Battle Of The Books: The Controversy Over The 100 Top Novels

A List Of The 100 Best 20Th-Century Novels In English Includes Just Eight Women Authors And Six Books From The Past 25 Years. Got A Problem With That?
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YOU KEEP HEARING THAT WE live in a post-literate age, but how do you explain what went on last week? As the mass media kept tabulating home-run totals, the Dow Jones industrials and the number of consecutive days above 100 degrees, a surprising number of people were obsessing over a list of the century's 100 greatest English-language novels, from James Joyce's "Ulysses" (No. 1) to Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons" (No. 100). The list was voted on by 10 members of the advisory board of the Modern Library, the division of Random House that publishes uniform editions of more than half the books. These distinguished white poohbahs--nine men and one woman, the British novelist and critic A. S. Byatt--have an average age of 69. As you might guess, they were sketchy on the past quarter century--just six books out of the hundred. And like all such lists--the American Film Institute's 100 greatest films, Granta magazine's 20 writers under 40--this one had a little something to get almost everybody bent out of shape. Too white. Too middlebrow. Just plain boring. Where was John Updike? Thomas Pynchon? Toni Morrison? Why genre fiction like "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "The Maltese Falcon"? Why the motor-mouthing "On the Road"? Why was Huxley's clunky "Brave New World" No. 5 while Salinger's gemlike "The Catcher in the Rye" was only No. 64? "Tobacco Road"--seriously? And hasn't there been one worthy novel in the past 15 years? The most recent choice was William Kennedy's 1983 "Ironweed," No. 92. Only eight women writers made the grade; but novelist and critic Francine Prose, who argued in a recent Harper's magazine piece that women writers are still not taken seriously, said she "felt more offended for the sake of writers than for the sake of women."

By the end of the week, reporters were trying to track down board members. (Besides Byatt, those who voted were William Styron and Gore Vidal; historians Daniel Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.; biographer Edmund Morris; art critic John Richardson, and board chairman Christopher Cerf.) And two counterlists had appeared. Students at Radcliffe College's summer publishing course picked "The Great Gatsby" first, "The Catcher in the Rye" second, "Ulysses" sixth--just after "The Color Purple"--and sneaked in "Charlotte's Web," "Winnie-the-Pooh," "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" and "The Wind in the Willows," as well as three novels by Morrison ("Song of Solomon," "Beloved" and "Jazz"). And ordinary readers kicked in choices to the Modern Library's Web site; this list was continually updated, but when last we looked, Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" narrowly led Frank Herbert's "Dune" for the No. 1 spot; "Ulysses" was No. 15, just behind Charles Portis's "The Dog of the South," and well below "The Lord of the Rings" (No. 4), Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" (No. 8) and Stephen King's "The Stand" (No. 10). (Our favorite entry, now below No. 100, was "Only a Factory Girl," by Rosie M. Banks--both book and author invented by P. G. Wodehouse.) Cerf was delighted with all the carping and nit-picking. "It's a neat game," he said. "Here we are talking about it, and it's going in NEWSWEEK, so it's working."

Why should we play along with what even the publisher acknowledges is a publicity stunt--or, as Random House president and editor-in-chief Ann Godoff more delicately expressed it, "a way to bring the Modern Library to public attention"? One board member told us--not for attribution, understandably--he "was under the impression that the entire thing was self-promotion by [recently resigned Random House head] Harry Evans. It seemed to be another of Harry's boondoggles." Michael Pietsch, a smart young editor at Little, Brown, sounded disgusted with us when we called to get his reaction. "The fact that you're doing something on it satisfies what these kinds of lists are created for. I don't think they have any lasting value at all." We asked Pietsch, who published David Foster Wallace's splendidly ambitious "Infinite Jest"--which we think should have made the cut and which some voters may never have heard of--if he was appalled by the spectacle. "It doesn't merit being appalled," he said.

And yet we've gone and done it. After all, it is a neat game. We've got our own nits to pick--Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" (No. 8) should be disqualified because it was originally written in German; Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio" (No. 24) isn't a novel but a sequence of short stories--and our own favorite neglected masterpieces, like Steven Millhauser's 1972 "Edwin Mullhouse." Just naming all these titles is a pleasure. And last week's babble of disagreement was a useful reminder that the experience of literature is ultimately subjective. After rattling off a bunch of omissions--including his own "Mumbo Jumbo"--Ishmael Reed said he was pleased to see James T. Farrell on the list. "I'd put "Studs Lonigan' before "Ulysses'." Why? "Homer did it already." On the other hand, Francine Prose complained that "when you include books like the "Studs Lonigan' trilogy--which is appalling, it's such a potboiler--it lowers the bar. Then you get into the whole question of making lists. There's something slightly adolescent about it." Nevertheless, Prose can't stop playing, any more than we can. "I was shocked that Don DeLillo wasn't on the list. And no "Gravity's Rainbow'? That's insane . . . How could you have such a list without Gertrude Stein on it? . . . If "From Here to Eternity' is on the list, and "The Naked and the Dead,' then "Gone With the Wind' should be. I wish it were more consistent." And who could do the ideal list? She laughs. "Of course, myself and my friends."


The Modern Library ranks the century's great English-language novels in order of greatness.


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