The 100 best novels in English? Irish writers and critics have their say
Julian Gough, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and a host of others respond to Robert McCrum’s ‘100 greatest novels written in English’. Read on for lively debate and hot book tips
Compiling a list entitled The 100 best novels written in English is not simply sticking your head over the literary parapet, it is running naked into no-man’s-land with a target painted on your chest and a kick-me sign pinned to your back
Fair play to Robert McCrum. Compiling a list over two years entitled The 100 best novels written in English for the Observer and guardian.com is not simply sticking your head over the literary parapet, it is running naked into no-man’s-land with a target painted on your chest and a kick-me sign pinned to your back.
The brickbats were not long in coming, not least over the preponderance of dead white males, which engendered a backlash as predictable as it was deserved, led by his colleague Rachel Cooke.
Nuala O’Connor, whose new novel, Miss Emily, is published today, observed: “I did see McCrum’s list and wept inwardly. No doubt others will say more coherently what I would say anyway, which in a nutshell is this: Two years to compile the list and in that time he finds just 21 out of 100 that are written by women? For shame.”
Others remarked on the felicitous advantage that being published by Faber (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, John McGahern and Peter Carey) conferred on one’s chances of making the list. McCrum was editorial director there from 1979-1989 then editor-in-chief from 1990 to 1996.
Starting with The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan in 1678 and concluding with True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey in 2000, the list is peppered with a fair few Irish classics, as you might expect, kicking off with Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726) and including The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759); The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891); Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897); Ulysses by James Joyce (1922); Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938); At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (1939); The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948); and Amongst Women by John McGahern (1990).
But were these the right Irish classics to champion and celebrate? And what of McCrum’s choices in general? I invited a broad range of Irish writers, academics, critics, publishers and booksellers to have their say. At least one thought the whole concept ridiculous, but most responded with passion.
This is a thoughtful, beautifully balanced, middle-aged, middle-class, literary, English list. I cannot fault it. Arguing that it leaves out science fiction, or fantasy, or some rather good Scottish or Irish or Indian or American writers (many of them with ovaries), or writers above or below a certain height (where are the Watusi? Where are the Bushmen?) would be pointless. His opinion is his opinion. He has formed a canon from the books which formed him. To attack the list is to attack the man.
So let me instead selectively praise it. Emma is indeed Jane Austen’s masterpiece; good to see it ranked above the more crowd-pleasing Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion.
It is a delight to see PG Wodehouse on this list. If you are new to Wodehouse, read his suggestion, Joy in the Morning; then read The Code of the Woosters, in which Wodehouse so brilliantly mocks English fascism; and then, if you’re still having fun, read a more obscure work, Hot Water; a farce with a plot of astounding, baroque, comic genius.
A pleasure, too, to see A Single Man, by Christopher Isherwood, on such a list. It is such a slight book, so deceptively simple, and so emotionally powerful by the end, yet without manipulation, without show. And it delivers one of the great last pages in literature.
As for the Irish writers... Bram Stoker, Swift, Joyce, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, John McGahern. Not bad. I’d go for Molloy (and Malone Dies) above Murphy (and would place The Third Policeman ahead of At Swim-Two-Birds), but that’s just a matter of opinion; they’re all deserving, and good choices. The most obvious Irish omission is probably Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (a book with at least as much impact and influence as anything by McGahern), but it’s his list, and he’s an English bloke.
It’s good stuff, and will get people arguing in pubs about literature. They may even read something they’ve been meaning to for years. (I’ve finally dowloaded Thomas Love Peacock’s mischievous 1818 satire of the Romantics, Nightmare Abbey.) Job done. Fair play, Mr McCrum.
Julian Gough’s latest novel is Jude in London
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Great fun to browse through Robert McCrum’s Hundred Best Novels in English (or is it Hundred Favourite Novels? If not, it should be, because of course it’s subjective, and has to be.)
These lists tend to be less subjective in the earlier period, ie 18th/19th centuries, where the tried and tested canon is relied upon. No arguments with most of his choices. I might have selected other novels by certain of the authors, but he restricts himself to one per author, which means some of “the best” (in my opinion) are necessarily left out. I like Northanger Abbey better than anything more polished by Austen, for instance. Jane Eyre is great but so is Villette. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is her best-known novel, partly thanks to the great movie – which drew my attention to Edith Wharton for the first time in my life. But The House of Mirth is the book I’d pick, of her fantastic oeuvre, and several appear on my list of favourite books of all time. I think his selection of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure is correct, but again, several of Hardy’s novels deserve a place. Missing altogether? Anne Bronte is always left out, but Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, if less polished than the novels of her sisters, deserve a place on any list of nineteenth-century novels.
Delighted to see Robinson Crusoe, which I love… Well, it would have been odd if it hadn’t appeared. Also thrilled, as McCrum moves through the decades and centuries, that he rates Louisa Alcott’s Little Women (I just love to picture the crusty McCrum curled up under an apple tree, on a hammock, reading this most girly of all novels… One wonders when he read it?) Glad to see Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, a brilliant novel which I came across quite recently. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage I love and am pleased to see it there. Though perhaps The Razor’s Edge is even better. PG Wodehouse likewise – one of my heroes, I don’t really care which novel is selected. I’d rate Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall as one of the greatest comic novels of all time, and would replace McCrum’s choice of Scoop with that. For Graham Greene, I prefer The Human Factor to anything else. In total agreement with his choice of EM Forster’s A Passage to India, though. Yes!
I agree with some of the critical commentary already published. As Rachel Cooke has pointed out, only about a quarter of the novels selected are written by women, although the bulk of the list is 20th century (ie lots and lots of women to consider!) The endless prejudices endure. Needless to say, collections of short stories are simply ignored, as always. Such a weird and idiotic convention, to leave out a whole genre of fiction simply on grounds of length! This oversight shows how utterly conventional – to the point of mindlessness – a person even of Robert McCrum’s intelligence can be.
His Irish selections are fine. The old reliables – Ulysses, Murphy, At Swim-Two-Birds. But where is Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, one of the most significant of all Irish novels? Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices? Don’t think he mentions anything by William Trevor. Or Anne Enright. Or even Banville, goodness gracious me! In general those novelists still living are perhaps those most badly served by the list, inevitably I suppose, since there are so many of them. I’d like to see Margaret Drabble, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan (amazing that he has left out Atonement, and On Chesil Beach) on the list, to mention a few that spring to mind. Penelope Lively. And, of course, David Lodge. But he is usually overlooked, because he’s too funny. McCrum might have been wise to restrict his list to dead writers, actually. He has a few live ones in there, but not so you’d notice.
