More than a century ago, Frank Norris wrote that “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff,” an observation that Philip Roth later used as the epigraph for a spoofy 1973 baseball fantasia called, naturally, “The Great American Novel.” It pointedly isn’t – no one counts it among Roth’s best novels, though what books people do place in that category will turn out to be relevant to our purpose here, which has to do with the eternal hunt for Norris’s legendary beast. 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.”
“What is poetry and if you know what poetry is what is prose?” Gertrude Stein once asked, and the question “what is the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years?” invites a similar scrutiny of basic categories and assumptions. Nothing is as simple as it looks. What do we mean, in an era of cultural as well as economic globalization, by “American”? Or, in the age of James Frey, reality television and phantom W.M.D.’s, what do we mean by “fiction”? And if we know what American fiction is, then what do we mean by “best”?