Literature and Millennial Lists
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."
Representative Works: The Modern Library List
- 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 Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler
- 1984, George Orwell
- I, Claudius, Robert Graves
- To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
- An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
- The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
- Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut
- Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
- Native Son, Richard Wright
- Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow
- Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara
(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 and love of books as well as the special expertise of the institution's librarians. This little volume is permanent documentation of our effort.
The world was very different in May 1895, when the New York Public Library was founded, formed by the consolidation of the Astor Library and Lenox Library, both privately owned, and the Tilden Trust, a legacy of Samuel J. Tilden, a former governor of New York state. The site at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where the great marble Library building would rise, was still occupied by the looming Croton Reservoir, a masterpiece of 19th-century architecture and hydraulic engineering, which supplied water to the households and businesses of much of Manhattan. Horse-drawn omnibuses...
(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 century.
J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (written 1954–5) came first, receiving just over 5,000 votes. Some distance behind, George Orwell secured second and third place with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), with James Joyce's Ulysses (1922, France, 1936, UK) and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) being the others in the top five. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1995) is at number 10. Only 13 of the 100 books on the list are by women.
Martin Lee, marketing director of Waterstone's, said: "This must be one of the widest-ranging surveys of reading tastes ever to be compiled. We are very excited about the list of books and hope that it will stir...
(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 promotion are those which would probably sell well anyhow, with or without hype. It had been expected, at least by some, that the demise of retail price maintenance in the book trade in Britain (which forced all shops to charge the same price for a book) would result in lower prices and higher sales. But it did not. In fact, prices, except prices of discounted books, have increased and publishers' lists have been cut. And sales are static.
So booksellers had to think of fresh ploys to get customers into the stores where most sales are still made. And Waterstone's, one of the three chains which dominate the British retail book trade, came up with a spiffing wheeze. Customers in their bookstores and viewers of TV Channel...
(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 almost to the point of unintelligibility—heads the list of 100 novels drawn up by the editorial board of Modern Library, which has been publishing classic English-language literature at affordable prices since 1917 and is now a division of Random House.
The list is to be released on Friday at a workshop for young publishers known as the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Radcliffe College of Harvard University.
The board members are Christopher Cerf, Gore Vidal, Daniel J. Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, A. S. Byatt, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and William Styron. Ulysses was banned in the United States as obscene from 1920 to 1933, when the ban was lifted by a...
(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 novel, according to a committee of scholars and writers hired by Modern Library, was Ulysses. The next best novels, in order, are The Great Gatsby, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lolita and Brave New World. Most of the books on the list are published by Modern Library—the company that commissioned it.
Kratins called the list an "advertising sales gimmick" and said he was not at all concerned that three of the last four novels he has lectured on in his current class on 20th century novels failed to make the list.
"I have my own criteria," he said.
Ulysses, the tough-to-read James Joyce masterpiece about a single day in the life of a group of Dubliners,...
(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 could conceivably reach a point when they had read everything.
If we lament our book-swamped age, it may be out of an awareness that it is not by reading more books, but by deepening our understanding of a few well-chosen ones that we develop our intelligence and sensitivity. How clever we would be if we only knew three or four books well, Flaubert once wrote to Louise Colet (who was reading too much). And yet this patient focus on a few titles is made ever harder by the abundance of new books and by the deliberate attempts of publishers to make us feel badly read, to frustrate our wish to deepen our loyalties to a few works. The modern book lover is condemned to a nauseating feeling of under-readness; a visit to a library...
(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 novels of this 20th century. Not a single black woman novelist was considered a fine enough writer to be included. Not Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), not Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), not Ann Petry (The Street).
"Good Goddess, what an outrage! How many genius awards, Pulitzers and Nobel prizes does it take? Not to mention National Book Awards. American Book Awards and an ungodly number of politically correct multicultural ethnically diverse anthologies! What does a black womanist feminist novelist have to do to prove herself?" she might stammer, as she rises to peer out the dining room window, taking in the perfect blue sky, the impeccably manicured lawns, the lovely homes of...
