Best Novelists of the 20th century
This week, with The Red Badge of Courage, my list of 100 great novels in the English language, in chronological order, is almost one third complete, with a growing weekly readership that's approaching 200, 000.
Each week since we started the project last year, I've found that there's always a steady percentage of my readers who a) viscerally hate it (Sunburst, for instance), b) despise it (hertfordbridge), or c) misunderstand it. failsworthpole stands for many here.
More interestingly, from the point of view of someone who is devoting a significant amount of time to making a new literary selection, there are those who debate, in a serious way, the choices I've made, challenging my criteria, and offering alternative readings. From many friendly commentators, I'd single out JacobHowarth and AlanwSkinner as especially thoughtful.
As we approach modern times, it's about to get a whole lot more contentious. I'm fairly certain that, where readers can be quite relaxed about, say, Pickwick or Sherlock Holmes, there'll be much stronger opinions about, for example, Mrs Dalloway or Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (both favourites of mine).
The series is now approaching the year 1900, and I've now completed 30 out of 100 entries, which speaks its own lesson about the workings of posterity on literary reputation.
From Pilgrim's Progress in 1678 to Heart of Darkness in 1899 is a span of just over 200 years. So far the ratio of Time to Manuscript (T2M) has yielded roughly one "great book" every seven years.
The next 100 years (some 70 titles to come) will throw up new choices almost every year. The winnowing of posterity has had much less effect on the novels of the 20th century. Moreover, as modern novels, they command a greater loyalty and bigger audience. Some years, notably 1922, 1925, 1939 and 1949 (I'm not giving anything away), we are seriously spoilt for choice.
Now looking back on about 200 years of English and American fiction, various observations suggest themselves:
First, there are some notable longueurs – whole decades when, with the benefit of hindsight, not much of consequence seems to have been published. For instance, between Tristram Shandy (1759) and Emma (1816) I could find nothing of significance to list. I was tempted by Ann Radcliffe's Gothic bestseller The Mysteries of Udolpho (1994), and perhaps even more by Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), but in the end, I was not persuaded.
Another lesson from these first two centuries is that, as a contrast to the fallow years, we occasionally find intense bursts of creativity in which, as it were, the novels of the day become engaged in a vivid dialogue. The most intense occurs in 1847 and 1848: the years of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, followed by Vanity Fair.
Charlotte Brontë, indeed, paid tribute to Thackeray in her preface to Jane Eyre. At this mid-point of the Victorian novel, there was only one duty for the writer – and that was to entertain the reader. Thackeray is explicit about this. The idea of "literary fiction", that fashionable tautology, did not exist.
At this stage in the list, I have paid virtually no attention to the demands of "genre", but as the Victorian literary scene evolved, especially after Forster's Education Act of 1870, it has proved impossible to avoid the divergence of high and low culture – the theme of John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses. So I've found myself discriminating against writers like Rider Haggard ("low")and George Meredith ("high"), in favour of Stevenson, Hardy and Grossmith, who actually addressed the issue in New Grub Street. Once we reach the 20th century, and Modernism, that split will become acute.
With the turn of the century, Anglo-American literature is in full flood, symbolised by the towering figures of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. But then a new question, which has been lurking throughout much of the 19th century, starts to intrude. What should we do about global literature? Can the self-imposed limitations of Anglo-American literature be justified ?
I say that it can.
First, because there is an inner, cultural coherence to a list expressed in just one language, and its variants. Not so long ago, a critic like FR Leavis could devote much of his scholarly career to what he described as "the Great Tradition". No critic today would find it useful, or even interesting, to attempt such a vision, but there is still a role for some cultural specificity. NoMoreMrNice would take issue with this, as would others (you know who you are).
I will go further to argue that the global expression of the novel in English in the 20th and 21st centuries is so polyvalent, multifarious and downright impressive that it provides most readers with more than enough to be going on with.
Third, a mea culpa. I cheerfully concede my limitations. As well as being the former literary editor of The Observer, I am a history graduate who is more or less self-taught in English – and especially American – literature. I can read French and Italian, but have no knowledge of Russian, Spanish or German. Translations cannot bridge this gap. I am not equipped – who is ? – to construct a pan-European list, even if I thought such an idea made sense culturally. Nonetheless, I gladly acknowledge the interventions of, among many others, Jenny Bhatt, shemarch, PaulBowes01, and alanwskinner (for hanging in there).
So, where do we go from here ? "Beating on, boats against the stream", is where. 1900 looms, and then Modernism, followed by the first world war. The novel is about to become more than ever the mirror in which our society considers itself.
At the moment of writing, Easter 2014, I have a rough draft to the year 2000, but (on the evidence of the past nine months) I'm sure it will evolve, perhaps dramatically. The high points – Ulysses, As I Lay Dying, The Heat of the Day, Nineteen Eighty-Four – stand out clearly enough. It's the worthy contenders who become the main worry. Henry Green or Grahame Greene? Iris Murdoch or William Golding ?
And then there are the non-literary pressures on the selection process, notably the impact of bestsellers and marketing. The pressures of posterity usually weed these out, but some bad books are surprisingly resilient. "Influence" is one of my criteria in assessing who to include.
The bifurcation of literary culture into "high" and "low" literature will continue to cause headaches. I refuse to exclude the great genre writers – Raymond Chandler is an obvious example – if they also cut the mustard as prose stylists. Ian Fleming, in or out? It's not obvious.
In another category, the EB White of Charlotte's Web seems, at this stage, to be a shoo-in. Yet, at the same time, there are many excellent childrens' authors who probably won't make it. We'll see.
The truth is that if you compile a list like this for a publication like this, you discover a society of book lovers in the middle of a nervous breakdown. So finally, I keep reminding myself, as heat takes over from light, and the critical temperature soars: it's only a list.