Literature and Millennial Lists
A custom at every year's end entails a review of accomplishments and disappointments, but as the twentieth century draws to a close and the third millennium begins, lists are everywhere—the greatest thinkers, the best inventions, the top films, the worst politicians, to name just a few. Steve Wasserman has observed: "The modem mania for list-making is seemingly insatiable. It is one of the ironies of our democratic age that, despite the impulse to include and honor every voice, no matter how marginal or mediocre, nostalgia for hierarchies of quality and authority finds its most vulgar expression in the concoction of lists and rankings of all kinds." These lists record the people and things that ostensibly distill the essence of the past century in every area of human endeavor, and, like the capstones of a contemporary literary edifice, lists of the century's notable books have proliferated since the mid-1990s. In 1995, the Times Literary Supplement tallied one hundred of the most influential books, mostly nonfiction, published since World War II. In 1996, the New York Public Library exhibited "The Books of the Century" and published a companion volume of the same name, which listed works of diverse literary genres subdivided into such categories as "Landmarks of Modern Literature," "Protest and Progress," and "Women Rise." In 1997, Waterstone's, an English publishing company and retail bookseller, sponsored a rcaders's poll of the century's "greatest" novels, in which J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ranked first. In 1998, the Modern Library, a division of New York-based Random House publishers that reprints classics of English literature, issued a list of the "best" one hundred novels written in English in the past century. Although fiction from Canada, India, Australia, South Africa, and other Anglophone countries was eligible, the Modern Library list includes fifty-eight novels written by Americans, thirty-nine by English novelists, and three by Irish writer James Joyce; of these, only eight women and three African Americans made the cut. This list in particular attracted worldwide media scrutiny and generated heated controversy, spawning a bevy of counter-lists and prompting seemingly endless commentary by readers everywhere. Random House officials hoped that their list would invigorate sales of its Modern Library classics as well as foster public debate about twentieth-century fiction. Christopher Cerf, chairman of the editorial board that created the list, has claimed, "This has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
James Joyce's Ulysses tops the Modem Library list, followed in descending order by F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita; and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Besides Cerf, other board members were Daniel Boorstin, a former librarian of the Library of Congress; A. S. Byatt, the English novelist who wrote Possession; Shelby Foote, a Civil War historian; Varlan Gregorian, the head of the Carnegie Corporation; Edmund Morris, a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt; John Richardson, a biographer of Pablo Picasso; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a historian of John F. Kennedy's administration; and the American novelists William Styron and Gore Vidal. Press releases about the Modern Library list led readers to believe that these respected professionals chose one hundred novels after debating their respective merits and then ranked them. However, Random House later admitted that their executives initially compiled a master list of over four hundred titles from which board members selected one hundred novels without ranking them (although some panelists chose as few as thirty books). The executives then tallied the votes each title received, which resulted in numerous ties, and instead of returning draws to the board for reconsideration, they themselves determined the final order of the Modem Library list. Frank Rich described their manner of ranking novels as "so sub-Price-Waterhouse that it might have been more scientific had Gore Vidal and Daniel Boorstin simply thrown darts" at bookshelves. In subsequent commentary, several judges confessed nagging concerns about the criteria used to compose the list, expressing uncertainty as to whether they were choosing the best-written novels, or the most important, or the most influential. Cerf acknowledged that "the process is to some degree a scam, but it's a good scam," especially since the list sparked a national debate about literature. He explained, "I don't consider this a scientific or even a valid process. I consider it a swell process. It's got everyone I know talking about books, and it's books they don't usually talk about." The marketing gimmick of the Modern Library list gained immediate notice, as most critics praised the publicity strategy underlying the rankings. "Forty years ago, critics and intellectuals would have dismissed a list like this one as a cheap marketing ploy. Today, critics celebrate the marketing savvy behind the Modern Library list but confess that they cannot be bothered to read the great works anymore," remarked Bruce Headlam. "Once, we loved literature and scoffed at the list; now, we love the list and laugh at Ulysses." Calling the list a "clever" means "of getting column inches for books," author and feminist Erica Jong reasoned, "Anything that gets people talking about books in a video culture is to be applauded." For Margo Jefferson, however, the rankings smacked of manipulation, "exactly as the fashion industry does: imposing dictates that seem omniscient when they are just the result of personal taste and a determination to maintain or regain an idealized status quo."
