We Fix the Top 100 Novels List

PWStaff -- May 16th, 2012

Back in 1998 when Modern Library released their list of the Top 100 novels (pay no attention to the “Reader’s List” in the right column because, according to that list, all readers are Scientologists or Objectivists), a tidal wave of bellyaching resulted (click here and here for vitriol).

So, in PWxyz’s tradition of being super timely, we’re fixing 1998′s list in 2012. Here’s what we did: each member of our staff was asked to add one book that he/she felt was snubbed and deserved a rightful place on the list, and to remove one undeserving book on the list to make room for the new pick. If you’re a fan of On the Road, you might want to look the other way.

Let us know your added pick/removed pick in the comments!

Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:

The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

This is perhaps the greatest of the British humorist’s novels, in which Bertie Wooster gets the goods on Roderick Spode of the Black Shorts, inspired by Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. I’d get rid of Kerouac’s On the Road. I agree with Truman Capote when said of this classic Beat novel, “That’s typing, not writing.”

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

This list could use a dash of evil whimsy, which no one does better than Highsmith. I’d remove one of the James/Lawrence titles, since it seems like they are over-represented. Hopefully, there will be a similar list for short-story collections one day. (Dare to dream!)

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (Trilogy) by Samuel Beckett

Three great works that chart the futility of literary expression, triumphantly, and in two languages, French  & English.

I would remove The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence needs only one book on the list, and has it. This book charts the futility of literary expression, unwittingly.

Alex Crowley, reviews assistant editor:

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Featuring physics equations, musical numbers, sex psychology, & rocket science (I can’t list everything else in the known universe), it would be a complete travesty for Gravity’s Rainbow to not receive recognition as one of the greatest works of highbrow slapstick ever. Composed in a fractal-like structure before that was even a well-understood phenomenon; sentences, paragraphs, entire sections swirl off into unknown vortices before you’re dragged back into the next linguistic eddy. A proper 20th Century heir to Moby-Dick.

Get Jack Kerouac outta there and put Pynchon in his rightful place.

Rachel Deahl, senior news editor:

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran

The book I remember reading in high school that made me question “the canon”—and learn what it was—was A Separate Peace. Thankfully John Knowles’s novel didn’t make this list, but it’s a standard at American high schools ( at least it was when I was growing up), and I could never figure why you’d make a kid read that after giving them Catcher in the Rye. (It’s like giving someone a Shake Shack burger and then forcing them eat a McDonald’s patty.) I digress. Since the canon is supposed to be about “important” books, I’d suggest Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance. It’s an excellent novel, and this list is pretty short on gay fiction.

To make room for Dancer I’d probably bump Lord of the Flies. I totally dig this book—and I’d much rather read about kids killing each other than one bitchy prep schooler taking a prank too far—but it didn’t change my life.

Louisa Ermelino, reviews director:

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

I’m going with Octavia Butler and her novel Kindred. I’ve read only 4 sci fi books in my life and one because I was stuck on a desert island (literally), but this book is not only a terrifically written wild and inventive story (a contemporary black woman [1976] time travels back to the pre Civil War south) but because Butler really does accomplish what she has said she wanted to do: “make people feel slavery.” It’s why literature can change the world and why the first people repressive societies kill are the writers.

I’d dump Pale Fire by Nabokov. I couldn’t even read it in my most pretentious period. Lolita is his master work. Enough.

Rose Fox, reviews editor:

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Ah, the 1900 cut-off explains the otherwise inexplicable absence of Arthur Conan Doyle.

As always with such lists, there is a preponderance of books by white men. This (undoubtedly unconscious) bias contributes to the unjust obscurity of outstanding, groundbreaking works like Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. Of these, my personal preference would be for Kindred, a book that absolutely knocked my socks off, but certainly an argument could be made for any of them.

As for what to omit? Anything by Joseph Conrad; I find him unreadable, and certainly not worthy of four places on a list of 100.

Sarah F. Gold, senior reviews editor:

The Rabbit Novels by John Updike

Am I missing it, or are John Updike’s Rabbit novels not on this list? Get rid of Wapshot Chronicles, which feels like a stand-in for Cheever’s short stories, and add the four Rabbit novels (what would you call it—a tetralogy? Quadrology?). Updike’s account of the adventures of Harry Angstrom, basketball star manqué, turns the life of an average American man into an epic tale of dashed hopes and elusive happiness in the second half of the 20th century.

