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I have to say that McCarthy's Blood Meridian is one of the most astonishing books I have ever read, and I generally try to avoid books written by people who are still alive, unless they're genuine, sincere trash, because the publicity and entertainment news cycles suck the life out of them before they even hit the shelves. Sadly, I've never found his other books attractive.


What about this fella William Vollmann? Haven't read him, but there's lots of noise about his superbitude.

I'll just return curmudgeonly to my Cervantes now. Maybe the tale of the asses.


Nice call on The Gold Bug Variations. It was brilliant.

FWIW, Thom Jones' collection of short stories The Pugilist at Rest still resonates after many years.

I'll pick up Lost in the City for sure (but what about the 57 other books waiting in my pile?).

Shakespeare's Sister

Hmm. I consider Beloved, well, beloved, in no small part because it is so peculiar and unconventional--the same reason that lots of people who typically share my taste in literature didn't enjoy it. A strong appeal to wide general audience shouldn't be the only requisite qualification for a work of fiction to be considered one of the best, or else The Da Vinci Code would have topped the list. (Insert your own The Da Vinci Code is fiction? joke here.) Nonetheless, it occurs to me that maybe even if it's not the only qualification, it ought to be one of them. It pains me a bit to say that, because it sounds like I'm endorsing conformity and formula, but there are unusual, quirky books that have had wider appeal. (See: Irving, John.)

I don't know if it it counts, since Jeffrey Eugenides currently resides in Berlin, but I'd probably give my vote to Middlesex. Or maybe Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Or Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Or Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World. Or some other book that probably no one else would mention.

Kate Marie

Wow, Don Delillo and Philip Roth are *way* over-represented on that list, though I think Underworld and American Pastoral are both fine novels. In fact, if I were a professional writer, and you'd asked me what work in the last 25 years that I wished I myself had written, I may have chosen the prologue to Underworld.

. . . Or Gilead, which is actually my nomination for the best American novel of the last twenty five years.

Shakespeare's Sister, I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I'm in agreement with Lance about Toni Morrison -- and Song of Solomon is defintely her best novel.

Tom B.

William Vollmann is one of the best living American writers -- I'd put FATHERS AND CROWS or THE RAINBOW STORIES in a top 25. If the Times did a nonfiction list, it would be bogus if RISING UP AND RISING DOWN, his seven-volume masterclass in the history and philosophy of violence, wasn't included.

I also have great memories of reading THE PUGILIST AT REST. Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED is one of my favorites on the Times' list -- the list has some fine stuff, but too many books by too few writers -- I'd allow only one book per writer on a list like that. The list reads as if it was put together by people who don't read widely enough. It's as if they virtually stopped reading "new" novelists about 20 years ago.


1. What SS and KM said above... Kavalier & Clay was the best I've read in the last 10 years.

2. Lonesome Dove (McMurtry).

Kevin Wolf

Don't read as much fiction as I used to; that colors my judgement, I think. I read Kavalier & Clay and despite some good scenes it didn't impress me overall. Not bad, of course, but... Maybe as a one-time hardcore comic book fan I was just too familiar with the whole set up.

The Things They Carried is absolutely brilliant.

I second Todd's mention of Thom Jones.

You're correct, Lance. These lists are idiotic at best.


Clearly I'm a benighted heathen, as I've only read a couple of those the NYT's judges selected.

Pfui. I use Nero Wolfe's favorite expletive because when he was once told he was the greatest detective in the world he said (paraphrasing) "probably not. The greatest detective in the world might well be an uneducated member of an African tribe."

I'm with Wolfe. For all I know, the greatest work of American fiction over the past 25 years is still languishing in some editor's slush pile, or in somebody's desk drawer with 14 rejection slips attached.

Stephen Stralka

I like your comment about the best novelists writing their best novels in their 40s. That means that in just three years, I'm really going to be cooking.

Kate Marie

By the way, is that really true about novelists doing their best work in their forties? I guess it all boils down to which works count as a novelist's best. I'm trying to think of exceptions . . . what about Henry James?


