What Did We Learn from Our Great American Novel Poll?

Gabe Habash -- March 28th, 2013


PWxyz’s Great American Novel Poll closed yesterday, and after nearly 5,000 votes, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was the runaway winner, taking almost 20% of the vote. But what did we learn from the poll? Here are a few observations.

1. We included 60 books in the field, and the last four to tally one single vote were: Sister Carrie, The Naked and the Dead, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and The Known World.

2. At least in our prediction, The Catcher in the Rye would’ve ranked quite high, but it was only able to get 2% of the vote.

3. The most popular beat is Kerouac: On the Road outpaced his contemporary Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and received 77 total votes.

4. The big success story? The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which received considerably more votes than The Catcher and the Rye, Gone with the Wind, Fahrenheit 451, and Slaughterhouse-Five, despite having fewer ratings on Goodreads (see #7 below). Translation: readers of Kavalier & Clay really, really like it.

5. The case can be made for The New Literary Canon to include Kavalier & Clay (2000), Infinite Jest (1996), and Beloved (1987)–they were the only books written in the last 30 years to secure more than 2% of the vote.

6. While Hemingway and Faulkner are two of the first names that come up in the great American writers discussion, their reputations–by the indication of this poll–are not built on one book alone (like Harper Lee), but rather on the cumulative influence of the entire body of their work. The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury each only secured 1% of the vote.

7. Were the books that received the most votes also the most read? Here are the number of ratings the top seven books have on Goodreads:

To Kill a Mockingbird: 1,356,936

The Great Gatsby: 1,077,481

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: 677,916

The Grapes of Wrath: 256,087

Moby-Dick: 249,884

Gone with the Wind: 436,591

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: 86,148

The book with the fewest ratings on Goodreads? That would be Play It as It Lays (7,246).

8. What books did we get submitted in the “Other” field? Lonesome Dove was the most voted for. Call It Sleep got a number of write-ins. Some wanted East of Eden to be Steinbeck’s entry over The Grapes of Wrath. Also, a lot of Ayn Rand. A vote for “the constitution.” A vote for “I reject your use of the definite article ‘the’. No single novel fits the bill.” A vote for “all of the above.”

10 thoughts on “What Did We Learn from Our Great American Novel Poll?

  1. j.a. kazimer

    If Harper Lee Tried to Publish To Kill a Mockingbird Today

    Dear Ms. Lee,

    Thank you for submitting your most recent novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. While we enjoyed it, in the end, we just didn’t fall in love with the story.

    Have you by any chance thought about including a supernatural element? Maybe change to a sparkly vampire on trial for drinking the blood of an angst teen girl?

    Overall, we loved the Jem and Scout characters, but we worry Scout isn’t quite spicy enough for today’s YA market. Perhaps changing her name to something less tom-boyish, like Sarah, would help.

    Not that the rural south isn’t a YA dream setting, but have you considered changing the locale? Maybe to something a little more exotic? Picture Jem and “Sarah” sneaking around an old palace turned magic school, learning spells in the capable hands of a long-breaded man. Call the place…something like Maycombwarts. Atticus could be the headmaster.

    Finally, the romance between Dill and “Sarah” lacks real heat. While we love summer romances, yet, we felt “Sarah” is better paired with the dark hero, Boo Radley.

    If you are willing to make these revisions, we’d be happy to take another look at the manuscript.


    Sarah Smith
    Associate Editor, Radley Press

    After receiving this letter, Harper immediately self-published on amazon, selling 4 copies a month.

  2. JULIE

    In reply to Carol (and the contest in general), there is plenty of room “at the top”…it is ridiculous “contests” like this that force people to choose one book over another, and they also have the arrogance to deem it “The New Literary Canon.” It’s clear that PW does not even bother to pay attention to the national discourse on gender bias in publishing, and the correlated race and ethnicity biases that proliferates in the literary establishment. Look up Roxane Gay at the Rumpus, Katherine Prose’s Harper’s essay, Meg Wolizter’s essay for the NY Times. They choose the books they think you should choose from. Most people arbitrarily pick the book they *think* they should consider classic and canonical; someone else has told them what is good and they never read beyond that. Kudos to those who wrote in their own preference. The books on this list are good, some are great, but they in no way represent the best of anything, especially literature.

    1. David Sklar

      …or that the novels we read in high school are the ones we experience together as a culture. I may love Shadow Play by Charles Baxter or Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, but I don’t expect them to be read by as many people as have read, say, The Great Gatsby, which did very little for me as a book.

      If you talk about a “Lord of the Flies”* situation, everyone will know what you mean, but a Palimpsest tattoo, most won’t. There are a lot of good books out there, and a lot that speak to individual people in a deep and heartfelt way. But not everyone reads them. So the books we read in high school and college have the advantage not only of the imprimatur of someone else telling us they’re great books, but more so the advantage that many people read them. And having more readers, despite the stigma of assigned reading, gives these books far more chances to connect, individually, with more people.


      *Not American, I know. But it makes the point.

  3. Laura W.

    Racism is a topic that is part of the fabric of America’s history, as is the horrible stain of slavery. To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to resonate with readers because the racism that existed in the 1930s (as well as before and after) continues to haunt us, even as we struggle as a nation to overcome it.

  4. carol

    It is natural that books written more recently will come to this list. Of the great books fading into the past, only a few will still resonate with the coming generations. There are so many, many books now that we may pass up some that deserve to be on such lists. There is only so much room at the top.

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