Literature and Millennial Lists Criticism - Essay

Elizabeth Diefendorf (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Giles Foden (essay date 20 January 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Radmila May (essay date April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Paul Lewis (essay date 20 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Steve Rubenstein (essay date 21 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Alain de Botton (essay date 22 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Wanda Coleman (essay date 22 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Steve Wasserman (essay date 22 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Tony Lioce (essay date 24 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1284 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 27 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Richard Bernstein (essay date 28 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Bruce Headlam (essay date 30 July 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Anna Mulrine (essay date 3 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Is It a List Made by and for the Silent Generation?" in U.S. News & World Report,, 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.)

David Streitfeld (essay date 5 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Frank Rich (essay date 8 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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, 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.)

Margo Jefferson (essay date 10 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 10 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Paul Lewis (essay date 15 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

James Wood (essay date 17 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Edmund Morris (essay date 23 August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

R. Emmet Tyrrell, Jr. (essay date September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Karen Angel (essay date 14 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Erica Jong (essay date 16 November 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)