a bit of a boost to a Black author. Doesn't have to be the sole determining factor, doesn't have to be all of them, and it doesn't have to involve some kind of conspiracy.

37383938393839383938383 said...

All you need is for some voters to feel on the margin the need -- conscious or otherwise -- to give a bit of a boost to a Black author. Doesn't have to be the sole determining factor, doesn't have to be all of them, and it doesn't have to involve some kind of conspiracy.

Ok, what's the justification for teh belief that it actually happened in this case?

37383938393839383938383 said...

Can you prove to me that the possibility was realized in this case? (I'm talking low burden of proof here, not 100% certainty.)

37383938393839383938383 said...

All you need is for some voters to feel on the margin the need -- conscious or otherwise -- to give a bit of a boost to a Black author.

Except that likely didn't happen, because Philip Roth received way more votes than everyone else. There were likely no strategic Morrison voters.

Seven Machos said...

What's the justification that the voters DIDN'T use affirmative action, Critical? You haven't answered this. How can you know? How can you know, according to your own reasoining, unless you have ESP?

I think you are trapped by your own argument. I also think you have castigated me as a racist. But how can I know what you are thinking? I don't have ESP. Of course, you don't either. I guess it's crazy for anyone to speculate about what anyone else might be thinking, since none of us have ESP. So, this whole conversation has been a waste.

37383938393839383938383 said...

What's the justification that the voters DIDN'T use affirmative action, Critical?

I don't need to justify that, because I haven't made any claims as to what the voters thought. I don't know. I know that the contest asked them to vote for what they thought was the best. Morrison won that vote. That result speaks for itself. Thet result can only be put in doubt if you presume to know what the voters thought. I don't presume such knowledge.

Likewise, I have never called you a racist. I called you unreasonable. You are. Whether you are a racist, only you know.

37383938393839383938383 said...

But I will say, however, there is no proof that the voters did use affirmative action, so there is no reason for me to believe they did so. But I don't know what they thought when they voted.

Seven Machos said...

But Critical, do you KNOW they thought it was the best book and there were no other factors? Shouldn't you consider your previous posts? "There are various explanations," after all. "Some people" vote for Beloved because they think it's the best book, "others because they are bored...others because someone just put a gun to their head and said" vote "or I blow your brains out, etc. To assume a given action necessarily means a certain thought is just plain wrong."

I believe those are your words. So how can you know that other factors could not be at issue? According to YOUR VERY OWN ARGUMENTS, you can't. Unless you have ESP.

I am very eager to see the Herculean effort you will make to demonstrate how these statements can all make sense together.

I say stick with the ESP argument. That one is your ace in the hole.

Balfegor said...

Ok, what's the justification for teh belief that it actually happened in this case?

Can you prove to me that the possibility was realized in this case? (I'm talking low burden of proof here, not 100% certainty.)

That it actually happened? Or that it's a reasonable suspicion to hold? Or -- really, precisely what do you mean, now that you're trying to grind down to burdens of proof?

Now, if I suspect that it is the case, as I do, then it's probably fair to say that I believe the proposition

"Some voters were positively affected, on the margin, in their estimation of Beloved's quality, by the personal characteristics of the author"

to be true, on balance -- the justification is, as I said above, that White people (heck, that people) do this all the time, sometimes without even realising it, so it's not unreasonable to suspect they're doing it again. Induction. And this suspicion comes into play for me (or rather, after reading this thread, it now has -- Seven Machos, you have put the idea in my mind), because frankly, I think Beloved is pretty far from a great book, and that my total lack of emotional response to it is not atypical.

On the other hand, if we're talking about justified belief here, deduced from specific articulable facts, then of course we don't have anything. How could we?

I haven't made any claims as to what the voters thought. I don't know. I know that the contest asked them to vote for what they thought was the best. Morrison won that vote. That result speaks for itself. Thet result can only be put in doubt if you presume to know what the voters thought.

Let's break this down. When you say "Morrison won that vote," and then "that result speaks for itself," andthen "that result can only be put in doubt etc." you're avoiding saying it directly, but you're plainly implying that barring countervailing evidence, the result is presumptively valid as a comparative measure of literary quality.

