Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Contemporary American Fiction and the Confluence of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike: A Roundtable Discussion

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Contemporary American Fiction and the Confluence of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike: A Roundtable Discussion

Article excerpt

At the twenty-first annual American Literature Association Conference in 2010, held at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco's Embarcadero Center, representatives from the Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike Societies participated in a roundtable discussion on the significance of these five authors. The event took place on Saturday, May 29, and what follows is an edited transcript of that discussion. The springboard for the roundtable was a survey conducted by the New York Times Book Review in 2006. Early in that year, the Review's editor, Sam Tanenhaus, sent out a brief letter to 200 prominent writers, editors, critics, and other literary-minded professionals, asking the respondents to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." This request obviously was not without its problems and it generated a variety of intriguing questions for the roundtable participants: What do we mean by "American"? How do we define "fiction" or, in today's hybrid-rich culture, how do we even distinguish prose from poetry? What are the political implications of establishing a "best"? And does the original publication of a text have to fall within the past twenty-five years? Nonetheless, 125 of the 200 individuals responded to the Times Book Review survey, and their choices served as grist for the panel discussion.

The top five books receiving the most votes were, in descending order, Morrison's Beloved (1987), DeLillo's Underworld (1997), McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) and Updike's collected Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels (1995)- both tied for third place-and Roth's American Pastoral (1997). In addition, three of these authors had other books ranked in the top 22. The list included five additional novels by Philip Roth-The Counterlife (1986), Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993), Sabbath's Theater (1995), The Human Stain (2000), and The Plot Against America (2004)-two other novels by Don DeLillo- White Noise (1985) and Libra (1988)-and one, or arguably three, others by Cormac McCarthy-the collected Border Trilogy (1999). Other important novels and significant authors made up the remainder of the Times Book Review list, but the ALA Conference roundtable was primarily concerned with the five top vote getters, the authors that the survey respondents believe to best define our current literary moment.

Participating in the discussion, and representing the DeLillo, McCarthy, Morrison, Roth, and Updike Societies were Marni Gauthier, associate professor of English at SUNY Cortland and author of Amnesia and Redress in Contemporary American Fiction: Counterhistory (2011); Steven Frye, professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield and author of Understanding Cormac McCarthy (2009) as well as editor of the upcoming Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy; Yvonne Atkinson, assistant professor of English at Mt. San Jacinto College, past president of the Toni Morrison Society, and co-editor (along with Michelle Pagni) of Ethnic Literary Traditions in American Children's Literature (2009); David Brauner, English Language and Literature director of research at the University of Reading, and author of Post-War Jewish Fiction: Ambivalence, Self-Explanation and Transatlantic Connections (2001), Philip Roth (2007), and Contemporary American Fiction (2010); and Marshall Boswell, professor of English at Rhodes College and author of John Updike's Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion (2001) and Understanding David Foster Wallace (2004). Moderating and organizing the session was Derek Parker Royal, founding executive editor of Philip Roth Studies, co-author (along Patrick Badonnel and Daniel Royot) of Philip Roth: American Pastoral (2011), and editor of the collections Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author (2005) and Unfinalized Moments: Essays in the Development of Contemporary Jewish American Narrative (2012).

Derek Parker Royal: Good morning, and welcome to our roundtable discussion, "Contemporary American Fiction and the Confluence of Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and John Updike. …

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