(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 kinds.
A striking example is the publication of a list of 100 novels that the editorial board of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, regards as the best books written in the English language in the 20th century. Even a cursory glance through the list raises multiple questions of the criteria used to select the lucky titles. Issues of merit, nationality, race and gender loom large.
Fifty-eight of the books are by Americans including William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and Ralph Ellison. Thirty-nine are by British writers including D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Only eight women made the cut including Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and...
(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?
Today at Radcliffe College, the Modern Library's editorial board officially will announce what it considers the 100 finest English-language novels published in this century, a list that starts with James Joyce's Ulysses and ends with Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons.
The list has been in circulation since Monday, though, and reaction to it has been swift and hot. 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.
This week we asked Times readers what they think, and which of their favorite...
(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.
So here's my dirty little secret: I can't read it, either. "It" is Ulysses, which a panel of judges laboring on behalf of the Modern Library has chosen as the greatest novel of the 20th century in the English language. Like Russell Baker slaving away each summer at Remembrance of Things Past, I have made more attempts at Ulysses than Charlie Brown has made at Lucy's football, and not a one has connected. For me, as doubtless for millions of other, Ulysses is a monument not to literary greatness but to mystification.
This is not as it was meant to be. Ulysses has been required reading among the American illuminati for two-thirds of a century because my great-uncle, U.S....
(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 scientifically to pick the 100 best-ever baseball players, because there would be a certain statistical basis to rely on. The same is not the case with works of the imagination. Still, the purpose of the exercise was to provoke discussion, always a good thing.
Should Ulysses really have been listed No. 1, especially when one suspects that almost nobody, probably including most members of the Modern Library panel, has ever read James Joyce's difficult masterpiece from cover to cover? How can Joseph Conrad's immortal Lord Jim be in the No. 85 spot, while Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm ends up 50th? And here's another question that emerged from a recent conversation duly provoked by the Modem Library list:...
(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 intellectuals would have dismissed a list like this one as a cheap marketing ploy. Today, critics celebrate the marketing smarts behind the Modern Library list but confess that they cannot be bothered to read the great works anymore. Once, we loved literature and scoffed at the list; now, we love the list and laugh at Ulysses.
The Modern Library list has uncovered one place, apparently, where books still matter, and that is the Internet. Concurrent with its publication of the list, Random House, Modern Library's parent company, established a readers' poll, where on-line visitors could vote for their favorite works of fiction at www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/l00best. If the Modern Library list represents the...
(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 Depression or during World War II, such as Shelby Foote, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Gore Vidal. "You see the whiskey-and-typewriter realists of the '30s—like James Farrell's The Studs Lonigan Trilogy," says Michael Bérubé, director of the University of Illinois program for Research in the Humanities. "But except for E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, there's almost nothing from the last third of the century. It's like a time capsule buried in the '60s."
The selections have sparked a spate of alternative lists. When the Radcliffe Publishing Course, a seminar for a hundred 20-something up-and-comers of the book world, chose its Top 100 Friday. Toni Morrison's...
(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 of the rankings.
Why, for instance, is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a famous novel but rarely thought of as a great one, all the way up at No. 5?
The 10 eminent Modern Library board members, the panel that supposedly put it there, don't have much of a clue. "God knows," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
"I have no idea," says novelist William Styron.
"I didn't vote for it at all," says novelist A. S. Byatt.
"Don't ask me. I don't understand it myself," says historian Edmund Morris.
"I can't believe that even one of us thought Brave New World was one of the top five," says historian Shelby Foote.
(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 People (reading Ulysses is not among them) and that ever-popular anti-Joycean screed, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff.
The Beanie-Babies-like popularity of Ulysses is the most recent, but hardly the only, fallout of Modern Library's release, less than three weeks ago, of its list of the century's 100 best English-language novels. The list has spawned a thousand newspaper columns (this is No. 1,001) in which journalists advertise their own erudition by decrying the omission of a pet writer (Steven Millhauser, Djuna Barnes, Frederick Exley) who should have made the list before the roundly deplored Booth Tarkington. (My candidate: Max Allan Collins, author of the novelization of Saving Private Ryan.)...
