Best modern Fiction books
In the novel, as in everything else, there are Anglo-Saxon and American attitudes. We celebrate a literary tradition of astonishing variety. They want to believe in the Great American Novel, the classic exemplar, the last word. We don't really believe in the last word, prefer not to be told what's best and would rather make our own discoveries. They subscribe to the pursuit of (literary) happiness.
Last spring, the New York Times, repeating an exercise from the 1960s that chose Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, announced that it had ventured into the interior of American letters and tracked down 'the best work' of contemporary American fiction. The editors of the NYT Book Review had sent a letter to 200 writers 'and other literary sages' asking them to identify 'the best single work of American fiction in the last 25 years'. The answer to this question, published on 21 May, came back loud and clear: Beloved by Toni Morrison, a contemporary masterpiece that contributed powerfully to Morrison's nomination for the Nobel Prize in 1993.
Even as it trumpeted its finding, the NYT was quick to admit the quixotic nature of its quest. 'What do we mean, in an era of globalisation, ' it wondered, 'by "American"? Or, in the age of reality TV, by "fiction"? What do we mean by "best"?' Actually, some Americans have always conceded that the Great American Novel might be a will-o'-the-wisp too fabulous for critical scrutiny. A hundred years ago, the Californian novelist Frank Norris noted that it was 'mythical like the hippogriff'.
Mythical or not, the NYT question produced an intriguing list of runners-up. These included Underworld by Don DeLillo; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; Rabbit Angstrom, a compendium of the Rabbit novels by John Updike; and American Pastoral by Philip Roth. It was clear from the long list of also-rans, titles that attracted multiple nominations, that if Philip Roth, who has been at the top of his game for the past decade, could have aggregated the votes for novels like The Human Stain and The Plot Against America he might have emerged the outright winner.
Whatever its limitations, the list provoked a vigorous debate. When the dust had settled, the New York Times, summarising, decided that its survey supplied 'a rich, if partial and unscientific, picture of the state of American literature, a kind of composite self-portrait'. Inevitably, as several commentators were quick to point out, it was an incomplete one: among those that received no recognition were Paul Auster, Lorrie Moore and Anne Tyler, to name three of the most glaring omissions.
And, of course, it excluded contemporary fiction from that hard-to-define, but global, phenomenon, the English-speaking world. So, as the Booker prize season approached, The Observer decided to ask the same question about British fiction, for the same generation, 1980-2005, with one difference. Our definition of 'British', following Booker, would include Ireland and the literary traditions of the Commonwealth.
Accordingly, a few weeks ago we sent a letter to about 150 writers and 'literary sages' inviting them confidentially to nominate 'the best novel (in English, excluding America) for the years 1980-2005.' Helpfully, we added, 'how you define "best" is up to you'.
One hundred and twenty (listed below) agreed to take part. As with the NYT, the results have been surprising, upending quite a bit of conventional wisdom. Fashionable names that are often bandied about were passed over. Books that might have seemed forgotten were enthusiastically supported. Only one writer voted for himself.
Before the answers, the inevitable debate. Where many were stimulated and intrigued by our question, quite a number of correspondents refused to have anything to do with it, denouncing 'list culture' as a pact with the devil of popular culture. There were passionate pleas for the inclusion of short story collections. An anguished minority argued for the inclusion of the German writer WG Sebald, whose translations of his own work (The Emigrants, Vertigo, Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz) render a prose so classical as to be quasi-native. Several correspondents puzzled over the meaning of 'fiction' and, inevitably, of 'best'. 'Bit of a poser, this, ' observed one, before indulging in a figurative headscratch.
There was, too, a cut-off problem. 1980 is an arbitrary date. It excludes, by the narrowest of margins, VS Naipaul's A Bend in the River (1979), by any standards one of the great novels of our time. And then, what do you do about John le Carre? Smiley himself was flourishing, imaginatively, until the Wall came down and the three main Smiley novels, written in the 1970s, were republished, in a single volume, in 1994. In the end, le Carre was represented by A Perfect Spy (1986). At one early stage in our polling, it looked as if he might win.
Both Naipaul and le Carre, in different ways, connect the reader to the Victorian hinterland of the contemporary English novel. This poses another question. What might a similar exercise look like for 1880-1905? Ask that question and you get a sense of the complexity of such surveys.
Time is a ruthless critic: RL Stevenson or Thomas Hardy? HG Wells or Joseph Conrad? EM Forster or Rudyard Kipling? Heart of Darkness (1902) or Jude The Obscure (1895)? The Time Machine (1896) or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)? Nostromo (1904) or Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)? This is, of course, a debate that must exclude Henry James at the peak of his powers (Daisy Miller, 1879; Portrait of a Lady, 1881) on the grounds of his American citizenship.
Returning to the last century, and our own, the results of The Observer poll bear out one of the commonplaces of recent literary commentary: the years of Blair and especially Thatcher have seen a remarkable flourishing of the novel in English.