Widespread media coverage of the Modern Library list ignited a firestorm of criticism, as much for its contents as its omissions. Tom Lioce summarized the general reaction: "Too many white authors. Not enough women (and not a single black one). Too many dead/old people. Only one author who didn't/doesn't live in the U.S. or England. Too many books published by the Modern Library itself or at least its parent company." According to Jong, "The twentieth century has been the first in which women publicly roared. Why then have the good people at the Modem Library not heard?" Leaked to the New York Times a day before its formal announcement at a Radcliffe College publishing seminar, the list received mention on network television and international wire services, and soon nearly everyone—from syndicated columnists to cocktail party guests—began suggesting deletions, additions, and substitutions to improve "The List," as it was commonly tagged. Random House invited online readers to submit their favorite novels at its Internet site for an alternative ranking of twentieth-century English-language fiction. "If the Modern Library list represents the middlebrow sensibility," wrote Headlam, the on-line listing captures the literary tastes of what he termed "netbrow." In the cyberpoll, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged took first place, with science fiction and fantasy novels dominating the rest; the on-line list also showed more experimental and historical fiction, works by women (24), and books written after 1975. Other counterlists of one hundred titles also popped up across the nation and in cyberspace. The Radcliffe publishing course, for example, agreed with less than half of the Modern Library's choices, placing Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby at the top and favoring more female and minority writers, and the Washington Post determined the one-hundred worst books written in English in the twentieth century, in which Ulysses also appears. Meanwhile, Jong conducted a survey of fiction written exclusively by women in the last century that cites Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind as the most frequent nominee. As planned, the Modern Library released in 1999 a companion list of this century's "best" English-language nonfiction works. Henry Adam's memoirs The Education of Henry Adams heads the list, followed in descending order by William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Because the editorial board diversified itself and modified the selection process, the Modern Library nonfiction list received a better response than the fiction list, although some critics still voiced objections.
The ensuing debate engaged the finer points of list-making, and most literary pundits belittled the activity. "Lists remind us that people are sheep," insisted Jonathan Yardley, adding "that popular taste unerringly gravitates to the lowest common denominator." Some commentators tried a more practical approach. Noting that most bibliophiles inevitably confront the paradoxical thought "that there are far too many books in the world," Alain de Botton suggested that "it may be the desire to cut a path through this dense literary foliage that explains why people are drawn to make lists of great books, choices that indicate not just what one must read, but—more important and more therapeutic—what one doesn't have to bother with." However, many critics viewed list-making as an exercise in futility. Like most critics, David Kilpen asked, "How can you quantify something as quicksilver as literature?" A number of critics addressed the subjective nuances of criteria used to compose the Modern Library list, which included some books but excluded others. Margo Jefferson, for instance, wrote: "A word like 'best' can cover a book that many acknowledge to be a masterpiece whether or not they love or even like it…. But it is just as likely to apply to a definite nonmasterpiece that someone wanted to be deemed 'the best' simply because he or she loved it so." De Botton observed that such lists "always fail to capture the idiosyncrasies of our reading tastes. We do not rank our favorite books in linear fashion; we hold them like planets around us. They spin in and out of view again." Also citing an absence of "meaningful criteria" to rank the "the loosest of all aesthetic forms," James Woods claimed that novels are "perhaps the hardest about which to generalize and the hardest to discriminate between," or, as Jong explained, "Books are not prizefighters. They don't compete against one another." Some observers considered the Modern Library list as some sort of primitive signpost, marking the tremendous changes in fiction during the last hundred years. Yardley found that "influence in its various forms seems to have swayed the judges at least as much as true greatness," pointing out that numerous titles appear on the list "not because of what they are but because of what they say: their morally impeccable thematic content as opposed to their actual literary quality." Woods also observed that the list "demotes aesthetics and favors novels with powerful content." On the other hand. Richard Bernstein postulated that the Modern Library list and its emphasis on "literary experimentation in the 20th-century novels of politics and consciousness" show that the "19th century was a greater epoch for literature," asserting that "the literary age of feeling, of personal, sexual, political and stylistic exploration, seems somehow smaller than the literary age of great moral and philosophical narrative." Likewise, Woods equated "the feebleness of postwar English fiction" with the contents of the list. "It sometimes seems as if a treaty must have been signed in 1945, in Westminster, outlawing all artistic experiment, all seriousness and nobility in English fiction for the next 50 years." Despite the contentious charges brought against "The List," de Botton alluded to perhaps the best reason for making lists: "To feel for ourselves the greatness of a book, we have to risk that we may not like it … but we'll never know for ourselves, in our own hearts, until we develop the inner security to judge for ourselves. Then again, an unintended and wonderful side effect of these authoritarian lists of great books may simply be to remind us of what works we genuinely like. In disagreeing with the judges' choices, we define our own identities as readers. Perhaps the best lists should annoy us most."