(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 manipulating us exactly as the fashion industry does: imposing dictates that seem omniscient when they arc just the result of personal taste and a determination to maintain or regain an idealized status quo. And the result is to mingle the demands of public reading and the rewards of private reading in a distasteful way.
Public reading is part of our education, our work, whether that work consists of being a student, a scholar or an ordinary citizen-reader keeping up with cultural news. Public reading is also a continuing mass entertainment that lets us be audience and players simultaneously, as when we join book clubs or read self-help books and best sellers. And public reading is what leads to the making of best-books...
(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 counter-survey of ordinary readers conducted by the Modern Library on its Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best/.
It took approximately 1.46 seconds to see that my correspondent, hair so magnificently on end, had if anything under-reacted. The vox pop list—Readers' 100 Best, as the Modern Library calls it—brings whole new universes of meaning to the word "bubbleheaded." If this be democracy, what, pray tell, can we do to hire a monarchy?
You think Barnum was wrong when he said, "There's a sucker born every minute"? You think Texas Guinan was fooling when she welcomed customers to her speakeasy with the acerbic greeting...
(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 published this week, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the historian, and the novelist William Styron, who were among the l0 judges who drew up the list, distanced themselves from the final outcome as well as from the methods by which the books were chosen.
Writing in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Schlesinger said most panel members were "astonished by at least the last two of the top five choices." Those were Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which followed James Joyce's Ulysses, F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and another of Joyce's works, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
He pointed out that while the panel had...
(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, are the books that have lasted a century, and that may frozenly outlast many more.
Yet, oddly, lists are as depressing as catalogs, because both disclose the same thing: that only a very few books are truly great and truly longeval. A list is already an act of desperation, an aggravated mnemonic. To be put in a list is to be in refreshed danger of falling off it, and one recalls the original Elizabethan usage of "list," which meant to be enlisted in battle. Even the finest list is largely full of Xerxes's soldiers—posterity's corpses.
The Modern Library list is certainly not a fine list; it is unusually silly, both in design and in execution. The collective decision of the library's editorial board...
(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 you're browsing at the Century Club), and we certainly weren't short of titles to choose from. In fact, Harry Evans, who was then the president and publisher of Random House and the original dreamer-up of the idea, casually asked each of us to come up with our personal 100 favorites. If we had taken him at his word, the resulting master list—allowing for a duplication rate of, say, 25 titles that everyone was likely to nominate—would have totaled something like 750.
Fortunately, few of us managed to come up with that many. I haven't read a hundred "great" 20th-century novels in my life (although I must have read some a hundred times), and rather sheepishly handed in a list of 58. Of course, we all kept our submissions...
(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 American novelists are dead or pretty much in retirement—more evidence, that, of the unhealthy condition of the American novel.
No, this is not going to be another column on the Boy President and his cadre of slippery extenuators. You Clinton-haters out there arc going to have to repair to some other fountainhead of malign commentary. Try the op-ed page of the New York Times, whose columnists have grown condignly critical of the White House cabal with each new allegation of felony, misdemeanor, or encroachment on civil liberties. Or look back to a Pat Buchanan column from mid-July.
Buchanan, a former Nixon aide, made the useful and original point that "Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate...
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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 merchandise around all the commentary about the 100 Best Novels." said David Ebershoff, publishing director of the Modern Library and publishing manager of Random House. "A lot of people have come into bookstores—the place they go to talk about books—to continue their rants" about the list.
Kepler's Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., saw a 75% jump in sales of titles that appeared on the list after placing them in a window display, according to inventory director Deborah Tassie. Though this display was just dismantled, Kepler's plans to feature the titles in future displays and to use the new promotional materials to highlight them. "The promotion was very successful for us, and the public really seemed to enjoy it,"...
(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.
