Morrison was recalling the poet John Berryman's question after the death of Robert Frost. Answer: (to Berryman's chagrin) Robert Lowell.
Morrison goes on to write that since the deaths of Bellow, Mailer and Updike, the "number one" question is one that "inevitably comes up in relation to American fiction."
Tactfully, he avoids raising the same question about British fiction in 2010. Some of the pack leaders (Martin Amis, McEwan, etc) are getting long in the tooth.
There is always something a little bit canine about the literary world: there has to be a top dog. And there are different, even competing, kennels.
When Samuel Beckett died, there was general agreement that a 20th-century master had passed from the scene.
The death of Harold Pinter in 2009 left a gaping void in European drama, and it's not obvious who takes his place. Currently, in poetry, Seamus Heaney, with a terrific new collection "Human Chain", must be a strong contender for "number one", though he might be publicly dismayed at the vulgarity of the idea.
But there it is: that ineradicable human instinct to order a list. Coincidentally with reading Morrison on Franzen, I was browsing some old Graham Greene essays and came across this passage from an appreciation of Francois Mauriac:
"After the death of Henry James a disaster overtook the English novel; indeed long before his death one can picture [him] as the last survivor on a raft, gazing out over a sea scattered with wreckage ..."
Having made James his "number one", Greene goes on to elucidate his choice: "with the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act.
It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension ..." He adds that without this sense, the characters in novels by Virginia Woolf and EM Forster become "like cardboard symbols".
It's remarkable how the passage of time shifts one's literary perspective. Today, I guess, we'd be happy to place both Woolf and Forster in a pantheon that included James. And, currently, we might even exclude Graham Greene who was, in his prime, routinely hailed as a 20th century great from their company.
In 2010, with such an extraordinarily global range of literary self-expression, it's harder to locate where the heart of the canon lies. There's still an Anglo-American hegemony, but the question "who's number one?" will get a different answer in Australia, Turkey, Israel, India, France or Egypt, all countries with great contemporary writers commanding international respect. (Peter Carey, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Michel Houellebecq, Alaa Al Aswani.)
At the end of his Franzen piece, having raised the issue, Morrison sensibly says that "it doesn't matter" who is top dog. He's right of course but that won't stop readers the world over from arguing in bars and buses about their favourite, yes, their top, writers.
Perhaps the apparent bonanza of new fiction we enjoy, as readers, goes to emphasise my contention in recent posts that, like it or loathe it, this bears all the hallmarks of a golden age of creativity. And posterity will decide who, in the end, was "number one".