- Ulysses, James Joyce
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
- Catch-22, Joseph Heller
- Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler
- Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
- Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
SOURCE: An introduction, in Books of the Century, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 2-7.
[Diefendorf is the chief librarian of the general research division of the New York Public Library. In the following essay, Diefendorf offers a librarian's perspective on the obstacles—and the value—of compiling a list of definitive books of the twentieth century, as determined by the New York Public Library.]
The New York Public Library's Books of the Century grew out of an exhibition created to celebrate the Centennial of the New York Public Library. One of many events, publications, and displays that marked our anniversary year, the exhibition drew on the enthusiasm...
(The entire section is 1280 words.)
SOURCE: "100 Books that Made a Century," in Manchester Guardian Weekly, January 20, 1997, p. 3.
[In the following essay, Foden comments on the Waterstone Bookstore's publishers list, addressing questions of the reading public's tastes versus criteria determined by literary academics.]
As long ago as 1592, second-rate poet Robert Greene was complaining about Shakespeare's rise to the top of the list. In the modern age, writers as diverse as Cyril Connolly and John Cowper Powys have produced lists of great books.
Now Waterstone's booksellers, in conjunction with Channel 4's Book Choice, has polled more than 25,000 people on their books of the...
(The entire section is 864 words.)
SOURCE: "Britain's '100 Best Books,'" in Contemporary Review, Vol. 270, No. 1575, April, 1997, pp. 206-10.
[In the following essay, May considers several implications of Waterstone's list, emphasizing the survey methods and respondents's backgrounds.]
Anyone who can write, so the saying goes, can write a book. And anyone who can lay their hands on a bit of money can publish it. That's the easy part.
What's difficult is to sell the wretched thing, to persuade the public to part with their pounds, dollars, francs, marks, whatever. Few individual books, at least in the eyes of publishers, merit substantial marketing campaigns. Those that do get exclusive...
(The entire section is 2784 words.)
SOURCE: "'Ulysses' on Top among 100 Best Novels," in New York Times, July 20, 1998.
[In the following essay, Lewis describes the intent and composition of the Modern Library's list, noting the members of the selection panel and some of their responses to the final list.]
Ulysses, that sprawling, difficult, but uniquely original masterpiece by James Joyce, has been voted the finest English-language novel published this century by a jury of scholars and writers.
The book—in which an immensely long account of a single day in the lives of a group of Dubliners becomes a metaphor for the human condition and the author experiments with language...
(The entire section is 1462 words.)
SOURCE: "Sound and Fury over Top Novel List," in San Francisco Chronicle, July 21, 1998.
[In the following essay, Rubenstien reports typical reactions to Modern Library's list.]
The 100 best novels are not necessarily the 100 best novels.
A New York publisher released a list yesterday of what it called the best English language novels of the century, but had no luck convincing anyone else that the ranking was anything but another work of fiction. "Such a list is meaningless," said Ojars Kratins, an associate English professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose specialty is the modern novel.
The best 20th century...
(The entire section is 648 words.)
SOURCE: "Great Books, Read and Unread," in New York Times, July 22, 1998, p. A19.
[De Botton is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life. In the following essay, de Botton assesses the merits of compiling book lists, sampling a variety of nuances that define greatness.]
Ever since the invention of the printing press, those who most love books have been prey to an awkward, paradoxical thought: that there are far too many books in the world. In secret moments, these book lovers may even look back with nostalgia to that fortunate scroll-and-scribe era, when, a little after middle age, educated people with good libraries and not too many pressing engagements...
(The entire section is 937 words.)
SOURCE: "Authors Who Were Excluded Speak Volumes about Cultural Barriers," in Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1998, pp. El, E6.
[Coleman is an author and poet. In the following essay, Coleman imagines abolitionist Sojourner Truth's response to Modern Library's list, consisting of objections to notable omissions and of surmises about the board's reasoning.]
"Ain't I a writer?" Had she been a contemporary novelist, Sojourner Truth might be asking that question this morning over her steaming, thin-mouthed mug of freshly brewed gourmet coffee, spilling just a tad as her dark hands tremble with a newly aroused militancy inspired by the Modern Library's choices for the best 100...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
SOURCE: "It'll Get 'Em Talking, But Will It Get 'Em Reading?," in Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1998, pp. El, E6.
