Monday, September 20, 2010

But Hey, Who’s Keeping Score?

by Stephanie

I found this piece over at the Guardian to be very interesting. In it, Robert McCrum considers the sometimes touchy yet seemingly ubiquitous concept of the “number one writer.” McCrum makes an undeniable point—that devising a list whereby there is always a top dog is part of the human condition. I find it interesting that the prevailing notion still tends toward nailing down a singular individual who encompasses the talent, finesse, and self-awareness to be considered top dog. To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it; this kind of thing may have been possible, and certainly more feasible, in times past. But these days, the range of literary material out there in the market is so expansive that it seems entirely impossible to make such a definitive and exclusionary selection.

But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe in one hundred years people like Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen will replace Charles Dickens and C. S. Lewis in the textbooks.


  1. i get where mccrum's coming from, but i can't buy it (or maybe just don't want to). it feels a bit like saying, "my favorite ice cream is...") obviously, a much higher-brow way of saying it, but still how can you name only one???

  2. Number one by whose standards, Mr. McCrum? I think the whole "top-dog" mentality is terribly primal-male: chest-pounding and Tarzan-yelling in the jungle. (I notice no female writer was mentioned in McCrum's entire article.)

    We still adore Jane Austen. Are Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood somehow lessened by her greatness? Oh, pu-leez, boys.

  3. My sense is that it's about the question of who is setting the tone for the current scene. I don't think that literature is as unified, even if we break it down by national boundaries (which, in a way, is a nonsensical distinction in the contemporary world), as it was, say, in the era of Henry James. I think that to a large extent, the number one role, for the late 90s and early 00s was held by J.K. Rowling: I think she really sparked a renaissance of interest in young adult literature. That's not to say that she was the best writer of that period, but I think that a lot of what's on the bookshelves today might not have existed had Harry Potter never been written. I expect that she'll cast a long shadow over contemporary fiction for years to come.