Toni Morrison will not slip quietly into retirement, though she is leaving her teaching post at Princeton University after 17 years there. Just as the university was announcing a tribute to her, came new accolades for the 75-year-old writer. Literary colleagues polled by the New York Times Book Review chose her 1987 novel Beloved as the "Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years." The review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, had asked 124 writers, critics and others to identify "the single best work of American fiction in the last 25 years" Beloved drew the most votes, 15. The results were announced before BookExpo America convened on May 18 in Washington, D.C., and the topic was hotly debated there and elsewhere before the Book Review published them May 21.
"Any other outcome would have been startling, since Morrison's novel has inserted itself into the American canon more completely than any of its potential rivals," said A. O. Scott in an accompanying essay. "With remarkable speed, Beloved has, less than twenty years after its publication, become a staple of the college literary curriculum, which is to say a classic...."
The runners up were Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997), with 11 votes; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985) 8 votes; Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels by John Updike (1995) 8 votes; and American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) 7 votes. Among other books winning multiple votes (totals undisclosed) was The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003). (African Americans voting included Henry Louis Gates Jr., Edwidge Danticat and Wole Soyinka.)
Scott also noted that the last time a similar polling was done--in 1965 by the now-defunct New York Herald-Tribune's Book World--an African American's novel, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, first published in 1952, was declared "the most memorable" work of fiction since the end of World War II...