I like Morrison's novel quite a bit, but now find myself disagreeing with many of their choices including the overrated Updike, Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Richard Ford (I've never understood the McCarthy cult).

Like Shakespeare's Sister, I'd put Kavaleir and Clay at the top of my list. It's a wonderful read and a joy to teach. If I ever have to teach fiction again, I'm sure that I'll find a way to put it on my syllabus.


Kate, just noticed your comment. William Faulkner is clearly one exception to that rule. He was 32, I believe when he rote The Sound and the Fury and and in his late 30s when he wrote Absalom, Absalom. Granted he spent a lot of time in Hollywood in his 40s (and a lot more time drunk), but he is one exception.


Damn you all! Damn you for reminding me that I really should read more books that don't include either a semi-naked woman, a dead body or a gun (preferably all three) on the cover!


Put down the Spillane, bb. Gently. That's right. Now back away slowly.

The last chapter of "I, the Jury" was pretty compelling, now that I think of it.


I thought the best of Morrison's novels was the one critics liked least: Tar Baby. I didn't care for Beloved.

My vote for the best American novel of the past 25 years (and I'm enthusiastic enough to say "best" not "favourite", even though it's all subjective blah blah) is Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. (Hoban counts as American.) But mainly these lists make me feel guilty about not reading enough fiction...

Holden Lewis

When I saw the headline for that article on the Times's website, I paused before clicking on it and asked myself what I would vote for. "Blood Meridian," I said to myself, without thinking about it much, and I was surprised to see it listed third.

The first time I read a Denis Johnson story, I hated it. A fan of Johnson pushed "Jesus' Son" on me. I loved it. Thom Jones' "The Pugilist at Rest" was wonderful, too.

I wish the definition of "American" could include Alice Munro. Perhaps the Times could have added the adjective "North" to "American." I think she's the best English-language writer alive.

A.O. Scott's essay mentions that the last time a similar poll was conducted, "Invisible Man" beat out some other beloved novels, including "Lolita." In retrospect, "Lolita" would have been a more worthy choice. Fifty years from now, it's a safe bet that one of the top 22 novels on the Times's 2006 list (22 books got multiple votes) will be considered the best book published between 1980 and 2005, but it won't be "Beloved."

The Heretik

Tom Robbins lost me in translation. Must have been the skinny prose and all. Or maybe the life was too still with woodpecker.


"American Tabloid" and "The Cold Six Thousand" by James Ellroy, the wildest political novels ever written in America. "Vineland" by Thomas Pynchon, a sweet, profound book, also about politics in America. Anything written by Samuel R. Delaney, the 1960s sci-fi author/1990s academic linguist.

And books I'm sure I haven't yet read as you've pointed out, but certainly not most of the books on the NYT's silly list. I've been meaning to read Toni Morrison for some time, so I'll start with "Song of Solomon." But first I need to read Ellison's "Invisible Man" which has one of those reputations that is fairly daunting. I WILL, however, read it.

Gregory Thelen

I know actual cowboys--I ran into a bull rider this afternoon in the normal courses of our lives--and I am here to tell you that Cormac McCarthy's Border trilogy is as fake as a John Wayne war movie, or Faulkner's south.
As for Invisible Man being daunting, don't believe it. Dive right in. It's as American as James Ellroy.


I don't know if Lance realizes that he is stealing the over 40's bit from Ford Madox Ford. I've never read of anybody else ever thinking or talking about that, at least... I don't know if this was Ford's boasting, but he insisted that before 40 he never sought out to write a serious novel. He didn't think he would have the life experience. Then, at 40, set out and wrote The Good Soldier, which puts to shame most of what is listed in here. I'm biased, of course, but I think one should at least credit one's sources... Although I'm sure that the lowly Ford (Hemmingway's pet, they all call 'im...) doesn't warrant it when we're talking about... who?