There was plenty of printed reaction to the Modern Library announcement, but none I saw seemed to offer an alternative list. The Random House Web site was deluged with reactions from angry readers who wondered where their favorite novels were, but nobody (not Harold Bloom with his Western Canon, nor Camille Paglia with her six-shooter, nor the Modern Library itself) thought to come up with a list of women writers in English who published novels in this century. Surely a century that produced Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir and Edith Wharton has been an extraordinary one for women authors. Released from compulsory pregnancy every year, released from having to pretend niceness,...
(The entire section is 2346 words.)
"Three Hubbard Fiction Works Voted in Top 10 of Century's 100 Best Novels." Business Wire Features (21 October 1998): 1062.
Announces the final results of the Modern Library's readers' poll, emphasizing L. Ron Hubbard's novels.
Charles, Ron. "Listening to the Listmakers." Christian Science Monitor (30 July 1998): B3.
Analyzes the statistics of the Modern Library list in comparison to the Radcliffe Publishing Course counterlist, which is reprinted in its entirety.
Diefendorf, Elizabeth, ed. The New York Public Library's Books of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 229 pp.
Features introductory essays and lists of book titles under the headings "Landmarks of Modern Literature," "Nature's Realm," "Protest and Progress," "Colonialism and Its Aftermath," Mind & Spirit," "Popular Culture & Mass Entertainment," "Women Rise," "Economics and Technology," "Utopias and Dystopias," "War, Holocaust, Totalitarianism," "Optimism, Joy, Gentility," and "Favorites of Childhood and Youth."
Gussow, Mel. "Letting the Public in on the Quaint Stories behind the Stories." New York Times (29 November 1998): B12.
Considers the cultural and literary significance of Doubleday's Collector's Editions of classic works, a rival of the Modern Library series.
Irving, John. "It Was 20 Years Ago Today." Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 April 1998): 66.
Reprint of a new introduction to the Modern Library twentieth-anniversary edition of The World According to Garp, recalling Irving's young son's response to the novel and his influence on the final narrative.
Kinsella, Brudget. "The Oprah Effect: How TV's Premier Talk Show Host Puts Books Over the Top." Publishers Weekly 244, No. 3 (20 January 1997): 276-78.
Explains the so-called "Oprah effect" on the fiction publishing industry after the debut of the Book Club segment on the Oprah Winfrey Show, citing Winfrey's reasons for incorporating the literary forum into her show.
Lane, Anthony. "The Top Ten." New Yorker 70, No. 19 (27 June 1994): 79-92.
Comments on the cultural significance of best-sellers lists, while reviewing current entries on the New York Times Book Review tally.
"High on the List of Scams." Los Angeles Times (17 August 1998): B4.
Highlights the publicity "scam" of the Modern Library list.
Streitfeld, David. "A One-Man Literature." Washington Post Book World 28, No. 28 (12 July 1998): 15.
Assesses the career of F. Sionil Jose, a Filipino novelist, whose novel Dusk, the first book of the five-volume "Rosales Saga," was issued as an original paperback in the Modern Library series of classics.
――――――. "That List Again." Washington Post Book World 28, No. 34 (23 August 1998): 15.
Questions the tenth title on the Modern Library readers's poll, And Trail Mix Rained from the Sky, by Philip Travisano. Also speculates on the reason Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson appeared on the board's list, citing a relevant passage.
"'A Scam, But a Good Scam.'" Washington Post (5 August 1998).
Reveals Modern Library's principal motivation to compile its list, explaining the process of ranking the selections.
"Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th-century American Books."
Announces an alternative list of American fiction, short stories, and nonfiction, reflecting "a far more realistic race and gender balance and includes a good number of contemporary books." Among writers that made the cut are Toni Morrison, James Agee, Malcolm X, Gertrude Stein, and Joan Didion.
"100 Great 20th Century Works of Fiction by Women." www.feminista.com/v2n3/100.html.
Lists unranked results of a canvass of women's online forums and other lists of novels written by women, but also includes several short story collections and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
On-line listing of Modern Library's fiction and nonfiction top 100 rankings as well as the results of its readers's poll and a link to the Radcliffe Publishing Course list.