I’ve read 65 of the hundred. Gaps in my education… or entertainment – which I plan to eradicate soon will be filled by Penelope Fitzgerald’s Beginning of Spring (her The Blue Flower is generally rated higher, but I trust McCrum on this one), and Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons.
Inevitably one’s own list would look different. It’s a good exercise for a reader, however: identify a hundred, or two hundred, works of fiction that you love. I would use that term – beloved books, or favourite books – rather than “the best”.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest novel is The Shelter of Neighbours
In his top-notch campus satire Changing Places, David Lodge invents a literary dinner-party game called Humiliation. Guests compete by ’fessing up to the classics of literature they have never read. In order to win you must champion your own ignorance. In the book, English professor Howard Ringbaum admits that he has never read Hamlet. Trump card! Hurrah for Howard: he wins the game. (And loses his job as a result.)
I play my own quiet game of Humiliation every time another ‘100 best books of all time ever’, ‘10 best books this year’, ‘the must-reads of the summer’ article appears. When the first few on the list go my way – Castle Rackrent? Tick. Brideshead? Tick. If This Is A Man? Tick – then I’ll plough through to the end, awarding myself a smug point for each book I’ve read. It’s a different story when there are no familiar faces at the start of the list. Do I turn it into a learning opportunity? Sharpen my pencil and carefully jot down a year’s worth of reading recommendations from someone who has put time and thought into compiling a selection representing the best of international literature?
Of course I don’t. Yet despite only scoring five (oh alright, four) in the first 10 of Robert McCrum’s ‘the 100 best novels written in English’ I kept going, beguiled by a timeline beginning with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678 and ending with Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000.
100 titles later and – full Humiliation disclosure here – I counted 18 that I’d never even heard of. Applying the ‘ones-I’ve-read’ filter shrunk his list to 34. The list shrunk quicker still when I went looking for Irish faces. I don’t read books because of their author’s nationality, yet when an author is Irish, I’m always pleased. But there was no Colm Tóibín, no Roddy Doyle. No Maeve Brennan, no Norah Hoult. And as for David Lodge, creator of Humiliation (his mother is half-Irish so I’m playing the granny rule)?
He’s not on the list either.
Henrietta McKervey is the author of What Becomes of Us
It’s hard to get excited either way about this list. The idea of a canon, the notion that there are these works of imperishable value, is innately conservative, exclusionary and reductive, so it’s no surprise this list is too. As a list it would be a decent resource for someone who is new to fiction in English and wanted, with dutiful masochism, to read through from what might be termed ‘the beginning’ of the form, but, again, with its emphasis on chronology over aesthetic evolution, the list gives an easy lie to what the novel is and where it’s going (by the looks of things: mostly nowhere.) It’s a predictable, safe list, like a middle-aged white male music journalist’s top 100 albums that dutifully sticks Revolver at No 1 and has a token rap album somewhere just outside the top ten.
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins
Attempts to quantify culture in a list are usually met with almost immediate disagreement. Responses to it will always be partial, claiming that the author has left out your favourite (the swine!) or has made an unforgivable choice. This list is, of course, very male, white and straight. When your own paper publishes a pre-emptive rebuttal of your lack of women, it might be time to have a word with yourself about the sort of stories you value.
The central issue I have with it is the relationship between the title ‘Greatest Novels’ versus the content of the list, which is full of wonderfully personal favourites and some really splendid oddities that I will add to my ‘To Read’ list. This asks the question of what we want a great novel to be, whether it is formally innovative, stylistically brilliant or speaking to a particular social moment.
That said, the responses to the article say a great deal about the responder. I could live without Roth and Amis, and instead would have had White Teeth, Middlesex, Kafka On The Shore, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Gathering and The Line of Beauty. But these are my favourites, so you can tell me off for them in the comments. We could all fill a list with our personal pleasures, but we would not all declare them ‘Greatest Novels’.
Caroline Magennis is a lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature at the University of Salford
A list is like a good book – it doesn’t exist without a response from the reader. So let’s merrily quibble over our personal preferences. Even if we agree with the names, it seems to me barmy, for example, to choose Waugh’s Scoop instead of A Handful of Dust, the book which taught me that Babel wasn’t joking when he said that “no iron can pierce the heart with the force of a period put at just the right place”. (He meant a full stop, but Babel’s English never was very good. And anyway those who have read A Handful of Dust will know what passage I’m thinking of.) Or to pick Heller’s uneven Catch-22 over his masterpiece Something Happened, which takes the novel of suburban malaise and raises it to mesmerising, paranoid heights never since exceeded, and which shows the 13 years of its composition in every line. Also, everyone, even Julian Gough, knows that Wodehouse’s greatest novel is Leave It To Psmith.
On the Irish side, I might argue for the raw vitality of The Dark to represent John McGahern over the smoother, more polished (but undeniably brilliant) Amongst Women. And it may be my northern chauvinism which regrets the absence of Brian Moore: he may not have produced a towering masterpiece, but his extraordinary fertility and range – from close-up portraits of individuals in crisis, to parables of the church in an alternative Ireland, to political thrillers – deserves recognition. And is now the time to admit that, despite loving her stories, I’ve never been able to finish a novel by Elizabeth Bowen? No? Instead then, let’s suggest a place for Maeve Brennan (who refused to read Bowen on the grounds that she was Anglo-Irish) – yes, Brennan’s greatest works are the stories in The Springs of Affection, and her novel The Visitor is more a novella – but if Robert McCrum can make his own rules, then so can I.
John Self is a critic
I saw this over the weekend and thought it was terrific, if a little weighted towards the middle decades of the 20th century. I read through it almost wanting to be annoyed by an omission of a favourite, only to find it there. Raymond Chandler, John McGahern, Nathaniel Hawthorne – all included.
The author seems determined not to be swayed by modern culture – you suspect it would have made his life easier had he included A Game of Thrones.