Mad Monk

I'm a Pynchon nut to begin with, but I'm wondering if others found Mason & Dixon as stupendous as I did. I've got a very long plane ride coming up at the end of the month, and plan to bring along Cryptonomicon, as I hear it's in the same league.

Ted Raicer

I'm more a Dickens/Poe/Twain/Patrick O'Brian sort of reader of fiction (though mostly I read nonfiction). If the remainder lives up to the first volumes I'd list George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire as my favorite fiction of the last 25 years. ("Best" in this context can only mean "favorite.")


Dear Mad Monk: I've found Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" hard to get started on (I still haven't even gotten as far as Africa), but you're the second person I would trust who found it "stupendous" so I'll try again. And thanks, Mr. Thelen, I'll begin "Invisible Man" as soon as I stop writing and start reading again.

harry near indy

these "best of" lists remind me of fanboy attitudes.

a fanboy is a comic book dweeb who gets into arguments such as "marvel rulz! dc sux!" and things like that. usually, those arguments are made with a passion way out of proportion to the subject matter. when you discuss which comic book publisher is better, please don't do it in anger and at the top of your voice.

i know about fanboy because i have a little bit of him in me.

lists like the one the ny times published aren't usually made for the sake of discussion; they're often made for the sake of controversy.

the best fiction? john cheever once said literature is not the super bowl.

now, if some of these critics were honest enough to say which books were their favorites, those lists would be more interesting to me.


Harry, what are your favorites? That's what I want to know.

Kate Marie: is that really true about novelists doing their best work in their forties? I guess it all boils down to which works count as a novelist's best. I'm trying to think of exceptions . . . what about Henry James?

KM, It depends on whether you think Portrait of a Lady is James' best or The Golden Bowl is. What's your vote?

Ryan: I don't know if Lance realizes that he is stealing the over 40's bit from Ford Madox Ford... but I think one should at least credit one's sources...

Actually, Ryan it was a professor back in college who first pointed that out to me, and I've read it and heard it a dozen times since. Maybe one time it was Ford. But it's not a particularly original observation as it's an obvious deduction after you've read the biographies of a lot of writers. The same goes for poets too. Robert Frost said his head was full of junk until he was about 36.


i certainly agree with sfmike about james
elroy- american tabloid and the cold 6000 as
well are brutal alternate american histories-gore vidal transmuted through nick tosches.
but you cannot omit the la quartet-black dahlia, the big nowhere, la confidential and white jazz. they're too great to be left off the list.


I'll give you that you heard it anywhere, or even that it is obvious...

I don't know if most writers think it is obvious. Hemmingway wrote drunken crap at 50 and James doddered off into insensible senility not soon after. I think there are a fair amount of writers who think one thing and a fair amount who know the other. I've only heard that particular observation described clearly and underlined (as in the prefaces to many of his books) by Ford. If it is an ongoing meme from pre-John the Baptist times I think you'd have to tell Byron, Swinburne, Keats and every pre-1900 poet out there when they produced their best work.

I think if you'd ever tried to waddle through the Cantos of Ezra Pound, you'd know when his best work was produced. As with Joyce...

My guess is that it depends. Some writers are craftsmen, some are eulogists or emotional spouters or whatever you want to call it. To develop the craft, it takes, as with the Celtic poets, a very long number of years to perfect the craft. For the emotionalists, blast it!!!, fill the page with what you feel or what you see or what you experience. Each works in different ways for some.

Ford himself wrote some amazing stuff before he was forty. He only considered five of his works to be worthy to be considered literature. But that is how he defined it, and, as far as I know, the only person to put that particular idea (that you can't write serious fiction or serious literature until you are 40) into print. Perhaps the meme latches on. I would guess that Robert Frost was in no small way influenced by Ford (who couldn't be, in the early 20th century? He gave voice to all of the avant-garde of the entire era.).

