Debating the new "Best American Fiction" list.

Examining culture and the arts.
May 21 2006 3:17 PM

Debating the Best American Fiction

In praise of "small" novels.

Marilynne Robinson's 'Housekeeping'

On Sunday, the New York Times published a list of the best works of American fiction of the last 25 years, chosen by 125 or so judges (whose company I was invited to join, but in the end didn't). The usual suspects were all on it: Toni Morrison's Beloved. Don DeLillo's Underworld, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (tied with Updike), and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. They were usual not only because their authors are the biggest names in American literature, but also because the books named were sprawling ones. While these are all excellent, even great, novels, their presence at the top of the list may tell us something about our unconscious cultural biases against the so-called small novel. Generalizations are odious, but if you peruse the extended shortlist—17 more books—you'll find that even the fiction there is in some sense "large." The only exceptions are Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (a story collection), Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.

The bias against the short novel has deep roots. The American novel (and American canon-making) has always been a highly self-conscious enterprise. The aim of our early writers was not merely to write a great work of art, but to make a great American work of art. Yet early on American writers were anxious about what James Fenimore Cooper worried in 1828 was a "poverty of materials." It wasn't until Melville, Hawthorne, and Whitman seized on what Philip Rahv called "the tensions and hazards" of the American experience that our literature began to look robust, imaginative, and new to its own creators and early critics. They made up for the perceived "paucity of ingredients" with an impressively self-conscious gusto; their methods were as big as their vision. Consider Whitman's sprawling poetic line, his insistent use of anaphora; James' knotted, lengthy sentences, and his protracted epics of social mores, The Golden Bowl and The Ambassadors; or Melville's Moby-Dick.

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In the decades that followed, our notion of the great American novel became entwined with a perception that shorter books weren't, somehow, as serious. Seriousness required self-consciousness, and self-consciousness required expansiveness. When F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, he and Maxwell Perkins worried that it was too short; indeed, the book—a mere 50,000 words or so—did less well commercially than his earlier novels. Complaining that it never became a best seller, Fitzgerald wrote to a friend about his misjudgment: "It was too short. Remember this. Never write a book under sixty thousand words." Luckily for Fitzgerald, his closing pages draw back to meditate, self-consciously, on the nature of the tension between the private and the public in America, offering a prime example of what Philip Rahv once said was the ur-aim of American literature: to contemplate "the discrepancy between the high promise of the American dream and what history has made of it."

The notion that "small" novels are unworthy of high critical esteem has been especially pervasive of late. Somewhere along the way, the critique of the small novel got bound up with a critique of the well-crafted novel that proliferated with the rise of MFA programs. Even as Gatsby, Lolita, and Rabbit Run (all short novels) entered our canon, the "small" novel became inextricably linked in critic's minds with domestic and generally female novels of the sort that Gail Caldwell, the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, indicted in a 2003 interview, when she lamented the dire state of American fiction. "There are a great number of contemporary fiction writers who go for the myopic sensitive-heart rending personal blah, blah, blah, blah, blah small novel," she complained, announcing her love of "big brilliant novels" and praising the panoramic skills of Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon. In 2004, after the National Book Award nominees were announced—in an act of apparent rebelliousness, the judges had chosen five short, lyrical books by women, leaving off Philip Roth's Plot Against America—Caryn James wrote in the New York Times that the real problem with the finalists was not that they were unknown, but that they did not write "big, sprawling novels."

What's been lost in the conflation of "small" and "small-minded" is the recognition that small books can be powerful vehicles for big ideas—to say nothing of powerful examples of aesthetic rigor. In his otherwise astute essay accompanying the Times' list, A.O. Scott succumbed to a form of category confusion when he explained the absence of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in the top five by noting that they are "small" books that do not "generalize" but "document"—a peculiar misreading of both novels, which hardly shy away from probing large themes, and do so with metaphoric richness. In fact, plenty of big novels do far more documenting than these two masterpieces.

This odd assertion—emblematic of the broader cultural confusion—raises a question that no one seems to have a satisfying answer to: What exactly makes a novel small, aside from its length? And if we don't know, is the term more of an obstacle than an aid in taking stock of great literature? The Great Gatsby, after all, might seem to be a small book: It is a novel of "lyric incisiveness," as Claudia Roth-Pierpont has put it, and deals with a small group of characters over a relatively short period of time. The narrative is a single thread, filtered through Nick Carraway's narration, rather than the intricate crosscutting—a la Underworld or The Corrections—that characterizes "big" novels. Clearly, part of what makes Gatsby seem big in our eyes today is that it frames its tale as a purposeful meditation on the American dream, and its propulsive last page explicitly deals with the tension between nostalgia for and disenchantment with our past's promise of an innocent future.

Being termed "small," it seems, is a verdict on whether a book is familiarly "American." It reflects a perceived failure to pursue explicitly enough, in formal or thematic terms, our representative narratives of money, regret, ambition, and individual struggle in the messy maelstrom of contemporary social reality. Would Rabbit Run (272 pages), we may wonder, have been called a small novel if it had shown up on its own (rather than in an edition of the Rabbit series) among the top five selected? Perhaps not, because it tells a story we've already accepted as somehow American: the spiritual quest of a man trying to break free from the normalizing bonds of marriage and the expectations of material success. But if Rabbit Run opened with a bored housewife in a remote town, rather than with a former star athlete playing basketball, would it suddenly seem small?

I'm not sure. But Housekeeping is itself anything but a small book. It is the story of a young woman's gradual alienation from the microcosm of American life that is her town, and her ultimate decision to abandon her sister and her aunts and take another path, that of the American drifter, living forever on the margins of society, refusing to shape herself to society's conventional requirements. The book is suffused with Shakespearean and biblical language, entirely self-aware of the Western canon it draws on in shaping a narrative and a set of metaphoric insights as profound as those found in more sprawling tomes. Its achievement, finally, may be tightly contained (the book is only 226 pages long), but it is as deep as the fearsome lake that floods the narrator's town periodically, and into which her own mother threw herself many years ago. The preoccupations, the materials, are as American as they come: the quest of the outsider for solitude, for a vantage that can only be gotten outside the web of social interactions that make for big fictional canvasses. (I was surprised, too, that Robinson's Gilead, a deceptively quiet historical meditation on American slavery and religious conflict—big topics—didn't even make it onto the shortlist.)

Denis Johnson's 'Angels'

Big novels may indeed contain more of the flotsam and jetsam of social reality than shorter novels do. But concision, lyrical intensity (not the same thing as "well-crafted prose"), and metaphorical depth are in principle as aesthetically valuable as expository generalization, sweep, and narrative complexity. Taut perfection may not be the only hallmark of a good novel (the novel has always been an expansive form), but it is surely one of them. It's time that the books we call "small" get a closer look, which would reveal some of them to be as intellectually and artistically ambitious as their fatter counterparts. Among the ones I'd begin by nominating for our parallel tradition are, in addition to Housekeeping, Denis Johnson's Angels (Philip Roth called it "a small masterpiece"), James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, Elizabeth Hardwick's Sleepless Nights, Edmund White's Forgetting Elena, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and (going further back), Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. When it comes to celebrating the American novel, thinking big is only a form of being small-minded.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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