[Wasserman is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. In the following essay, Wasserman evaluates the marketing strategy of the Modern Library list, outlining Random House's history and its present-day competition for readers.]
The modern mania for list-making is seemingly insatiable. It is one of the ironies of our democratic age that, despite the impulse to include and honor every voice, no matter how marginal or mediocre, nostalgia for hierarchies of quality and authority finds its most vulgar expression in the concoction of lists and rankings of all...
(The entire section is 1305 words.)
SOURCE: "A Century's Best Novels, Chapter 2: Readers Vote," in Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1998, pp. El, E8.
[In the following essay, Lioce provides a sample of Times readers's views of Modern Library's list as well as their opinions of titles that should have been included.]
Where's Harper Lee? Where's Margaret Mitchell? Where's Ayn Rand? Where's John Irving? Where's William Burroughs? No Raymond Chandler? OK, they included Faulkner, Nabokov, Steinbeck and Hemingway. But where's Absalom, Absalom!? Where's Laughter in the Dark? Of Mice and Men and East of Eden? The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls?
(The entire section is 1284 words.)
SOURCE: "The List of Great Novels: Read It and Weep," in The Washington Post, July 27, 1998, p. D2.
[In the following essay, Yardley complains about the contents of the Modern Library's-list, protesting the rankings of certain titles and the omission of others.]
One reader wonders why Gone With the Wind didn't make what is rapidly becoming known as The List. Another asks about the omission of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, several bring up the names of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, while yet another complains that, even though he is scarcely an ignoramus or a buffoon, the very top of the list is reserved for a book he simply cannot read....
(The entire section is 979 words.)
SOURCE: "19th-century Novelists, Stop Spinning in Your Graves," in The New York Times, July 28, 1998, p. E2.
[In the following essay, Bernstein ponders the composition of the Modern Library's list had novels of the nineteenth century also been selected, asserting that the nineteenth century "was a greater epoch for literature" for several reasons.]
With all due respect to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., A. S. Byatt, William Styron and the others who, acting at the behest of the Modern Library, produced a list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the century, the truth is that the entire endeavor is so drenched in caprice as to be close to silly. You might be able...
(The entire section is 1066 words.)
SOURCE: "Forget Joyce; Bring on Ayn Rand," in The New York Times, July 30, 1998. p. B4.
[In the following essay, Headlam makes observations about a list compiled from a survey of on-line readers at Random House's Web site, comparing the results to Modern Library's list.]
Literature has certainly come a long way since it really mattered.
Consider the example of the Modern Library, which recently published its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, starting with James Joyce's Ulysses at No. 1 and ending with Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons at No. 100.
Forty years ago, critics and...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
SOURCE: "Is It a List Made by and for the Silent Generation?" in U.S. News & World Report, www.usnews.com, August 3, 1998.
[In the following essay, Mulrine characterizes the Modern Library's list as somewhat dated.]
When Random House's Modern Library announced its list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century last week, it met with youthful protest. "They should have called it 'Writers from the first half of the century who are just like us,'" says Kiran Desai, the 26-year-old author of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.
Modern Library's panel of one woman and nine men does tilt heavily toward the generation that came of age in the Great...
(The entire section is 400 words.)
SOURCE: "'The Best Novels' May Not Be; Modern Library Panelists Say They Didn't Rank the Books," in The Washington Post, August 5, 1998, p. A1.
[In the following essay, Streitfeld details the selection and ranking methods of Modern Library's list, including commentary from members of the editorial board.]
If someone made a list of the most successful recent publicity gambits in book publishing, the Modern Library's ranking of the 100 best novels would be No. 1.
Alerted by voluminous media coverage, people have been arguing, agreeing, sneering and making counter-lists for more than two weeks now. Above all, lit lovers have been debating the fine points...
(The entire section is 1659 words.)
SOURCE: "Who Chose The Magus?," in The New York Times, August 8, 1998, p. A15.
[In the following essay, Rich reviews several controversies inspired by the Modern Library list.]
If further proof were needed that publicity can sell anything in America, here it is: Ulysses, a novel that is to beach reading what the Ring Cycle is to shock-jock radio, has now made the best-seller list, clocking in, as of yesterday, at No. 3 among paperbacks al amazon.com, where it has leaped ahead of the novelist laureate of Oprahland, Wally Lamb. On Amazon's "hot 100" list of paperbacks and hardcovers, it is even beating The Seven Habits of Highly Effective...
(The entire section is 751 words.)
SOURCE: "The Primal Need to Escape into the Mind of a Writer," in The New York Times, August 10, 1998, p. E2.