Gabe Habash, news editor:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I’m tempted to nominate another Nabokov book just to even out the preposterous bashing he’s getting from my colleagues here, but instead I’ll say this: if you can convince me that Infinite Jest doesn’t belong on the list, I will buy you a great big steak dinner. In fact, all other books being ranked the same, I’d argue that IJ belongs at #7 on the list because Catch-22 is the highest-ranked novel that Wallace’s novel surpasses (Modern Library’s top 6 is pretty solid), both in quality and legacy, despite Heller’s 40 year head start in the latter category.

Let’s get The Secret Agent out of there–Conrad doesn’t need four books and while his thriller still holds up pretty well, it’s certainly nowhere near any kind of top 100.

Mike Harvkey, deputy reviews editor:

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

With scathing irony, this debut novel, in 1961, excoriated the American Dream when the dream was still a relatively unscathed idea.

I’d remove The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain. Cain was a good pulp writer, but his work just isn’t up there with Hammett’s or Chandler’s. At his best, he was more in line with Jim Thompson (when Thompson was good). But if Thompson’s The Getaway or Pop. 1280 aren’t on the list, Cain’s Postman shouldn’t be either.

Carolyn Juris, associate children’s book editor:

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, a dystopian novel published in English in 1924, predates and presages both Brave New World and 1984. Orwell acknowledged a debt to it, while Huxley said his own book was a reaction to H.G. Wells’s utopias — Russian translations of which, incidentally, Zamyatin had edited. So who knows? All three seem essential, but maybe one of the later books could go. Alternatively: Three from D.H. Lawrence seems excessive. And On the Road? Yawn.

Claire Kirsch, Midwest correspondent:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I am stunned that my all-time favorite novel of all time was not included on the board’s list: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It truly is a timeless classic; there are so many layers to this story that make this novel just as relevant today as it was when first published in 1960. I’ve read it three times at different points in my life, and the last two times, found insights I hadn’t picked up on during previous reads.

I’d take off Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I read it perhaps 25 years ago and have never understood why others hail it as a classic. I find its entire premise repulsive.

Sonia Robbins, managing editor:

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time is the book the turned me on to history. A Scotland Yard detective, laid up in the hospital, ponders why the portrait of Richard III from the National Gallery makes him look like a judge rather than the monstrous criminal Shakespeare painted him. His assistant delves into original documents and reveals how history actually gets written and rewritten.

And I’d remove The Ginger Man by Donleavy. This paean to drunkenness is profoundly boring.

Jonathan Segura, digital media senior editor:

Jernigan by David Gates

I’d add “Jernigan” by David Gates. Super funny and smart and terrifying. It’s like if “Revolutionary Road” was a bit less optimistic.

And, to make room, I’d boot To the Lighthouse, because: yawn.

Samuel Slaton, reviews editor:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Epic, gorgeous, big, infuriating, copiously footnoted, tragic, unforgettable, etc. There isn’t a lot to say about David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece that hasn’t already been said. A few of us here at PW had a conversation the other day about whether or not postmodernism allowed for the possibility of redemption. Appropriately, we never came to a conclusion, but we at least agreed that the fact of Infinite Jest’s existence, that an individual made this bewilderingly human thing and set it loose in the world, is itself somehow redemptive. Frank O’Hara once said that Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets were “a fact of modern poetry.” Even if you’re sick of everyone everywhere babbling about Don Gately and the samizdat, Infinite Jest is a fact of modern literature.

Remove On the Road. I read it when I was 19, and I loved it. I thought I was super cool because I started it when I was living on my brother’s floor in Brooklyn (snuggled between his bookshelf and radiator), and finished it in the bed of my truck in a parking lot in Colorado after a homeless shelter gave my buddy and I some old bread and a bunch of Bibles. But it basically ruined everything I wrote for the next few years. A lot of mad mad nights and howling and giving my buddies stupid fake names. It was necessary, but definitely a one-time thing.

Craig Morgan Teicher, director of digital/poetry editor:


Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

I’d add Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow, because it’s just a perfect novel, tracing the long reverberations of the Holocaust and has a perfect ending. I’d take off On the Road, because it’s, well, boring.

26 thoughts on “We Fix the Top 100 Novels List

  1. rory

    For people who don’t like ‘On the Road’ – Why is ‘On the Road’ not a good book?

