12/30/2009 07:23 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You Choose: the Best Novel of the Past 60 Years

Choose the best book of award-winning fiction of the past 60 years? Impossible! Yes, but let's do it anyway. The National Book Foundation, keeper and presenter of the National Book Awards, invites you to step up to the challenge.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, so the board of directors (of which I am the weakest link) decided we should ask all living winners, finalists and judges to look back at the National Book Award fiction winners over the past 60 years and -- somehow -- come up with the best six books.

Then, emboldened by our own audacity, we thought: Why not invite the American public to vote on the one single book among these six that would be elected as (gulp) the best novel of the past 60 years?

Of course it's an outlandish notion. Just how preposterous can be seen by the books that didn't win the National Book Award and thus were ineligible, including the likes of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1958), and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

Furthermore, look at the pantheon of National Book Award-winning authors that would have to be winnowed down: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Wallace Stegner, John Updike, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Susan Sontag, Cormac McCarthy, and that's just for starters.

That this is an impossible task is true, but it's no more impossible than what the judges of the National Book Awards do every year when 300 or more mostly marvelous works are submitted for the annual award for fiction, from which five finalists must be selected, and then an ultimate winner. (The same scenario repeats itself for nonfiction and other categories.) We expect -- and get -- the impossible every year for the Awards.

The six finalists and their surprise

So by the same inscrutable means, over this past summer 140 writers who were winners, finalists or judges played the game and narrowed the legacy of luminaries down to a measly six. It worked, but resulted in a big surprise. Here's the list of the final six:

1. John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever
2. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
3. William Faulkner, The Collected Stories of William Faulkner
4. Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor
5. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
6. Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

And here's the surprise, as described by executive director Harold Augenbraum:

"When we tabulated the results of the writers' poll, four of the top six books were collections of short stories. It may be that writers almost all teach now, and they use the best short stories in their classes so they are regularly exposed to their brilliance. It may be that collected stories represent a lifetime of work, and so are in a different category from novels. In any case, the authors of the six books selected truly represent the best of American literature in the past sixty years."

Harold knows better than anyone the folly of what we do -- and also why we should do it:

"We realize, of course, that to select the best of any work of art is, even under the best conditions, an absurd exercise. But our purpose is to bring back awareness of many of these titles to a broader public, to get people to read 'the good stuff' from the past sixty years. The first step is to get people to talk about them, and what better way than to get them to argue, to politic, even to electioneer about which of them is the best?"

More reason to vote (hint: black tie)

Vote at the link below and you become eligible to win two tickets to the National Book Awards Gala dinner and ceremony, where the winner will be announced. It's held at the swank Cipriani's in Manhattan, with about 800 of the Who's Who of American publishers, authors and agents all in black tie. (I'll be there, too, at the Levenger table.) The winner will also receive two free nights at the New York Marriott hotel.

Of course the other reason you should vote is because it will encourage you to read some or all of these books. That's just what my book group, The Mules, is going to do. We're reading all six over three months, this October through December.

So here's the link. I encourage you to vote and thereby enter the contest; the deadline is October 21st. Mostly I encourage you to join me in reading these authors and be taken lands away.

And, of course, I welcome your comments. (Translation: tell me who you voted for.)

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