It’s difficult to argue over a list such as this too much, particularly when it’s been written by one person rather than a committee. My list would be very different, but I haven’t read every book in his! Personally I would swap Of Mice and Men for The Grapes of Wrath as it’s a tale of simple morality that only Animal Farm comes close to. Closer to home, The Country Girls (Edna O’Brien), Puckoon (Spike Milligan) and The Dark (John McGahern) all eloquently and viscerally contributed so much to how I view the Ireland of a generation ago that I couldn’t leave them off. Equally, Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea is an incredible piece of writing – and deserves to be thought of as one of the great books of the last 20 years. As an aside, my uncle Des Kenny tackled this subject a number of years ago, writing a book called Kennys Choice: 101 Irish Books You Must Read. He unwittingly made our jobs quite a bit more complicated by picking lots of difficult-to-source and out-of-print masterpieces!
For me though, the greatest omission is The Three Musketeers – still the greatest and most joyful narrative of all!
Tomás Kenny works for Kennys Bookshop, Galway
Lists are so ten a penny these days that I’m listing over from trying to take them all on board. Even when I see a good one my first reaction is that it’s just another case of listing-mania. And Robert McCrum’s list is a good one. Fair dues to him for flying his flag, because he must know that if “of the making of books there is no end”, there is no end either to the plucking of crows about them. It’s a thankless exercise, really, so thanks to him, not only for the candid picture of his own tastes and interests but for licensing a carnival of cavilling, a festival of second-guessing, and a wake for also-rans.
A chronological approach means that it is very hard to avoid beginning predictably with the big daddies. It‘s also the easy part of the compilation. The classics speak for themselves, though honest to God I’d rather cross the Sahara in a boat than have to face Clarissa again. Of course to see the works included is also to be reminded that behind them sits a very strong subs team – Our Mutual Friend, Nostromo, and I’d prefer to be borne on The Wings of the Dove than drown in The Golden Bowl. But that applies all down the line, and it’s not really a problem because it reminds us of how many wonderful and remarkable novels there are. Not just including old friends but bringing to mind absent ones is definitely a pleasure of the list, and it’s also a way of refining your own idea of “best”.
Still and all, my list would not include Wodehouse, however successfully he rehabilitated himself from his wartime attachments. And I suppose my notion of the novel doesn’t incline to the bijou, so no Elizabeth Taylor for me. Instead, I’d make a very strong case for Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), an unsparing, overwhelming saga of a family‘s trail of wreckage. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), still the classic fictional statement of black male experience in America, is my other must. With all due respect to Doris Lessing, stylistically speaking she’s a Fordson Major in comparison to the Ferrari Margaret Atwood. Maybe Nadine Gordimer is stone-faced, but if “flashes of brilliance” earn Disraeli his place, she’s got them to spare. Don DeLillo is a terrific writer, but Thomas Pynchon (Norman Mailer’s stoner son) is a riskier, more rewarding trip. And genre-busting Mailer himself isn’t worth a look-in?
The Irish contingent is well represented, on the whole. Picking Murphy is a surprise – Molloy for me. And The Third Policeman, not At Swim-Two-Birds. The weird worlds of the Anglo-Irish imagination could have been better served, I suppose. Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent is definitely a candidate in my book, and something of Sheridan Le Fanu’s would not be amiss, if not Uncle Silas then Carmilla, mother of all vampires. The biggest disappointment here is the absence of JG Farrell; The Siege of Krishnapur is a great novel.
But adding, subtracting, muttering and spluttering are all part of the fun. Reading itself is a great game of give and take, after all, even if all you’re reading is a list.
George O’Brien’s The Irish Novel 1800-1910 will be published later this year
We love best-of lists for the pleasure of righteous outrage they afford. What? Not just that tosser – but this one too. Is this thing a put-on? Robert McCrum’s most shocking inclusions are Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Martin Amis’s Money, neither of which seems to me to have a word of truth or to be remotely funny (two lacks which are obviously connected). For exquisite wit based on truth and compassion, that has managed the difficult feat of remaining funny for nearly a century, Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot should have been there. Another shocking omission is Alice Munro, whose Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar Maid both qualify as novels and are the most honest evocations of female experience in the twentieth century.
Then there are the writers represented by the wrong books. Heart of Darkness is one of Conrad’s weaker works, and Rabbit Redux is the weakest of Updike’s four Rabbit novels. Absalom, Absalom! is better than As I Lay Dying, Watt better than Murphy, The Third Policemen better than At Swim-Two-Birds, and DeLillo’s White Noise better than the bloated Underworld. Neither is Party Going Henry Green’s best book, though it is good to see him on the list, something I can’t say for the other Greene, merely a competent hack.
Impossible to go wrong with the likes of Moby-Dick, Middlemarch and Ulysses, but the list is a huge success because it has got so much else wrong.
Michael Foley is an author and poet michael-foley.net
It’s too big a subject; for every writer chosen there are at least three sulking in the background. but the great omission is perhaps the first novel ever written and one of the greatest – The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, 11th-century but a totally modern, psychologically aware and, in its true sense, fabulous narrative. Otherwise my list would over-favour the recent past. It’s good to see Anne Tyler on. I’ve been a fervent fan since I reviewed her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes in 1964 (she herself dislikes the book but it was obvious that here was a wonderful young writer) ; and Penelope Fitzgerald has to be there, although I think the breathtakingThe Blue Flower is her greatest achievement. Happy too, to see the revered John McGahern listed but unhappy not to see Edna O’Brien – The Country Girls, besides being a cracking and funny read, was a profoundly novel novel … I’d salute Margaret Drabble – The Radiant Way is a brilliant social history disguised as fiction. Roddy Doyle – The Van or The Snapper – would be a must; so easy to leave him off but he should be on. I’m also sorry not to see William Trevor – his Reading Turgenev is a gentle masterpiece . Most of all I’d include Kate Atkinson. Life After Life is a great novel by any standard.
Polly Devlin is a broadcaster and writer. Her first book All of Us There written in 1982 is re-published as a Modern Classic by Virago She is an adjunct Professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, New York
Idiosyncratic. Infuriating. Inspired. I can’t wait to get as far as the 20th century!
One of the good things about this compilation is that, unlike most such taxonomical exercises it doesn’t simply reflect the tastes and ephemera of the last 10 years. We are still in the middle of the Great War and McCrum has exhausted almost half his choices. If anything the last three and a half decades (with 10 citations) may be under-represented. This leaves no room for the likes of Sebastian Faulks (Birdsong), Pat Barker (The Regeneration trilogy) or Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall).
Given that the novel was disparaged as a “female form” in its infancy there is a strange paucity of females on the list. No Gertrude Stein, Hilary Mantel, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Edna O’Brien, Pat Barker, Carson McCullers, Angela Carter, Jean Rhys, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor or Daphne du Maurier. No Edith Nesbitt or JK Rowling despite his praiseworthy nod towards children’s literature.