My only beef is that there is a lot of cultural influence that comes from one man who never gets any credit for it. I don't know what it is. He's too hard... but not hard enough as Joyce to appeal to the idiot intellectuals. He's sad, I think, that's all... But, then again, most of us are pretty sad too, so give it what you will...



I don't think Ford is in danger of being forgotten. For one thing, he's always going to take up a chapter or three in any biography of Joseph Conrad. And there's even a blogger who's named his webpage in honor of the guy.

mac macgillicuddy

"To develop the craft, it takes, as with the Celtic poets, a very long number of years to perfect the craft."

It was Horace who said, "Let your literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years at least."

Centuries later, Alexander Pope agreed with this.

The premise being that if what one writes can stand the test of a decade of time, and still be relevant, then it can also be said to have importance.

Obviously different rules apply to a letter from college requesting money.


Ah, but you haven't seen my hit list...

I'm sure it will spike for a day after that reference (so thanks, wow! hits!), but I don't think Ford will gain any exposure over most of the twaddle I write...

harry near indy

thomas mann was one exception to the rule. he finished the confessions of felix krull, confidence man, when he was in his late 70s. i enjoyed it.


Lance, I love Mavis Gallant, too. But isn't she Canadian? (If we can include the Canadians, though, I'll put Alice Munro's Open Secrets at the top of my list and dare anyone to name a better collection of short stories since 1990.)


I need to post myself, but apart from Roth being so not underrated your complaints seem solid to me. Oddly, I couldn't finish Beloved but like Song of Solomon too...


"James doddered off into insensible senility not soon after"

Huh? He wrote What Maisie Knew at 54, The Wings of the Dove at 58 and The Outcry (one of my favorites) at 67. It's true his productivity did decline after around 1910, but he was well into his sixties by then.


Ok, I did actually have a suggestion:

Dean Bakopoulos' Please Don't Come Back from the Moon

It's some really great shit about what happens when de-industrialization hits (wow, an American novelist who actually pays any attention to the fact that people have jobs!).


I really don't like Toni Morrison. Delillo, McCarthy, Roth are great writers though. Updike is a brilliant stylist, but he has nothing to say.

I'd say McCarthy's 'Blood Meridian' was the best American novel of the last 25 years. Fake, yes, but fiction is fake. Anyway, fake or not, its certainly got great language. And a healthy understanding of evil.

'Underworld' was very good too. Messy, not as sharp as 'White Noise', but in the end, brilliant. I found Roth's 'The Human Stain' very good too.

Richard Powers cannot write. He'd do better to stick to equations. Richard Ford, on the oter hand, is really good. Then you have Franzen, Eggers, Foster Wallace and that's a bunch I'm not particularly familiar with. David Foster Wallace seems to be compared to Thomas Pynchon a lot.

I read a little of 'Vineland', but decided that if I wanted to read Pynchon, I might as well read Gravity's Rainbow one more time. And that's all the Pynchon I read. 'Mason and Dixon' seemed like fun, what with the talking dog and all that, but I didn't have it in me to read another 700 pages of Thomas Pynchon.


Well, it has been refreshing to stumble onto this page, especially after typing in "Top American Novels", and yes, seeing all this material I had not read, daunting and expected. Looking for the next ultimate classic for a sophisticated high School bunch. I have been reading international stuff lately,such as, Haruki Murakami and Orhan Pahuk. Any suggestions for giving hope to the young, blasting their minds open without resorting to the excesses of a culture spinning out of control.........


Were they really not going to jump at the opportunity to give it to a non-white female? This is the literary establishment we're talking about here. Ethnic, ethnic, ethnic. Ride that white guilt/pat yourself on the back for being p.c. mechanism until its legs are broken. If a red headed man from Nebraska named Bill Owens wrote 'Beloved' it's buried in a slush pile to this day. A lot of people don't get anything out of McCarthy because he's just a pure storyteller with nothing to do with the ethnic bandwagon and the cultural sensitivity masturbation doesn't have any place in it. That's why a lot of people see no use for it.

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