A FEW WEEKS ago, I spent an afternoon in Boston with Robert Birnbaum, who conducts interviews for identitytheory.com, and an evening with Tim Huggins, who owns Newtonville Books just outside the city. We had a great time talking about novels and writers because we are all three in love with regionalists.
Huggins was born in Mississippi and holds a fierce love for books from the South -- books by Larry Brown, whose world was Mississippi, and Tim Gautreaux of Louisiana. We talked about Lois-Ann Yamanaka, whose subject is Hawaii, and about Dorothy Allison’s South Carolina, and Carolyn Chute’s Maine and A. Manette Ansay’s Wisconsin. And my postage stamp of soil -- Southern California, particularly Riverside.
We also talked about two of my favorite books: Leslie Marmon Silko’s amazing novel of New Mexico, “Ceremony,” in which the austere, lovely landscape of desert and plateau is forever altered for Native American soldiers returned from the Philippines after World War II, and Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” an iconic gem about a small black community outside fictional Medallion, Ohio, in which two women discover that the world lies within their friendship for each other.
That Sunday, I got home and read the New York Times Book Review, which published a compendium of results from a question sent out in a letter to 200 writers and critics: What is the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years? Not a favorite Top 10. Just one book.
I studied the results, and like everyone else, I did the math. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” won with 15 votes. Runners-up were Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” (11 votes), John Updike’s “Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels” (eight votes) tied with Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” (seven votes).
What was much argued was not just this short list but the titles that followed, the 17 books that received “multiple votes.” Five more Roth titles, two more DeLillos and a trilogy by McCarthy. Only nine books not by these authors made it onto the list at all.
It was all very amusing and fun to read. But at the end of the process -- after I read the heated online discussions and talked about it with other writers -- I believe exactly what I believed that day in Boston: There is no Great American Novel. There is no one book that can sum us up. There are only brilliant regional versions of what we are.
I love the regionalists.
In the same way that Americans love to savor and know, and brag about knowing, the best regional delicacies, there is a specificity and flavor and precise individuality that makes writing from a particular place the favorite of many writers and booksellers and readers.
We don’t just love Chinese food, if we truly and passionately love it. We love fiery Szechuan dishes, complicated Cantonese meals and food from Hunan. Mexican food? Please. Not if you know better than Taco Bell. Oaxacan moles and chilaquiles, seafood from Veracruz, the menudo from Michoacan (which is the favorite in my neighborhood).
The American writers who give us their unique fictional landscapes and languages and people are many. There’s Stuart Dybek’s Chicago, James Welch’s Montana, Sherman Alexie’s Washington state, Chris Offutt’s Appalachia. Ernest Gaines, even though he has lived for years in California, still writes great American novels such as “A Lesson Before Dying,” in which the small towns of Louisiana stand in for the entire world. And I love the New York of James Baldwin and Richard Price.
Yes. New York City is a region as well. (When I was 16, and dying to leave Riverside, I read only New York City novels for an entire year.) I love Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn and Abraham Rodriguez Jr.'s Bronx.
Reading the furious, passionate and thorough arguments against the list, I was struck by the authors and books people felt were inexplicably missing. During an online discussion sponsored by the Times, Jane Smiley (who was one of the judges) lamented the absence of many women, and Michael Cunningham noted the lack of gay writers. Meghan O’Rourke, a former New Yorker editor who was invited to judge, wrote eloquently in Slate about the inherent biases against short novels in this kind of list.
What I wanted to know was why the Times’ list of judges was so East Coast-oriented. The 130-odd writers named are so heavily East Coast, white and, more specifically, New York. Of course, I don’t know where everyone lives. But where were all the great West Coast writers such as Carolyn See, Judith Freeman, John Rechy, Walter Mosley, Steve Erickson, Yxta Maya Murray, Nina Revoyr and Janet Fitch? Where were Jervey Tervalon and Bebe Moore Campbell, Luis Rodriguez and Cynthia Kadohata, Karen Tei Yamashita and Sherman Alexie? Does West automatically negate sage-ness?
I cared about where the judges were from because, to me, regionalism is at the heart of the issue. To me, the Great American Novel is really the novel of a specific part of this country. I believe that the larger themes of love and death and infidelity and consumerism and war and slavery all play out in our homes, wherever those may be.
In her 1990 review of Updike’s “Rabbit at Rest,” Joyce Carol Oates said: “Behind the frenetic activity of the novels, as behind stage busyness, the ‘real’ background of Rabbit’s fictional Mt. Judge and Brewer, Pa., remains. One comes to think that this background is the novel’s soul, its human actors but puppets or shadows caught up in the vanity of their lusts.” Oates then identified what I believe is at the heart of all great writers: “So primary is homesickness as a motive for writing fiction, so powerful the yearning to memorialize what we’ve lived, inhabited, been hurt by and loved, that the impulse often goes unacknowledged.”
Roth’s New Jersey is as regional a vision as Updike’s Pennsylvania. Reviewing “American Pastoral” in 1997, Michael Wood wrote: “It’s true that the imagining is grounded in the most meticulous reconstructions of old times and places -- the Levov family glove factory, the spreading acres of west New Jersey, a Miss America competition in Atlantic City, the beat-up neighborhoods of what used to be the city of Newark.”
In the end, I guess I’m not arguing so much with the books that ended up on the Times’ winners list. I love Updike and Roth and Toni Morrison, whose winning book “Beloved” is set in the Ohio she has taken us to so often, so deeply and imaginatively. I do wish California and the West -- which represent so much of contemporary America -- had not been ignored.
But my real concern is with the premise of the list. The one Great American Novel of the last 25 years is as impossible to identify as the Great American Meal of the last 25 years. Please don’t tell us that it’s a steak, salad and baked potato served in a big-city steakhouse. And if not, is it a hamburger or a bologna sandwich? Where is the burrito or pirogi or cheesesteak or frybread taco or po’ boy or spam sushi?
They’re all out there, in the hands of hungry people. In the end, a list is just a list. Everyone is eating. We hold the books and we move around our nation avid with desire to see what other people see and eat and hear in their own America.
Last night, I checked Amazon.com, curious as to whether the list had made a difference for these books. In the Top 100 bestsellers for June 1 were none of the works so hotly debated. I found five titles by Dan Brown and two surprises. One was “Goodnight, Moon” and the other, holding strong at No. 44, was Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!”