There is not a lot of African-American writing represented. He could have included James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Thrilled to see the inclusion of Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Chandler and Hammett as well as Wodehouse, acknowledgment for those of us whose brows are low. In this regard he might have included Terry Pratchett, a comic genius who chose the fantasy novel as his home, or that great stylist John Le Carré.
I was bitterly disappointed not to see Kurt Vonnegut Jr – Slaughterhouse Five is one of the greatest novels in any language – John Irving or John Fowles cited and surprised at the omissions of Robert Graves (Goodbye to All That or I Claudius would have been worthy contenders), Huxley’s Brave New World or almost anything by Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy.
Are certain canonical writers, who had to be included, actually represented by their best work? Is Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury not vastly superior to As I Lay Dying? Is Tender is the Night not more substantial than The Great Gatsby? While Scoop is Waugh’s most enjoyable novel is it as important as Brideshead Revisited? Is Oscar and Lucinda not Peter Carey’s magnum opus?
Do Max Beerbohm, Patrick White, Elizabeth Taylor, Henry Green, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Frederick Rolfe really merit inclusion on a list of the 100 greatest novels in the English language?
Had he not chosen to recognise the genius of Joseph Heller I would have tossed my iPad out the window. And any list that excludes Norman Mailer must be doing something right.
I foresee some compelling book club meltdowns in the months ahead.
Myles Dungan’s books include How the Irish Won the West
Listomania is a harmless enough diversion. Literary lists are either innocent “parlour games” or, in the words of one tetchy UK critic, “elaborate headstones for a defunct way of thinking about literature.” In his introduction to The Guardian Best 100 Novels, Robert McCrum inclines towards the former so it’s hard to get too censorious about choices. Yes, you could get worked up about some of them if you had the energy, but broadly speaking it’s the sort of canonical list you might expect from a middle-aged Eng Lit journo.
Most dismaying for some will be the 4:1 ratio of men to women writers, a position lustily assailed by Rachel Cooke in a Guardian response piece. “Even allowing for the fact that his list takes in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when women writers were relatively rare, this seems extraordinary to me,” she harrumphs. I seem to remember the same debate when Germaine Greer wrote The Obstacle Race on women painters but Cooke has a point with Eudora Welty and Margaret Atwood, both of whose omissions seem perverse. Same goes for Edna O’Brien and Flannery O’Connor.
Only three persons of colour? Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man could certainly replace Theodore Dreiser whom nobody reads, nor should they. He chooses the wrong Faulkner and Roth too; Sound and the Fury and American Pastoral would have been better picks. Kerouac over Vonnegut? Surely not! And where’s Paul Auster and Cormac McCarthy?
As the former publisher at Faber in its 1980s heyday, McCrum is to be commended for only including three Faber classics in Ishiguro, Carey and McGahern. Didn’t the Irish do well? Although E Battersby may be outraged at the exclusion of The Mark and the Void.
Bert Wright is curator of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival
I think there are much better ways for Robert McCrum to waste his time.
What is this insane ambition for an absolute conclusion of Amen on 100 Greatest Novels rather than uncovering what’s not read or known and might yet be.
He appears on this list only to be reading what’s already been read. Such lists rarely provide any astounding revelations and this one is no different. That said in his defence, I’m an oddball and I’ve never been told what to read so my reading is eclectic and often accidental. Happy to keep it that way. His venture does appear to have engaged many readers through the Guardian website discussion. Reading and discussing literature are oxygen and to be applauded.
I did come across this quote yesterday on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s website which made me chuckle and seems apt. “(Please refrain from offering honorary degrees, awards, listings in ‘100 most...’, & similar debasements of knowledge that turn it into spectator sport).”
I also love César Aira’s description of his reading in this interview (and what he says earlier in it about readers having to work to find his books) http://bombmagazine.org/article/3224/
“Since I’ve never taught or written criticism, I’ve always read for the sake of reading. But I have my system: when I start on an author I read him completely. Not because I force myself but because I naturally want to read it all, and then afterward a biography, studies about him, the authors he read, his disciples. . . . I think it’s a way of making something organic out of the reading experience.”
Anakana Schofield is the author of Malarky. Her second novel, Martin John, is published next month in North America and next spring in Ireland
As Robert McCrum admits in the thoughtful supplementary article he has written about his hundred favourite English-language novels, there will always be something ridiculous about such a list. It is worth reading that piece before flying off in indignation about what got left out: he explains why he couldn’t fit everyone on there even if he felt they deserved it, and the reasons are primarily logistical. While this is a list that expresses, despite its definitive-sound title, the preferences of one man (as McCrum admits), it seems to pretty much reinforce what I understand to be the anglophone canon. That said, at times McCrum seems to have chosen books for their status as ‘popular classics’ rather than out of personal conviction. To Kill A Mockingbird – really? Come along now, I can’t be the only one to have yawned my way through that one. Or take On the Road – an exhilarating read when you’re 17 for sure, but Naked Lunch or The Soft Machine are more radical and inventive novels that could have represented the Beat era.
As for Irish novels, there’s not much I’d argue with (Dracula! Good man), though I confess I’ve never gotten on John McGahern’s wavelength, and it hasn’t been for the lack of trying. So I’ll tentatively suggest booting him out and reeling in John Banville’s The Book of Evidence – an intense depiction of consciousness adrift in the void.
But that’s just the nature of these lists. If we got going on whether I thought, say, DeLillo’s Underworld is really worthier than Libra, or whether McCrum is right to dismiss Iris Murdoch (born in Ireland too, by the way) because her stuff is ‘contrived and artificial’, then we’d be here all night. I’d eventually have to go and write my own list. And so would you. It would never end.
Rob Doyle is the author of Here are the Young Men
Lists of this nature give me angst. I tend to scan the 100 titles and mentally highlight how many of them I’ve yet to read. What is a ‘best’ novel? What is a best classic novel? Where do you start when it comes to the selection and how can something so subjective be viewed as definitive?
The best thing about lists like this is that they make you want to read. This is particularly true of the Guardian series, with its short and insightful summaries of each book. Plenty of great literature in McCrum’s 100 – Austen’s Emma, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Greene’s The End of the Affair, Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. But then again, I’d have picked Persuasion, East of Eden, The Heart of the Matter and Ethan Frome. I guess that’s the point though, to provoke argument and get people talking about books.
