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As it is, the whole thing is pretty much meaningless.

“Time Magazine’s” Top 100 English Novels

I know that top 100 lists are highly subjective and that there is no point in really getting irate about people’s choices, but I just can’t help myself in this instance. “Time Magazine” has published a list of what they call the top one hundred English language novels written since 1923.

Although there are some fine writers represented on the list, and even some works that I would agree belong on the list, there are many things about their choices that I find questionable. They have selected lesser works of deserving authors; they have omitted some of the most innovative writing in the English language; and finally they have included books that have little or no literary merit.

Aside from that, I have hard time seeing the point of compiling a list made up of only English language writers. How many winners of the Nobel Prize for literature does that leave out? How many cultures will not be represented because of this decision? Does “Time Magazine” think that their readers don’t read anything that has been translated into English from another language? Do they know that the Bible wasn’t written in English originally? Just wondering.

How anyone can think that a book like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind has more literary merit than anything written by Henrich Boll, Gunter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez I don’t know. Including a pot boiler romance novel on a list representing best novels is ridiculous to begin with, but to do so at the inclusion of books simply because they were not written in English is insane.

To say this is any sort of definitive list when it only includes English language books diminishes the stature of the books that are on the list. How would some them fared if they had been held up against the work of Grass or Borges? Compared to something like Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude books like Robert Graves I, Claudius, A Passage To India by E. M. Forrester, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint don’t even deserved to be mentioned.

Okay, I’ve got that out of my system, I hope, and will turn my attention to the merits of their so-called Best 100 English Language Novels since1923. Without doubt they have selected some highly deserving authors to be on this list; Thomas Pynchon, Jersey Kosinski, William Faulkner, Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut to name a few. There are even some authors whose work I was pleasantly surprised to see included: Paul Bowls, William S. Burroughs, and Henry Miller in particular.

The problem I have in some of those cases are the works that have been chosen as being an author’s best. Take the case of Paul Bowls for instance. The expatriate American lived in Tangiers in the late forties and early fifties and was one of the fore runners of the whole “beat” scene. When people like Burroughs and Ginesberg came to Algeria, it was Paul Bowls who took them in and showed them around.

His novels dealt with the misadventures of those who were not native to Algeria, and how they were seduced by the absolute freedom granted to foreigners in the days prior to Algerian independence. The book chosen for the list, The Sheltering Sky is by far his least interesting work: Let It Come Down would have been a much better choice.

In cases like this, and others, it seems like the selectors have picked the books people are more likely to have heard of, or that have had some degree of popularity, rather than judging strictly on literary merits. The Sheltering Sky was made into a movie, as was Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowls. While they are all good books each author has produced better.

Why was Faulkner’s As I Lay Dieing, by far his best book excluded in favour of The Sound and the Fury and Light In August? While I have no argument with the inclusion of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 is taking up space that could have been used by something more deserving.

That seems like a good lead in to novels that were omitted. They have picked the arbitrary date of 1923, because that’s the year “Time” started publishing, and by doing so they claim that excuses them from having to include James Joyce’s Ulysses. While it’s true the novel received a small publication in 1922, it was banned in the United States until 1933, so technically there was no American publication until that time.

Anyway, why would you even consider creating a list of the best contemporary novels written in the English language when you know it’s going to omit one of the most influential books of the twentieth century? To me that not only throws the whole list into disrepute, but is idiotic. What’s their excuse for omitting Finnegan’s Wake, the culmination of Joyce’s experimentation with the English language?

Other author’s whose omission leave glaring holes in this list include Morley Callaghan, any of whose novels would be better than Portnoy’s Complaint by Roth, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road To Wellville, The Wars by Timothy Findlay, Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver. I could probably continue until I had made my own top 100 list, but you get the idea.

Now I love Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and John Le Carre. I also like Len Deighton, Ian Rankin, Tony Hillerman, and a host of other mystery writers. But would I include their works on a list of the best novels since 1923. Not if it caused other more deserving authors or titles to be left off. The same applies for Snow Crash by Neal Stevenson and Neuromancer by William Gibson. They may be good reads but they are not deserving of such recognition.

I can see how one could argue that The Big Sleep and Red Harvest be included on the list; there could even be a case made for Snow Crash. However, it is beyond me how anybody could justify other books that have made the grade.

I believe I may have mentioned my disbelief at the inclusion of Gone With The Wind already, as well as a few others along the way. So it may come as something of a surprise, (or not) that I still have a few more titles that I would see stricken from the list. I won’t bore you by listing all of them, but there are a couple more that I can’t let go by without commenting.

I know this will get me in trouble with the Gods of CanLit, and I’ll probably never be published in my own country, but I’ve never thought much of Margaret Atwood. (Perhaps I have a thing about the name) Her writing just seems to try to hard to be literary for me to take it seriously. If they had been searching for a token Canadian novel to include there are plenty of others far more deserving than The Blind Assassin.

I have never understood the appeal of John Updike. All his novels seem to revolve around the trials and tribulations of professional white people, and their struggle for identity. The whole series of “Rabbit” books has always seemed a pointless exercise in navel gazing, with Rabbit Run not being the exception to the rule. Perhaps middle class sexual politics have just never appealed to me, so I’m missing the point, but sometimes I think John Updike has missed the boat.

To give Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo their due, they had the balls to try and do what I consider an impossible task. Taste in writing is as personal as taste in partners. Just as everybody is looking for something different in choosing whom they will spend their life with, (and how often do we even get that right the first time) everybody wants something different from what they read.

Putting questions of personal taste aside for the moment the real problem with this list lies in the two limitations they have placed upon it. It may have seemed like a cool idea to parallel the selections with the history of “Time Magazine”, but all it did was create an arbitrary date that ignored a significant artistic movement.

To cut off almost the first quarter of the twentieth century eliminates one of the most important periods of artistic innovation. The ripples from this time affected the writings of almost every ensuing author, including most of those on the list. It would not have been that difficult to extend the time frame 23 years back to 1900.

By ignoring the great body of work that has been translated into English over the past one hundred years, the creators of this list have not only insulted over half the world’s population, but also taken some of the world’s best authors out of the picture.

When all is said and done this list appears to have little or no value as an indicator of quality writing. The arbitrary cut off date and exclusion of non-English language titles precludes the inclusion of some of the world’s best writing thereby reducing the significance of any titles actually included on the list. It seems the object of this list was nothing more than an attempt to lend credence to “Time Magazine” as an arbitrator of taste.

This might have been an interesting exercise if it was done for more of a reason than “Time” blowing their own horn. As it is, the whole thing is pretty much meaningless.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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