What is the attraction of lists like this, anyway? To be honest, there are times whether I wonder whether it is little more than the penchant, best reflected in the movie High Fidelity, to demonstrate one’s social distinction as a cultural critic (and such lists are best prepared, obviously, as done in the movie – off the cuff and under a time deadline, in order to further demonstrate one’s intimate understanding of the subject and one’s innate superiority).
In general, I refuse to participate in the fashioning of such lists. People will ask me silly questions like “What’s your favorite movie” or “What’s your favorite book” and my response will be something like “You mean, by genre, author/actor, or time of day?” Or, more than likely, “I can’t remember all the books I’ve read or movies I’ve seen,” or “I’ve slept since then.”
So anyway, here’s the Time Magazine All Time 100 Novels. The phrase “All Time” is something of a play on words, since it only covers the period of 1923 to the present (as Blogcritic Legendary Monkey notes, this covers the period of the magazine’s existence, as it was founded in 1923). Oddly enough, 1923 is also the cutoff for certainty regarding the public domain; works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain, while works published after that may still be subject to copyright protection (and if Disney has its way, always will). Pardon the aside; I was just writing about copyright protection and the blood pressure has yet to settle down.
Here’s what Time’s managing editor, James Kelly, had to say about the whole idea:
As with our film list, we picked 1923–when TIME began publishing–as our starting point. And we focused on books written in English. That’s why there is no Ulysses (published in 1922) or One Hundred Years of Solitude (originally written in Spanish).
Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, our book critics, reread many of the classics and discovered a few that they had never had a chance to read. There were some easy calls (The Sound and the Fury, Invisible Man, Herzog) and some not so easy (Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer did not make the cut, though both critics admire their essays and nonfiction books). Several authors appear twice, including William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow. And one author on the list is actually a TIME alumnus: James Agee, who reviewed movies and books for the magazine in the 1940s and is represented by A Death in the Family.
And here’s Richard Lacayo on the challenges (and the “pain”) associated with picking the list, which all of Time’s editorial staff expects will spark some “lively” debate:
Lists like this one have two purposes. One is to instruct. The other of course is to enrage. We’re bracing ourselves for the e-mails that start out: “You moron! You pathetic bourgeoise insect! How could you have left off…(insert title here).” We say Mrs. Dalloway. You say Mrs. Bridge. We say Naked Lunch. You say Breakfast at Tiffanys. Let’s call the whole thing off? Just the opposite—bring it on. Sometimes judgment is best formed under fire. But please, no e-mails about Ulysses. Rules are rules.
Time’s critics didn’t follow Rob’s rules from High Fidelity; they agonized over their choices and spent lots of effort reading and re-reading books to decide whether they made the list or not. No off-the-cuff list making for them! Now, I’m not going to bother quibbling with the list; plenty of other people are going to take them to task for leaving this book or that book off (hey, they’ve already had at least one person demanding to know why the Harry Potter books aren’t on the list, and another hot to get Ayn Rand included, at which point I will simply point out that different people have different interpretations of good, better, and best). Instead, I think it is interesting that this list comes along at about the same time as I’m reading an article in the Guardian about how the literary world likes to break books up by genre and frequently judges them accordingly.
In the Guardian article, Peter Preston talks about the age-old question of what Charles Dickens might be doing were he alive today (most folks think he’d probably be churning out TV scripts by the bucketload) and then transitions into the elitist superiority of “literary fiction.”
And there is a deeper point beyond this fantasy debate, the same point that Ian Rankin and PD James made at Cheltenham’s festival the other day. What is it, when Man Booker juries meet, that makes genres “inferior”, asked Baroness James? Why is crime writing, with its “very conscious structure” and ability to raise “big moral issues” outside the box of introversion, such a poor relation of “literary fiction”, asked Rankin?
He also points out how frequently the “literary” world is hostile to genre fiction, as though the structure of genre fiction somehow limits the discussion of humanity; as Ian Rankin notes, for example, science fiction is often discredited despite the fact that it is frequently “dealing with some of the biggest ideas, where we are going to go as a race – but for some reason it’s not taken seriously.” To which Preston adds:
They’re both right. They both sense and recoil from a creeping literary apartheid. Rankin’s Leith or James’s East Anglia or Ruth Rendell’s little market towns of yobbery and despair are quite as relevant slices of Blair-age life, captured for posterity, as anything on the Sutherland shortlist. Raymond Chandler and PG Wodehouse live on in genres that still touch us all. The best new writing on television – mass communicator of inevitable choice – comes where State of Play and Waking the Dead intersect, or when Ricky Gervais picks up pen again.
Booker world is cluttered with too many boxes, too many things the judges discard. Has Rankin become a superb writer? Absolutely. Like James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane. The world is a giant bookshop – and, in that world, everything counts.
Which brings me back around to Time’s complete list. You have to expect C.S. Lewis and Tolkien on the list; same with John le Carre and Graham Greene (though the choice of The Power and the Glory was an interesting one). And I sort of expected to see William Gibson’s Neuromancer on the list if they were serious. But to see something like Alan Moore’s Watchmen make the cut is a pleasant surprise, as was Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. The latter is an intriguing choice simply because it is one of Hammett’s lesser known works in a popular sense; people are far more likely to be aware of The Maltese Falcon or The Thin Man than they are the nameless Continental Op.
Then again, as I noted in a recent post about Hammett’s fiction on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest is a powerful novel and often unrelenting in its depiction of violence and corruption. As I wrote last March:
The Continental Op is like a 1930s edition of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name: he does a Fistful of Dollars routine here as he wanders into town, sets opposing factions against one another, and lights the tinder to an already explosive situation. All in the name of cleaning the place up. Here again, Hammett’s characters aren’t the politically correct softies that so many modern detectives have become; he doesn’t make quiche and nobody really knows what kind of music he likes. The guy just does his job. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser may have borrowed the Continental Op’s modus operandi (which is basically to wander around stirring the pot until something happens, whatever the “something” might be), but Spenser’s got nothing on the Op’s rather cavalier attitude.
But does the Op really belong on the list above Sam Spade or Nick and Nora Charles? It’s a hard call to make, and I already said I wasn’t going to quibble. My point is that I am relatively pleased by the inclusion of genre fiction in the list, because it is a small sign that genre fiction is being recognized as a powerful literary vehicle in its own right (speaking of which, I think they might’ve found room for James Lee Burke, whom I consider one of the best writers I’ve read in a long time, or maybe James Ellroy, but hey, that’s veering into quibble territory again).
At the end of the day, what is Time’s list worth? I can’t quite say that I think it is worth all the effort and trouble put into it, but then, they got paid for it, and value is largely determined by what a willing buyer will pay a willing seller, so somebody must’ve thought it was worth all the fuss. There are literally thousands of exceptionally wonderful literary works across a host of genres that didn’t make it into the All-Time “top 100″ list; a list which is, when we get right down to it, really quite subjective. And as far as it goes, just because they’re on this list doesn’t mean that I’m more likely to read them if I haven’t already (and yes, there are a few on there I haven’t read, and probably won’t). I can’t remember any of Rob Gordon’s lists of best B-side singles from High Fidelity, and after a bit I probably won’t remember Time’s list either.
Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.