From subjectivity to statistics – 21 female authors on the list, 67 novels from the 20th century, with 28 of these from America, nine Irish titles, one female in Elizabeth Bowen. Some questions: is a fifth really representative of women writers over the centuries? South Africa features, but where are the contemporary African authors writing in English, or even the past greats like Chinua Achebe? Canada is referenced in the intro but where is Booker winner and multiple nominee Margaret Atwood? From an Irish perspective, where is Edna O’Brien? Basically, for every title of the 100, add 10 questions and 10 new suggestions. That’s what lists like these do.
Sarah Gilmartin reviews new fiction for The Irish Times
Lists, lists, the world’s gone mad on lists. Why? What’s the point in drawing up lists in the first place. I don’t know but behind every list there is usually an agenda or a PR exercise.
Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels, selecting English language fiction from 1678 to 2000, must have been a bit of fun to do, knowing there could be a bit of a storm at the close of play.
But with one to two million readers online, according to his post-list reflections, that’s serious business too. There is, as he says, ‘no accounting for taste’ but hold on here. Why not fiction in translation? How can one really think of a Beckett novel without thinking of his undoubted indebtedness to European writing? it’s daft, really, isn’t it, this listing business that is all linear and chronological when we know that writing of the first rank s not either one or the other. If there is a fate of ‘modern classics’ like Moby-Dick or Mrs Dallaway or Ulysses – three of McCrum’s Top Ten – it’ll reside in the most unlikeliest of places, out beyond, god know’s where, when a youngster reads a book and the axis shifts under his or her feet. Crime and Punishment, Germinal, The Outsider, Madame Bovary – they all belong in the one world of ‘literary fiction’, not just ‘the Anglo-American literary tradition’. So boo to that. And now that I’m at it, where’s J G Farrell, did I miss him? Or the great regional novels of northern England from Walter Greenwood to David Storey. Hey, wait a minute, where’s Eugene McCabe, for heaven’s sake, Richard Ford, Anthony Powell, Olivia Manning; the stunning, shocking Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison? There is no sense of an ending, not really.
Gerald Dawe’s Mickey Finn’s Air was published recently by The Gallery Press
A literary list is like a well-tended garden. Rules, boundaries, who’s in and who’s out: it’s all very neat, tidy and, at its best when in the flush of bloom, admirable. But there are those of us who have a sneaking preference for blurred edges, and the exuberance of the wildflowers which spring up there. A mad, leggy, yellow poppy right in front of the prize geraniums? Bring it on.
As an Irish reader I can’t quibble with Robert McCrum’s inclusion of Joyce, Beckett, Swift et al. But I’d like to see a few more badly-behaved natives invade his well-tended list. How about Patrick Kavanagh’s Tarry Flynn (1948) alongside Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day? Billy Roche’s Tumbling Down (1986) as well as Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist Of The Floating World? J P Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955) with Nabokov’s Lolita?
I’d query McCrum’s John McGahern inclusion, too: The Barracks (1961) is a grittier and more influential book than Amongst Women. And on the subject of glaring omissions, Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls (1960) should have been a no-brainer.
I would argue strongly for the inclusion of Brian Moore’s exquisitely-observed portrait of Belfast life, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955). And I’m sorry, but you really can’t have a list of the best novels written in English without JG Farrell’s peerless Troubles standing proud for 1970.
McCrum doesn’t have a representative for 1970. For 1971 he nominates Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, which I’ve never heard of, and am going to seek out pronto because it sounds brilliant. But the whole year-by-year thing is a pain in the neck. Is there not a less tight-fisted way to do a list?
The “100 Best…” has been soundly – and rightly – smacked for its paucity of women writers. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) should surely be on there. So should Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (1960). And Christina Stead, the Australian novelist whose 1940 psychological storm-in-a-household, The Man Who Loved Children, is a must-read.
Aussies, it seems to me, have fared even worse than women on this list. Where’s Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet? Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms? Alex Miller’s The Ancestor Game? Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s Story?
Actually, speaking of male omissions, where’s John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?
I’d better stop. There’s exuberant: and then there’s mad and overgrown.
Arminta Wallace is an arts journalist on The Irish Times
I intermittently checked in on this list as it was being compiled. It was kind of hard to avoid – juicy clickbait on the Guardian Online’s Culture home page. I made a mental note to read Party Going by Henry Green and The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald, as I hadn’t paid any attention to them before and was intrigued by McCrum’s descriptions. I’ve actually gone and stood a couple of times by the Fitzgerald in Hodges Figgis, promising myself that I’ll buy it once I make a bit more headway on my reading backlog. And that’s the point of this list, I suppose – to introduce you to new stuff. The other point, of course, is that the publication of the final 100 was timed to coincide with the height of the newspaper silly season, and it’s given everyone something to write and talk and feel smug about.
I can’t argue with the list – he has all the gigantic English-language novels there and a smattering of more out-of-the-way (eg, Hadrian the Seventh) or less-obvious ones (eg, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) which are no doubt treasured personal favourites. If I was to compile my own it’d be the same sort of mix – I’d self-indulgently find slots for David Markson or Nathanael West or Alasdair Gray or Bret Easton Ellis or The Little Grey Men by BB. And if I was to use McCrum’s list as a template to tinker with, I’d maybe bump Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four off for the same author’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. And then I’d feel I was wrong to omit such a world-changing (albeit chivvying and clanking) book as Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I’d stick it back in.
You’re supposed to get most annoyed about the omissions in a list like this. As an Irish person, I was looking out for Donleavy, Edgeworth and O’Briens Kate and Edna. (And Le Fanu and Stuart – but more in hope than expectation.) But can I really be peeved about Robert McCrum’s choices? He was one of the judges for the only prize I’ve ever won, so I have to say his taste is fine by me!
Gavin Corbett’s latest novel is Green Glowing Skull
Any list that has George Eliot’s Middlemarch in it gets my thumbs up. Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels list is surprising for the fact that there are no real surprises in it. This is very much directed toward the classic work of fiction, or what we used to call the canon. As such it is hard to quibble with choices like the aforementioned Middlemarch or Jane Austen’s Emma or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Each of these novels is a master class in great fiction writing, telling individual stories but also capturing the troubling anxieties of the age in which they were written. McCrum, in commenting on his choices, and acknowledging some of the books that got away and didn’t make the list, quotes Italo Calvino who suggests that the classic is the book “that has never finished what it wants to say”. In analysing many of these classic novels with students it is that quality of openness to reading and rereading which is central to any good work of literature.