Does the presumptive validity of the result rest on assumptions? Of course it does. One of them is that the evaluators are competent to evaluate literary quality. Another is that in the aggregate, their individual determinations correspond to some shared metric (or that they generate a proper metric because of their collective fame or whatever). But more importantly here, it also assumes that these qualified evaluators have evaluated correctly, no?

I.e. you are implicitly claiming that:

(A) that when asked to vote for what they thought was the best (literarily), they voted for what they thought was the best (literarily), and more particularly

(B) that they did not allow themselves to be affected by the race and gender of the author in making their decision.

To which one can respond that humans are not automata. Of course people are going to be affected by the people they're voting about. What's in doubt here is really to what degree and on what grounds (and in what direction) they are affected.

And even if we formulate your implicit claims accordingly in a more reduced fashion, you're still implying a claim that they were not affected materially by concerns like the personal characteristics of the author.

37383938393839383938383 said...

To assume a given action necessarily means a certain thought is just plain wrong.

I didn't assume that the fact that they voted necessarily means they thought it was the best. There is no contrary evidence of equivalent weight. They voted the way they voted, and that is the only evidence there is. If all the available evidence points to one answer, it is sufficient to conclude (until more evidence comes about) that answer is correct.

So how can you know that other factors could not be at issue?

The question is not whether other factors could not hypothetically be at issue; the question is whether other factors were actually at issue. There is no evidence there were. In fact, the only evidence suggests Morrison won by chance; Philip Roth didn't release his Library of America omnibus edition soon enough (as the article admits).

37383938393839383938383 said...

On the other hand, if we're talking about justified belief here, deduced from specific articulable facts, then of course we don't have anything.

Thanks for proving my point.

37383938393839383938383 said...

you're plainly implying that barring countervailing evidence, the result is presumptively valid as a comparative measure of literary quality.

It is the only measure we have of the voters' estimation of literary merit when they voted in this contest.

37383938393839383938383 said...

But more importantly here, it also assumes that these qualified evaluators have evaluated correctly, no?

Not really. See above.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: you are really grasping at straws now and making nutty distinctions.

You say there were no other factors. I say there were other factors. Neither one of us has any evidence.

I'm still not clear on your ESP abilities. But it's late where I am and I am retiring for the evening. Good luck with all your literary criticism in the future.

37383938393839383938383 said...

From the article: "Early this year, the Book Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a short letter to a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years."

Just so you know, the voters who responded actually voiced their preferences with multiple words, e.g., "Beloved is the best and here is why..." They were able to articulate all the factors they thought relevant and, if you read the article, it makes clear that many, in fact, did:

A tough question, and one that a number of potential respondents declined to answer, some silently, others with testy eloquence. There were those who sighed that they could not possibly select one book to place at the summit of an edifice with so many potential building blocks - they hadn't read everything, after all - and also those who railed against the very idea of such a monument. One famous novelist, unwilling to vote for his own books and reluctant to consider anyone else's, asked us to "assume you never heard from me."

There is no reason to assume these voters didn't vote sincerely. They had every opportunity to say whatever they wanted in the casting of their vote. I am simply take their votes, which is evidence, at face-value.

37383938393839383938383 said...

You say there were no other factors.

No, I say the only factors we have proof of are those raised by the voters themselves. It does not appear that anyone claimed to vote for Beloved because Toni Morrison is black and female. There is no proof that affirmative action was a factor in the voting.

Seven Machos said...

No one is saying the voters did not vote sincerely. Is affirmative action based on lies and insincerity?

Seven Machos said...

There is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow.

37383938393839383938383 said...

The distinction between possibility and fact is not a "nutty distinction". It is the difference between reality and fantasy. (Just to be clear, I take no position on whether your fantasies are racist, Seven.)

37383938393839383938383 said...

No one is saying the voters did not vote sincerely. Is affirmative action based on lies and insincerity?

You're missing the point. Leaving out a factor material to your vote would be lying by omission. By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was. There is no mention of affirmative action in the article, which discussed what the voters bases were in-depth.

37383938393839383938383 said...

