Having embarked on compiling this list after reading lists produced by others whose claim to producing a definitive list is no greater than my own, and whose inclusions occasionally infuriated me, if only because they seemed to be based solely on personal preference and prejudice, I thought, before I reveal my top ten, that I should set out the criteria which I have applied for inclusion in my own list.
I could simply say, because they are great!. We all know greatness when we see it, don’t we? But apparently we do not, if other lists are anything to go by. So here are my own criteria, some or all of which are satisfied by the 100 Greatest Novels I have selected:
- They must be memorable. There must be something about them that keeps them in my head long after I have finished reading them. This may be because they are thought provoking (eg The Periodic Table) or they have a dramatic or unexpected conclusion (eg I Am Legend) or some other quality that keeps me returning to them in my mind.
- They may be ground breaking. They may create a new genre (eg The Murders at the Rue Morgue) or they may have rewritten the rules of a genre (eg The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)
- They may have unforgettable, superbly drawn characters (eg The Remains of the Day).
- They may evoke a particular place or time brilliantly (eg Cider with Rosie).
- They may be particularly moving, succeeding in conveying emotional impact (eg The Kite Runner).
- They may be outstanding examples of their type or genre (eg The Day of the Jackal).
- They may have an outstanding prose style (eg For Whom The Bell Tolls) or use of language (eg A Clockwork Orange).
It also goes without saying that I must have read them – which means that many great novels are not eligible for inclusion…yet! The list may need to be revised and updated over time.
I also imposed an arbitrary rule that an author may be represented only once in the list. As a result there is only one Jane Austen in spite of Sense and Sensibility being a favourite of mine, there is only room for Emma in the list.
So now let’s look at the analysis of the books which did make it onto the list, satisfying the above criteria. I suspect that this analysis will say as much about me, the reader, as it does about the authors and their novels.
Firstly. let’s look at the gender of the authors. The overwhelming majority of the authors are male, reflecting both the historic preponderance of male writers and, it has to be said, my own taste and interests.
Next we can look at the nationality of the authors. As might be expected, the majority of the authors are British (46) or from the USA (24), given my natural bias to the English language. However, the next highest representation comes from France (7). There is however a good diverse range from around the world – although no African writers…yet.
It may also be interesting to look at when the books were published. The chart below shows that there is a definite preference for mid/late Victorian novelists (19) and,particularly for novels written in the middle decades of the 20th Century (50). Maybe I am a little too conservative in my choice of reading, as there are only three novels written post-2000 in my list.
I thought it might be fun to look at the genres of fiction included in the list. Most Literature, with a capital L, tends to transcend genre boundaries or to defy categorisation in this way and this is true of 56 of the novels. But the rest fall into a number of quite surprising, often looked down upon, genres such as Science Fiction and Crime. Again this probably tells you more about me than anything else.
Although I hadn’t given it much thought when compiling the list, one of the things that really irritates me in reading groups and book clubs in which I take part is the conflation of novels and films. I want to discuss the book not the damn movie adaptation. However, I did note that 87 of the novels have been turned into films or TV series. At least one of the exceptions, The Catcher in the Rye, is the result of a deliberate decision on the part of author JD Salinger not to sell the film rights. Others are arguably unfilmable, eg The Alchemist, although with the advent of Computer Generated Images that is less the case than previously for even the most magic realist of novels – think The Life of Pi. I was surprised though to find that no-one had made a faithful adaptation (as distinct from a cynical rip off of the plot and characters without giving credit where credit is due) of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.