McCrum’s list obviously includes many Irish novelists with Joyce, Bowen and John McGahern happily all included. If it were my list and lists are if nothing else utterly subjective, I would have included Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent which is truly subversive as a novel with its myriad voices and competing perspectives. Another inclusion would have been Lady Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl which shows that while Austen can focus on the intimacies of the private world of manners, the Irish writer at the same moment in the 19th century is compelled to tell the public story or history of Ireland. From the more recent past John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus should be on any list that is concerned with good fiction writing.
Dr Derek Hand is head of department at St Patrick’s College, Dublin City University
This reminds me of the list-making record-shop snobs in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Owner Rob makes a top five list of records so predictable and conservative that his colleague Barry berates him for obviously hating music. It’s funny because Rob loves music and Barry is a belligerent live action internet commenter. I don’t think this Guardian top 100 indicates a man who hates books or anything, and McCrum is a well-read, thoughtful list-maker. But it reads, to me, similarly diffident, cautious and unobtrusive, so why bother? Of course Moby-Dick is great, and Dickens is worthy. Who are you telling?
I can’t get mad at the omissions (although seriously, no Atwood, Edna O’Brien, Achebe or Infinite Jest?) because McCrum is upfront about the list’s subjectivity and talks elsewhere about the ones that didn’t make the cut – it’s only 100 out of a pretty big back catalogue in fairness. And there’s no real point in complaining that this list isn’t doing what it sets out to do – the headline says ‘best’, the byline says ‘greatest’ and McCrum elsewhere talks about the definition of a ‘classic’. It doesn’t really know, so it’s hardly asking to be taken too seriously.
In an inevitably subjective list of great books, I think the most disappointing omission is McCrum’s fanaticism. He’s altogether too restrained. The best thing you can say about Frankenstein could be more impassioned than ‘Mary Shelley’s first novel has been hailed as a masterpiece of horror and the macabre’. I’d love to see McCrum get stuck in and pick a genre book and argue why he’s holding the torch based on personal experience. The most interesting thing about lists in this age of listicles and quizzes of dubious authority is not that we should love these books, but why we do.
Lisa Coen is co-publisher at Tramp Press. A Kind of Compass edited by Belinda McKeon is available for preorder now from tramppress.com
How many more ‘100 Best’ of anything do we need? This was my first thought, yet I had hardly begun reading the list when I found myself instantly soothed, nodding and commenting, remembering past pleasures and anticipating new ones. I ordered Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, to add to the teetering bundles of books around my bed. Every addict loves lists. Furthermore, my three favourite novels were on the list – Alice in Wonderland, Ulysses, Wuthering Heights – so I was satisfied. I think Robert McCrum achieved Mission Impossible on his own terms. This is a fine list.
But what if it was my list, what would I change? I would have included more novels by female writers such as Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loves Children. As for novels by Irish women, Castle Rackrent and The Country Girls would have been very high on my list. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys would be near the summit. I would exchange At Swim-Two-Birds for The Third Policeman and Mrs Dalloway for To The Lighthouse – a perfect prose poem. I would definitely swap Kidnapped for Treasure Island and The Golden Bowl for Turn of the Screw but these are quibbles. I only disagreed with two novels on the list. The first is Lolly Willowes, which I read very recently and my disappointment is still fresh. I’d expected a neglected classic but I found it slight and rather unbelievable or, at least, it didn’t succeed in allowing me to suspend my disbelief. On the 100 Best, I was, however, very pleased to see another neglected author (although her star is rising) Elizabeth Taylor represented by her perfect, funny Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The True History of the Kelly Gang was the other book that didn’t work for me. After I’d read online Ned Kelly’s own written justification of his actions in the brilliant Jerilderie letter which inspired the novel, Kelly’s natural demotic poetry made Carey’s writing seem contrived. Again I was unable to suspend disbelief with the raw excitement of Kelly’s own words still racing in my head. But then I must concede that a letter isn’t a novel and it isn’t my list.
It’s a sad truth that major writers like Chekhov, Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin, Eudora Welty and countless others miss out when it comes to lists because they focussed on the shorter form. Perhaps it’s time for another list of 100 best stories. Perhaps Irish writers would be better represented on such a list. VS Pritchett, another brilliant writer whose genius resided in the shorter form, said in his introduction to Mary Lavin’s Collected Stories that the Irish were ‘supreme’ in this area:
“There is commonly, in Irish writing, a double vision, the power to present the surface of life rapidly, but as a covering for something else. I guess that the making of the Irish short story writers is their extraordinary sense that what we call real life is a veil; in other words, their dramatic sense of uncertainty. It is present in their comedy and their seriousness.”
Martina Evans is a poet and author. Her latest collection is Burnfort, Las Vegas
Criticising someone’s personal choice of the 100 best English-language novels feels churlish, a bit like going through someone’s bookshelves and complaining about their collection. I’ve read Robert McCrum’s selections every week in the Observer over the past two years and, inevitably with such a list, agreed with some, disagreed with others (I’d have chosen Great Expectations over David Copperfield, and A Handful of Dust over Scoop) and was pleasantly surprised by quite a few – it was great to see the hugely underrated Sylvia Townsend Warner’s wonderfully strange Lolly Willowes and Anita Loos’s irresistibly jazzy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on the list.
Proportionally, Irish writers are pretty well-represented, claiming eight of the hundred spots (nine if you count Sterne, who was born and spent his early childhood here), though I’d have liked to see Roddy Doyle’s vividly hilarious Barrytown Trilogy on the list. What is striking but unsurprising is the comparative lack of both female writers and postwar genre fiction. It’s as though crime and fantasy writing is okay if it’s old enough to have become “classic”, like The Moonstone (one of my favourite books that definitely deserves its place on the list), Frankenstein or The 39 Steps.
As for women, while it’s nice to see one Irish woman on the list (Elizabeth Bowen), McCrum’s fellow Observer columnist Rachel Cooke has already pointed out that just 21 of the list are women, which is particularly odd given that the majority of books are from the 20th century. To me, the most obvious omissions are Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, Love in A Cold Climate or The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, both of which are sad, dark, elegant, and very funny, The Magic Toyshop or Wise Children by the groundbreaking and hugely influential Angela Carter, and Old Filth by Jane Gardam, a writer with a truly unique and irresistible voice. And given the fact that only two books ostensibly aimed at children – The Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland – are on the list, I can’t help wishing it had also included Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers, which is told by one of the funniest, and most brilliantly written, unreliable narrators in literary history. But then, maybe McCrum grew up reading The Wind in the Willows instead. That’s the thing about these sort of lists – we all have our own.