There is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Actually, there is. You can go on the NASA website and see it.

Seven Machos said...

Thanks for suggesting only that I MAY be a racist. That's mighty amiable of you. Anyhow, let us dissect:

"Leaving out a factor material to your vote would be lying by omission." Would it be? Was that stipulated by Mr. Tannenhaus? Show me the part where he orders his voters to state any and every reason for their votes, leaving out nothing. If you don't have it, is it fair to say you have no proof?

"By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was." Did they? Are you sure they were able to COMPLETELY state it. You are suggesting then that they left nothing out. How do you know? You are a great seeker of proof so, surely, you will show us your proof that no one left anything out.

That settles it. Since it wasn't mentioned in the article, it can't be there. The great Sam Tannenhaus, biographer of Whittaker Chambers, knows all and tells all in its fullness and breadth.

So, anyway, about that sunrise tomorrow: hope you haven't made any plans. Tannenhaus mentions nothing about a sunrise this weekend. I can't prove the sun will rise. I don't have ESP. I guess we'll just hope for the best.

Seven Machos said...

Actually, there's not. NASA is merely making a prediction. That does not meet your standard of proof at all.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Seven Machos: No one is saying the voters did not vote sincerely.

Seven Machos: "By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was." Did they [in fact vote sincerely]?

It seems you have just contradicted yourself.

I will also note that you still haven't proven that it is at all likely affirmative action happened in this case. You will say I can't prove it didn't happen. But I don't need to. There is no reason to claim it did, as no observable facts support that claim. You can believe whatever you want, but it should be clear that your belief is unreasonable. That was my only point.

lastly, I took no position on whether your beliefs are racist in additiion to being unreasonable, but you seem to have difficulty avoiding questioning my sincerity, much like you assumed I hadn't voted for Bush, when I did.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Actually, there's not. NASA is merely making a prediction.

No, we have actual satellite readings of the sun. Please don't (wrongly) tell me what my standard of proof is, I already explicitly said "low burden, not 100% certainty".

Seven Machos said...

"Did they [in fact vote sincerely]?"

I said this?

Here is what I said:

"'By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was.' Did they? Are you sure they were able to COMPLETELY state it. You are suggesting then that they left nothing out. How do you know?"

You've lost it, dude. You are going a little crazy. I shall have no further truck with you.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Show me the part where he orders his voters to state any and every reason for their votes, leaving out nothing.

This just makes no sense.

37383938393839383938383 said...

"'By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was.' Did they? Are you sure they were able to COMPLETELY state it. You are suggesting then that they left nothing out. How do you know?"

Yes, you are questioning their sincerity, after you claimed that no one was questioning their sincerity. The meaning is obvious.

Seven Machos said...

Sincere does not mean complete.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Sincere does not mean complete.

It does in this context:

No one is saying the voters did not vote sincerely. Is affirmative action based on lies and insincerity?

You're missing the point. Leaving out a factor material to your vote would be lying by omission. By sincere, I mean they completely stated what their basis was when they stated what their basis was. There is no mention of affirmative action in the article, which discussed what the voters bases were in-depth.

37383938393839383938383 said...

I shall have no further truck with you. (8:19 PM, May 12, 2006)

Sincere does not mean complete. (8:23 PM, May 12, 2006)


This is a contradiction too. Or do you want to argue about what "truck" means?

Seven Machos said...

You seem convinced that sincere means complete. I don't have ESP, so I can't be sure, of course. Still, I think you investigate this further.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Why don't you investigate why you think a Nobel prize winner needs affirmative action to win a "best book" contest.

Seven Machos said...

I can't help myself. You are like a train wreck. I want so badly to stop looking. There's nothing to be gained. But I can't look away.

I don't really know if you are like a train wreck, though. Because I don't have ESP.

37383938393839383938383 said...

There's nothing to be gained. But I can't look away.

Well, the more you insist on believing you've won, the worse you look to those who recognize you have no argument. Your petty condescension in defeat is pretty good proof of your bigotry.

Seven Machos said...

Critical: How could you POSSIBLY suggest that I am feeling "petty condescension in defeat"? Is it something I said? But how can what I said have any bearing on what I'm thinking?

