Home / Time Magazine Picks the 100 Best Novels of “All Time”

Time Magazine Picks the 100 Best Novels of “All Time”

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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.

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About Bill Wallo

  • You know, there’s more agreement about what is a great novel than one might think. If you compare Time’s list with the Random House 100 best 20th Century English novels, for example, there are 40 overlaps. The classics are the classics: no one fights about that. No doubt Chandler and Hammett and John Le Carre are classic writers, as is P.G. Wodehouse, but you won’t find them on many greatest novels lists, which is only because of the genre prejudice.

    I’m not sure if there’s a strictly SF writer who’s up there with the best, even though two of the all-time classics are SF — 1984 and Brave New World. I wish I could think of an SF writer who belongs up there: maybe Stanislaw Lem.

  • I don’t dispute that there’s lots of agreement about some of the great novels. I mean, as far as I’m concerned a good number of the books on the list are among the greats. Of course, if there’s 40 overlaps between the two lists, that means there’s 60% disagreement. 😉

    I just can’t get very excited about lists. That was really more of my point.

    As for deciding about whether there’s an SF author that belongs “up there,” Wikipedia has a list of SF authors you could peruse. Of course, that might be a slightly different task than deciding whether any of them might have written a “great” novel.

  • Robert

    Two great novels by a great writer and philosopher are not on your list. The novels are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by AYN RAND.

    Don’t you know that Atlas Shrugged is only second to the bible in sales in this country? Note that the bible has been around for many hundreds of years, yet Atlas Shrugged was first published in 1957.

  • I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, but I think very few serious lit types would agree that it’s an example of fine writing.

    I’d be curious to see a Top 100 list broken out into “literary” and “genre” fiction. Non-fic too would kind of fun.

  • Er . . . my list?

    I’m not an Ayn Rand fan, either philosophically or of her writing. You’re free to disagree, it doesn’t hurt my feelings, and you’re free to regard me an intellectual lightweight for my sentiments. That won’t hurt me either (in large part because I don’t plan on agreeing with you on either point).

    So were I to quibble with the Time list, it would not be on Rand’s behalf. But as I already said, I’m not into quibbling; there’s a bunch of great novels on there, there are some great ones that aren’t. Lists are, by and large, overrated in my opinion, but hey, if it gets people excited I guess it’s worth it.

    As for Eric’s suggestion, I am reminded of a recent list of the best science fiction TV shows that described The Thunderbirds as “perhaps the best puppet sci-fi show of all time.” If we narrow the categories enough, I’m sure we can find a way to shoehorn Rand into a “best” category. 🙂

  • I just got sucked into reading through that Top 50 list, Bill! Not a great list, in my opinion, and it drew far too much from the campy side. No Angel or The Prisoner? My God!

    So… I think a list is good when it’s a good list. But they’re always fun to rap and argue about.

  • The biggest thing about a list is the discussion. For example, as to the Sci Fi shows list, I thought about The Prisoner as well. I also wondered why, if a show like the Jetsons was included, why not Johnny Quest? Why not Land of the Lost? Why not The Incredible Hulk? Why not Smallville?

    Obviously, I have too much time on my hands for thinking.

    Or, I think about silly things.

  • Great minds…

    I had the feeling that that sci fi list (sorry to run off topic here, but you provided the link!) was not well researched. There were references to shows that were on “for a season or two” and in general it was… fairly general in its assessments.

    They claimed that Firefly was on for one season. I mean, come on!

  • Sister Ray

    “Don’t you know that Atlas Shrugged is only second to the bible in sales in this country?”

    I think it was named “most important” after the Bible in a survey, not the second best-selling book in the United States.

    I was glad to see “A Clockwork Orange” and “Rabbit, Run” on the list. I’ve enjoyed all the books in the Rabbit series.

  • Eric,

    I suppose I can’t complain about hijacking of a thread when I launched the hijack.

    As for the scifi list, no, I don’t think it was particularly well-researched, nor was its criteria particularly well established (Xena hardly counts as sci fi in my book, for example – fantasy and sci fi are related, but hardly co-extensive).

    Most of the time, they would say things like a show was “ahead of its time.” That’s not exactly an impressive assessment.

  • El Bicho

    No A Confederacy of Dunces? This list is incomplete.

  • Any sci fi list of, well, anything is incomplete without The Prisoner! I call shenanigans!

    On this topic, I do agree with Bill Wallo. Lists like this are fun to examine, but they mean just about nothing. It’s all subjective.

    We should put together a list here at BC. 🙂

    and as a p.s., I was in the midst of re-reading Snow Crash when this came up in the news, so I was pleased as punch.

  • LM, a Prisoner fan? I knew we were simpatico…

  • The Prisoner was waaaaay ahead of its time, man.

  • Baronius

    I’d put Atlas Shrugged in the same category as Battlefield Earth: some few would put it #1 on their list, but it wouldn’t occur to most people for their top 100.