    For people who like ‘On the Road’ – Why is ‘On the Road’ a good book?

    (I havn’t read the book by the way.)

  2. Shkza

    I’ve considered this question for all the years since the list was announced. My only hesitation in being really vocal in my opposition to certain titles on the list is that I haven’t read enough of them to know whether or not they truly belong. I mean who really has an opinion about “Zuleika Dobson” or “A High Wind in Jamaica”? Last I checked only one of them was even in print and the other (“Zuleika Dobson”) was only reprinted because it made the list.
    I’ve always believed that putting the Dos Passos, Durrell, and Powell novels on the list as single entities was lame so we could toss all of them.
    You guys hit the two biggest omissions already in “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “infinite Jest” has (sadly) benefitted from Wallace’s early death, but I still think it deserves serious consideration.
    The biggest omission not covered then is Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep” which is as singular and brilliant as any novel written in any language over the period covered by the list.

  3. Bob P

    No love for John Fante, Charles Portis, Charles Bukowski or Barry Hannah.

    Portis’ True Grit is one of my top 10 American novels. It’s just about perfect.

    Fante has two great novels, Ask The Dust and Brotherhood of the Grape. He was a huge influence on Bukowski. Ham On Rye should be on any list of great American novels.

    Barry Hannah’s Ray is just flat-out amazing.

  4. Freddie deBoer

    Anyone who talks about any of the books being discussed here– on list or off– with “yawn” or “please” or any other self-aggrandizing insults should be prevented from ever reading again. Seriously. None of you can diminish these books. You can only diminish yourselves.

      1. Nathan

        He isn’t saying you are not welcome to have a negative opinion. He is saying the way many of the participants negated a book by simply saying “yawn” or “please” is dismissive and trite. It speaks more to their lack of pithiness then it does of the book they are dismissing.

    1. Brad Craft

      Just so, though I hope it’s safe to say that the yawning reviewers will grow up to be at least a little ashamed of such childishness.

  5. Zach

    Wendell Berry’s “Jayber Crow” should knock a host off of the list. I agree with most, On the Road is just not very good. Mockingbird is absolutely needed while David Foster Wallace should be kept as far from this list as possible.

  6. Jack

    Harry Potter? Really? I could nominate a fair few fantasy or science fiction novels (topped by a Neal Stephenson novel, no doubt–or maybe Gaiman’s American Gods), but I don’t think YA fiction belongs on any best of list. The simple fact is that HP isn’t representative of the world we really get–most fantasy is indeed total escapism which is why no real literati respects it. True fiction is about exploring the human condition, not running away from it. (Which is why the fantasy novels that would make my list are the dark ones, the ones rooted deeply in our own world, not LOTR.)

    However many votes Infinite Jest gets to be included on this list, they’re not enough.

    As for what I’d take off… Ulysses. Joyce’s epic is a sprawling, fascinating… thing. It’s not really a novel–it’s a transposition of Joyce’s own thought processes onto page (though admittedly it’s probably not quite as narcissistic as Portrait), which is borderline unreadable and nowhere near the sweeping vision of IJ.

    1. Amanda D.

      LOTR is about World Wars I and II.

      Any fiction, no matter how fantastical, tells us something about the human condition because it’s written by humans for humans. Even the nature of the worlds we like to escape to can be telling.

    2. Markk

      Harry Potter is about death, love, courage, choices, war, racism, regret, loneliness, change…. total escapism from what?

      I’m sure real “literati” recognise the human condition even if there’s not a big arrow on it.

      P.S. you evidently haven’t read Harry Potter, or you’d know its characters are actually HUMAN.

      1. Jack

        Credit to Amanda for the point about commentary on the human condition; however, fantasy often lessens its impact by burying its concepts under layers of cool. The possibilities of otherworldy settings are rarely taken advantage of by writers to send messages. Regarding specifically LOTR, I have to say first that I think allegory is too smart for its own good–why not just write a historical novel?–and second that Tolkien’s prose is generally about as alive as the desk on which my keyboard sits, and his characters suffer badly for that.

        … what list is it that HP is on, Sam?

  7. John

    So hard to keep up with the correct hip perspective on on the road. It is now apparently uber-hip to dislike Kerouac because the hip kids have gone and loved him again. Basically what i got from this is that On The Road is all of your worst ex’s–don’t pretend it didn’t have you head over heels and then break your little 21 year old hearts.

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