[In the following essay, Jefferson investigates the psychology of "best-books" list-making, drawing distinctions between public and private modes of reading.]
Why are we still ranting, dissenting, defending, brooding and quarreling—gloating when writers we love appear, ready to hurl thunderbolts when they don't—about the Moderns Library board's hubris-ridden list of what it considers the best novels published in English since our century began?
It isn't just the obvious sight of canons clashing. It's the fact that the literary industry is...
(The entire section is 1205 words.)
SOURCE: "The Voice of the People Speaks. Too Bad It Doesn't Have Much to Say," in The Washington Post, August 10, 1998, p. D2.
[In the following essay, Yardley decries the prominence of "otherworldly fantasies and ideological potboilers" in the on-line readers's list of novels, disparaging the business of list-making.]
From somewhere out in cyberspace a desperate reader, hair so high on end it's "like a fright wig," prayed last week for an inquiry into the Modern Library's list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. No, not the list compiled by its "board" of lit'ry eminences—that's already been taken to the cleaners in this space—but the...
(The entire section is 956 words.)
SOURCE: "Modern Library Agrees to Pick 'Best' Better," in The New York Times, August 15, 1998, pp. B7, B8.
[In the following essay, Lewis reports plans to improve the selection and ranking methods of a proposed best nonfiction books list by the Modern Library.]
Faced with widespread criticism of the list it released last month of the 100 best English-language novels published in this century—most piercingly, in comments by two of the judges who helped compiled it—the Modern Library says it will significantly overhaul the way it picks its choice of the century's hundred best English-language nonfiction books' later this year.
In separate articles...
(The entire section is 727 words.)
SOURCE: "Bookdumb: The List To-Do," in The New Republic, Vol. 219, Nos. 7-8, August 17, 1998, p. 14.
[In the following essay, Wood assesses the weaknesses and strengths of the Modern Library list in terms of aesthetics and literary influence.]
Xerxes wept at the prospect that, 100 years on, not one of his soldiers would be alive. We feel the same, said Schopenhauer, while perusing publishers' catalogs, stunned at the prospect that none of the books before us will last a century. A list of the century's best novels in English, such as the Modern Library published last week, ought to make us feel the opposite of Schopenhauer; here, by some miracle of literary cryogenics,...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
SOURCE: "The Top 100," in New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1998, p. 27.
[Morris is a biographer and member of the Modern Library's editorial board. In the following essay, he describes his interactions with—and opinions of—other board members during the selection process for the Modern Library list.]
As one of the ten white-on-white, mostly male and middle-aged members of the Modern Library's editorial board, I suppose I should stick up for our list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. We potent, grave and reverend signors debated our choices over many ruminative lunches (ruminare, to chew on: a more than normally necessary exercise when...
(The entire section is 1489 words.)
SOURCE: "Booklists," in American Spectator, Vol. 31, No. 9, September, 1998, pp. 16-17.
[Tyrrell is a weekly syndicated columnist for Washington Times. In the following essay, Tyrrell estimates the status of late twentieth-century American novels on the basis of the Modern Library list.]
The Modern Library's editorial board has just announced the 100 best English-language novels of the century, as esteemed by its board members. Many of the novelists mentioned are not actually English-language novelists. They are Americans.
They wrote in American. That should make the patriotic juices flow in all of us, save for one lamentable detail: Most of...
(The entire section is 874 words.)
SOURCE: "Modern Library Helps Bookstores Promote 'the List,'" in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 37, September 14, 1998, p. 24.
[In the following essay, Angel describes the impact of the Modern Library list on bookstores and their customers.]
Tapping the conversation about books sparked by the Modern Library's list of the "100 Best Novels of the 20th Century," Random House has shipped promotional kits to 2700 independent and chain bookstores. The kits contain a reading-group guide, an easel-back counter display, bookmarks listing all 100 chosen books and easy-peel stickers to put on books from the list. The kits are designed "to give stores an opportunity to...
(The entire section is 761 words.)
SOURCE: "I've Got a Little List," in The Nation, Vol. 267, No. 16, November 16, 1998, pp. 32-5.
[Jong is the author of Fear of Flying and a feminist critic. In the following essay, Jong discusses the literary achievements of women in the twentieth century, observing their marginalization by patriarchal culture and featuring her own list of novels written by women.]
When Random House's Modern Library imprint issued a list this past summer of the best novels in English published during the twentieth century, surely I was not alone in noticing that only nine books written by women were among the designees. The list created controversy—as lists are meant to do....
(The entire section is 2346 words.)