After all, "to assume a given action necessarily means a certain thought is just plain wrong."

Do you have ESP or don't you? I'm still not clear?

37383938393839383938383 said...

Sufficiency is not necessity.

Elizabeth said...

7M: "There is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow." -- Just noticing, you've referenced Hume twice today. How often does THAT happen outside of the classroom?

Critical: I don't know how you've had the energy for this discussion. Or the patience.

I'll agree on the Le Guin influence in Butler's sci-fi series, particular The Patternist, or Pattern Master (sorry, can't bring up the names). Kindred is her own masterpiece, through and through, though. I don't believe Le Guin could have written it. It's my favorite work of hers, other than the short stories in Bloodchild.

tcd said...

Holy crap CO & 7M! It's Friday night, don't you have husbands/wives/ lovers to snuggle up to? As far as the merits of "Beloved" goes, all I can say is I enjoyed reading it as well as Toni Morrison's other works. I think Ms. Morrison's acclaim is well-deserved. Of course that is just my opinion as an avid reader and the only qualification, if I can even claim it as a qualification, is a bachelor's degree in English from a public university. ( I should add that I also possess a bachelors degree in Chemistry and currently make my living as an insurance agent. Go figure.)
I actually think Ms. Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" to be her best work. Her prose is beautiful as patca said previously but what really captured my imagination is in the way that she explores slavery at the human level. She plums the darkest depths of slavery and its manifestations and vividly presents it to the reader in the form of her characters. Her point of view is not what slavery has done to her characters but how slavery has formed her characters (this is especially true in "The Bluest Eye" more so than "Beloved"). It's a powerful approach and makes for an interesting story progression.
SM,
You really should read some of her work before concluding that aa is the impetus for her acclaim (I think Walt and bill said something to this affect already). And I don't think you were being a bigot for thinking that either as unfortunately that thought process is one of the sad unintended consequences of aa, isn't it?

Finn Kristiansen said...

All I remember in reading Toni Morrison is that men came off rather badly and that she presents the emotional difficulties of black history in a way I find highly unsatisfying.

It's like how people talk about the horror of life before civil rights legislation, as though all was pure hell. I look at those old photos of blacks, often smartly dressed in suits, smiling, fathers with mothers and children; I am reminded that in any period of suffering and difficulty, there is also tremendous joy and hope.

Morrison sucks out the joy and hope and paints with a dark brush of misery, with no clear light shining through.

Is the book the greatest in the past 25 years? That is too subjective a question, but I would lean toward "no". I would also suggest that affirmative action could well have played a part in the choice, and yet, if so, still may not tarnish the choice itself.

People often do things for many reasons and nothing is "either/or", or "black/white".

SippicanCottage said...
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Elizabeth said...

Sippican,

Apparently you don't have to read any of them to be upset by them.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kevin said...

This has been absolutely hilarious! All this over a guy arguing that several (highly-qualified and -experienced) people he doesn't know were racially biased into overrating a book he hasn't read! Wow. But, since a larger plurality of voters cast votes for Roth instead of Morrison, it appears that this malaise afflicted only a small percentage of voters. So according to Seven Nachos' "reasoning," it is equally plausible that more voters were moved by Roth's jewishness than by Morrison's blackness... So the real question appears to be whether Morrison would have received more overall votes if she had converted to judaism first. hahahahahahahahahaha!!!!

kevin said...

And for what it's worth, I actually would have voted for Edward P. Jones's "The Known World," which I strongly recommend.

Marlon James said...

On one hand I'm excited that people are still so passionate about books that such love can spark an argument like this one. For my money, Song of Solomon is greater than Beloved, but what I find interesting is the belief shared by some of us here that if I don't like a book personally, then there's no way other readers could find any merit in it. So there must be some other reason for the choice than the quality of the work, "affirmative action" for example.

This strikes me as arrogant. It reminds me of my friend Bill who because he hated grunge assumed nobody else could possibly like it, so everybody was just trying to be cool by pretending.

Sometimes when book and reader fail to connect, the fault is the reader's not the book.