Anna Carey is an author and critic. Her latest novel is The Real Rebecca
The first point is that the title is misleading – it’s actually the 100 best novelists in the English language, with a single novel chosen from each, a criterion which McCrum admits is somehat ridiculous. After all, Austen, Dickens and Hardy would merit a handful of novels each in any top 100. But given that constraint, and as someone who probably shares many of McCrum’s predelictions and prejudices, it is hard to argue with 90 per cent of his choices. The other 10 per cent are very personal and very British, betraying a strange nursery taste for Victorian/Edwardian whimsy: Zuleika Dobson, Three Men In A Boat. And how did John Buchan and Arthur Conan Doyle wander onto the list?
Having given him credit for his choice of novelist, his choice of novel sometimes borders on the perverse. Scoop rather than Brideshead Revisited or the Sword of Honour, Underworld rather than White Noise, The Rainbow rather than Sons and Lovers, Jude the Obscure rather than Tess of the d’Urbervilles or the Mayor of Casterbidge, David Copperfield rather than Great Expectations or Bleak House, The True History of the Kelly Gang rather than Illywhacker? Is this an attempt to display friskiness within the canon?
His Irish choices are spot on, up to a point: Ulysses, Murphy, The Heat of the Day. However, much as I love some of John McGahern’s work, I’m not sure if his novels justify a place on this list. But there is one obvious, inexplicable, bizarre omission: by what criterion can John Banville, surely the best Irish novelist since Joyce, fail to appear on the list?
Banvillians would find it difficult to choose the representative novel. The Book of Evidence is the obvious one, but Eclipse and The Untouchable, not to mention Athena, all have their partisans. However, as this is a personal list, I would choose the gauche genius of Kepler.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and critic
Your first response is to count the books you’ve read yourself, tick boxes, score points. But what’s the right answer? Too many, and you sound smug, or overly conservative – it is a very conservative list. Too few? Well, you wouldn’t be sharing that with The Irish Times now, would you? Thankfully, the answer is on the good side of adequate, with a grateful head nod to the Leaving Cert for bumping you up a grade or two.
What did you think of it, though? Now that’s a harder question. Plenty on there you agreed with. Plenty of omissions too. Names tumble through your mind. Should Donna Tartt’s A Secret History be included? Misery, by Stephen King, to annoy everyone who hasn’t read his work? Death on the Nile is your favourite Christie, while Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell transported you, body and soul, to another time and place. Meanwhile you’ve pressed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie into the hands of everyone who has asked you for a book recommendation over the past two years, and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong will always be on your own personal top ten list. But this is not your list. So, you waver, and you argue with yourself, and you run your finger along your bookshelves, and that part of the task is fun, and you think longingly of retirement and a beach somewhere. And finally, you come up with three missing names.
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials
Margaret Atwood – A Handmaid’s Tale
Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex
Those three, you can’t argue with. You will bring them to that beach, when the time comes. You take a final look at the original list. Does it contain books that you own, but haven’t actually read yet? The Golden Notebook glows on your shelf. Will its inclusion on the list encourage you to finally pick it up? It probably will, actually. Lists are useful things. Just as long as you remember not to take them too seriously.
Sinéad Crowley is RTÉ’s arts and media correspondent
When it comes to this sort of thing, it seems churlish to object that an English man should treasure so many books written by, well, Englishmen. And though the lack of other types of human experience in this catalogue of, well, human experience is maybe dispiriting – its author does not pretend that his choice is anything other than just that.
People in glass houses: I’m not doing too brilliantly on the blokes or the Brits myself, but okay on the Irish and the women (easy, there being so few), so here goes:
Edith Wharton: I’d argue House of Mirth in favour of The Age of Innocence – Lilly Bart’s fate as a woman of dwindling means and how she is destroyed ever so politely by those around her is brilliantly bloodcurdling. The Age of Innocence seems complacent by comparison (while we’re on the late nineteenth-century Americans – The Portrait of A Lady or even the bloody Aspern Papers a thousand times over The Golden Compass, which no one has ever read, let alone finished).
Happy to see Jane Eyre, every repressed schoolgirl’s favourite (Jane does right thing, gets the right guy – he might be blind but at least he’s not boring or her cousin); also The Golden Notebook is a trippy Marxist-feminist rollick of a novel, the kind you need to take a lie down after. What’s missing? Maybe Good Behaviour by our Molly Keane (incredibly funny and savage), and Atwood obviously: The Handmaid’s Tale for its influence, The Blind Assassin for its stay-up-all-night virtuosity; The Talented Mr Riply or Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith. Maybe because I saw the movie at a very impressionable age, I would mention that sublime cowboy ballad of a novel, The Last Picture Show. Also, I’ll see your Catcher in the Rye and raise you The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy published seven years later – all the youthful exuberance, less the angst, and gives its main character a (somewhat inexplicable, and to my 15-year-old reading self, extremely confusing) orgasm barely 10 pages in.
Notwithstanding subjectivity, and McCrum’s fair defence of his choices, this list really does press on all of us working in the book trade to think about how such a thing will look in a hundred or two hundred years’ time. Its very existence is probably dependent on it having fewer of those very blokes without whom this list would be regarded as niche.
Niamh Mulvey is an editor at Quercus publishers in London
Every week in The Observer for the past two years, I have been reading with pleasure and interest Robert McCrum’s individual entries on the 100 Best English Language novels of all time. Now that the list is complete and has been published in its entirety it is possible to make an overall evaluation and especially to point out exclusions – something which we Irish particularly enjoy. It is a good list, a conservative one, with the strengths and weaknesses that suggests. The further back in time one goes, the more agreement there is to be found on the novelists chosen – the twentieth-century list grows increasingly more contentious. The further away one gets geographically and culturally from the white Anglo-Saxon male norm the more exclusions are to be found, even whole continents. Africa? Not even Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Canada? Not even Margaret Atwood. And so forth.
