Literature and Millennial Lists Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."