An opinionated view why superlative lists and 'the best of' anything has calculated flaws as they pertain to literary lore in African-American literary pursuits.
In search of the best of anything, and superlative lists never ceases to amaze me. More often than not what is being compared are not equal to the parity they seek. My awe often is mired in supposition, and a natural feeling that comparative analysis will never be balanced if the entities you’re comparing are not equal to each other in ways that would make those comparisons stand up for viability. Being ‘equal to each other’ is being allowed to be judged by the masses without segregation and other institutions of biased opinion holding sway to popular opinion for inclusion. I feel it’s worse in sports and literature. The former is rife with athletes from different eras being offered to stand and toe the line with sports heroes of today. There are a plethora of reasons why it is folly to give credence to allow the vast improvements of today to think that yesteryear’s athlete was better with inferior equipment and conditions. The latter, while easy to read into something that is not readily assumed can be dauntingly misleading, has allowed lucrative financial boons to sway the opinions of today’s writers equal status with their peers from another era. I will always ask -- what are they comparing and from what standard? It is the unbalanced nature of what is considered ‘literary’ that always tend to give comparative analysis less than what is intended.
As a freelance writer and essayist who happen to be Black, I’m not pleased at how our work is not considered acceptable to what is considered good journalism in some literary circles. Incidentally, I balked at a survey conducted recently that asked to identify "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years." The survey in my opinion was predictable and not quite surprising. Why? The poll wasn’t extended to enough of us, and when I allude to ‘us’ I’m referring to many people of color in my literary Diaspora that are just as influential as specific white folk are to their constituencies. African American writers have emerged and want to be recognized! We are strong and vociferous and are just as prolific as you would find in mainstream sections of the industry. We have produced work that, if given the same equal proportion that others get, would definitely balance the scales of competition and allow opportunity to be accepted in all annals of acceptance.
A.O. Scott in his recent article of the same subject alluded that “a study of this kind where you rank the ‘best’ is akin to something of a composite self-portrait as interesting perhaps for its blind spots and distortions as for its details”. I agree wholeheartedly, and applaud his contention that equally interesting in some cases the reasoning behind the choices as for the choices themselves. My whole premise in this has a lot to do with the fact that in the last 25 years the Black community has given the literary world quite a few gems worthy of consideration. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, notwithstanding and certainly no disrespect to the two of them, are literary, and you expect for them to garner the pundits and accolades accordingly. Mainstream publishing circles will readily cite them and a few others that are ‘name’ authors by reputation in most cases. The fact that they have earned the right to be placed in categories of superlative verve is not lost on me, but they certainly are not the only ones worthy of consideration. But you can’t tell me that what others have read based on their individual sensibilities couldn’t give credence, or shouldn’t be considered important and respected enough to make a list like that? The problem is that not enough ‘other’ people read our books, plain and simple; and if they don’t read us how can they purport to produce a list of ‘the best’ and exclude comprehensively other works considered to be just as noteworthy? I’m sure I won’t stand alone in this opinionated view, for I only want to be pragmatic, if not logical in this assessment.
It’s so hard to deem one’s work as the best - or even to establish a short, if not incomplete list of near-bests. I surmise it would be to risk the implication that no one need bother with the rest, and thus belittle the cause of reading or comparing anything without a wider network to adequately choose from. When man resorts to abstract means to deduce what is tangible and what is relevant in reading habits in producing the best of anything, it’s fraught with danger, lest you offend those that feel they legitimately belong in the first place. Literary merit is much more than eliciting opinions where not all books are read to really make the competition fair and equitable. Reasoned judgment with good persuasive points of contention should be the norm, and not some quirky answers given to support a system that plays to chaos and skewed opinions. Mass public opinion has ways of going against the grain where divided loyalties are par for the course in swaying votes to sensibilities closer to racial affinity. America’s penchant to rank anything and everything causes more harm than anything where the competition is not given opportunities for fair play. I worry too, about not having judges if you will, who are familiar with their own kind as opposed to having someone judge product foreign to their sensibilities. Oh yes, this happens a lot. Just look at American Idol, and you can see how and why vestiges of fabricated competition can give superlative competition a sort of triviality.
In my mind I would love to point to one of my favorite authors, Walter Mosley and fondly place several of his books on that list, for I feel that no other writer, Black or white exemplify diversity in writing acumen. But then again, the idea illustrated here may be the fodder for others to give reason to discount and de-emphasize the need to be the best, if balanced scales are not allowed to legitimize logic for all intended purposes for the sake of fairness!