It’s hard to argue with the nineteenth-century list – for one reason because it’s when the women come into their own: Austen, all the Brontes, Eliot. I realise McCrum has restricted himself to one book per novelist, but I do wish he had broken his own rule when it came to Dickens. The addition of, say, Bleak House to David Copperfield would have shown how Dickens increasingly managed to square cliff-hanging chapter endings with a masterfully constructed narrative. The list runs into serious trouble at the end of the nineteenth century, when far too much dross is mixed in with Thomas Hardy and Henry James. What suffers correspondingly is the last 20 or 30 years of the twentieth. No Ian McEwan? Seriously?
The Irish manage nine authors out of the 100, which isn’t bad, and McCrum makes good choices. He rightly recognizes Stoker’s Dracula as a work of great originality and narrative sophistication; but might have added J Sheridan LeFanu’s Uncle Silas, a brilliant exercise in psychological terror. Along with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (also included) there is a compelling case for Irish Gothic. Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Beckett are all here, even if Beckett would have been ever better represented by a later, darker masterpiece like Malone Dies. Flann O’Brien, yes, but no Edna – The Country Girls merits inclusion. There is one Irish woman novelist – Elizabeth Bowen, who has rightly come to be seen as a major novelist in recent years in both Ireland and England. I always think of her in tandem with those two other greats, Kate O’Brien and Molly Keane. Kate O’Brien is not well known outside Ireland, more’s the pity. But Molly Keane was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1981 (at 77) for her extraordinary comeback with Good Behaviour, which sheds any restraint in going for the blackest comedy. I would argue even more for Keane’s next novel, Time After Time, with its octogenarian quartet of siblings and their even badder behaviour. Finally, it’s great to see McGahern on the list but Amongst Women should be paired with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, covering the same ground but from a very different perspective.
I wish I had read McCrum’s full list at the start of the summer rather than the end – it’s very hard to play catch up as we head back to work, but I’ll try.
Professor Anthony Roche lectures at UCD School of English, Drama and Film
1 How is one to respond to a list? Answer: with another list. (This list-making malarkey is definitely infectious).
2 Most, or at least many of the novels on Robert McCrum's list of the greatest novels in English, are titles which one would expect to see on such a list. So, it's a credible list as far as novels in English go. (Obviously it doesn't include the world).
3 One can quibble, of course, accepting it's just a list of English-language titles. There's not much or indeed enough children's fiction. There's no Dahl. And several of the novels - for example, all The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren, Nineteen Nineteen by John Dos Passos, Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Zulika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (to name but a few) - were not recognised at all by the focus group who I got to assess Mr McCrum's list. (There's more on my focus group below). What that told me (the non-recognition of certain titles) was this: this is quite a high end list.
4 Now a list can't please everyone and it will never be definitive. It's just a list and it's more revealing in the end about the compiler's culture and bias and taste than it is about literature.
5 I'm writing this while on holiday. This is where the focus group comes in. They consist of my family - my children, their spouses etcetera. We are all graduates and we are all appallingly middle-class. On average all of us had read about 20 titles out of the 100 (and often the same 20 titles): in other words, each of us had only managed about 20 per cent of the books on Robert McCrum's list.
6 And what does this tell us? Well, we may all think of ourselves as readers, big readers (and we do, and indeed we are, big readers) and yet we haven't scored highly. Do we hang our heads in shame or do we sigh and assert sagely, 'Well, we're just readers who have read titles Mr McCrum has chosen not to include and if he read our list he'd only get 20 out of a 100.'? I'd say the second will be the preferred option.
7 My oldest daughter (I'm still with my focus group) also had something to say about the size of Mr McCrum's list: 'If it was, say, 25, it would be something to aspire to,' she said, 'but a hundred is intimidating.' So the size of this list may bring about the opposite of Mr McCrum's intention: instead of catalysing reading it may stymie reading.
8 The intimidating nature of Robert McCrum's list notwithstanding, why do we want them, why is there such a market for these pesky lists? Answer: when one feels overwhelmed it offers a way through one's difficulties. Follow the plan, follow the list and one will get through. And we do feel overwhelmed, at least as far as literature is concerned. In our modern world, sadly, we don't read as much as we should, and we certainly don't read as much as we once did, and we are anxious about this, and we know we should do something about it and Mr McCrum offers a solution. If one were to work one's way through Mr McCrum's list (and note the 'if') one would definitely be better educated at the end of the process than one was at the beginning. Or, to put it another way: it certainly won't make you worse.
9 Will I work my way through Mr Mc Crum's list (I'd read 65 titles on his list so I've got 35 to do to make the McCrum 100)? Answer: no, I've already got a list I'm trying to work my way through before I die and I just haven't got the time to do his.
10 As Gertrude Stein meant to say, 'A list is a list is a list ...'
Carlo Gebler's The Projectionist: The Story of Ernest Gebler is published by New Island in October
And finally, a non-Irish, indeed, non-Anglophone perspective!
Ana Pérez Galván
As a Spanish reader going through a list of the 100 greatest English novels of all times by one of the most prestigious British literary editors and critics has been, first of all, a joy. It’s not every day that one happens upon the valuable insight a knowledgeable reader can offer of the original works he’s been able to read in his native language. In return, I think the best contribution I can make here as a non-Anglo reader is not so much agreeing or disagreeing with Mr McCrum’s selection – it would be totally preposterous – but rather sharing the perception we might have here in Spain of that English literature canon.
Up until 1900, that is, the first third of the list, my feel is that everything seems to fall nicely into place, both in terms of writers and of titles. However, from there onwards, especially on what refers to the latter, the mismatch feeling grows – aha, so then it’s The Golden Bowl rather than A Portrait of a Lady that I should have read more closely, or A Passage to India, Mrs Dalloway and An Artist of the Floating World rather than A Room with a View, The Waves or The Remains of the Day.
Apart from that, further to a couple of titles I particularly miss – Fowles’s The Magus and Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces – some references unavoidably bring other ones to mind: Joseph Heller makes me think of Kurt Vonnegut and Bernard Malamud; and, in terms of popularity, I can’t help recalling the fine showcase titles by John le Carré, Alice Munro and Julian Barnes have enjoyed in Spanish bookstores. With respect to Irish works, I would also include, in the children’s chapter, the CS Lewis Narnia series, and for more adult readers one of Colm Tóibín’s excellent novels.
I wonder what a French, Italian, Norwegian . . . reader might say, or an English one, for that matter, about the 100 greatest Spanish novels of all times!
Ana Pérez Galván is publisher and managing director of Hispabooks www.hispabooks.com
Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor