Books on the Tar Heel mind

What you hear depends on whom you ask. That was my first thought as I scanned a New York Times Book Review survey that asked 125 writers and critics to name the most distinguished work of fiction produced by an American in the past 25 years. On first glance it seemed that 75 percent of the judges lived within 75 miles of the island of Manhattan. Despite our state's rich literary output, the Times queried only two North Carolina residents: Allan Gurganus and Tony Early (former Raleigh resident Anne Tyler was also asked but she, alas, has long belonged to Baltimore).

It wasn't surprising that urban writers from the Northeast such as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo dominated the poll, which crowned "Beloved," Toni Morrison's 1987 masterpiece, queen of contemporary literature.

If the Times was guilty of parochialism, I figured we could do it one better by posing the same question to Tar Heel writers only.

The responses from 32 writers produced a list far different from the Times', one that suggests that for all the homogenization of American culture, Southern literature, and the Southern sensibility that creates it, is alive and kicking. Roth and DeLillo were barely whispered by our judges, who selected works by authors ignored by the Manhattan survey: Lee Smith, Charles Frazier, Lewis Nordan, Walker Percy, Ernest Gaines and Eudora Welty.

Write what you know, aspiring authors are told. The same might be said about what we read. These selections suggest that the world depicted by the Southern writers -- dominated by rural landscapes, twangy speech patterns, traditional value systems, a palpable sense of history and absence of great wealth -- resonate most strongly with North Carolina writers.

"If I lived in New York and were to write it, I would see vast differences between Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island," poet Fred Chappell said when I asked him about regional differences. "If you live in Raleigh and then head out to Climax, N.C., there are vast differences that it doesn't take a Henry James to detect. Most people are not looking for these differences which the writer is alert to and which television -- because it tries to reach a national audience -- ignores. As long as people are writing, they will write about their place, which will always have its own distinct feel and sensibility."

Of course, great literature transcends time and place, and there was overlap between The N&O and Times surveys: "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, Morrison's "Beloved," John Updike's "Rabbit" novels and "Housekeeping" by Marilynne Robinson made both lists. And the winner of our poll, "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy, was also a favorite of the Times' judges.

I use the term "winner" loosely. The clear message of the N&O and Times polls is this: Greatness abounds. Our 32 respondents selected 25 separate titles. Perhaps there is no Great American Novel because there are hundreds of them.

Despite this happy conclusion, the Times survey aroused a squall of controversy in the weeks since its May 21 publication.

"I've always disliked the Greatness Sweepstake view of literature," critic Laura Miller wrote on the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. "Every conversation I've ever witnessed about which works or writers are 'truly great' has smacked of philistinism and the sad, threadbare pomposity of a Joseph Roth character reminiscing about the Austro-Hungarian Empire."

Those are beautiful sentences with which I couldn't disagree more strongly. Time is the only critic that matters. The newspapers' surveys provide only a snapshot of ever-changing opinion. The books we celebrate today may or may not measure up as thousands of readers validate greatness by reading or ignoring these works in the decades and centuries hence. A review of works and authors honored by Nobel and Pulitzer prizes in the 20th century reveal the graveyard of long-forgotten tomes. John Phillips Marquand's "The Late George Apley," which won the Pulitzer in 1938, is not a bad book. It just hasn't survived the immense competition for readers' time.

If anything, history's cruel culling underscores the need for Times-like surveys: We should trumpet the books that matter to us before our descendants consign them to the ash heap.

Rather than being an exercise in philistinism, selecting great books urges deep reflection about our values and tastes. Like literature itself, it helps us know ourselves. (Mysteriously, the Times granted anonymity to its judges, never telling who picked what and why. All 32 respondents to the N&O poll went on the record with their picks and reasons for them.)

Finally, lists are worthwhile because people like them. They are fun -- and important. They smarten up our dumbed-down culture, bringing attention to McCarthy, Morrison and other writers. And as we become ever suffocated by information overload, such lists provide signposts to worthwhile books.

After you've perused our survey -- and added some of the titles to your nightstand -- let me know which book you would pick and why. I'll post your selections on my N&O blog.

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