It’s no secret that people love lists– they’re great topic starters, and probably one of the biggest argument starters, especially when a list tries to define the “best” of such sweeping categorizations as literature or film. I’ve made my thoughts known on the general subject of film– myself and most other critics just have to agree to disagree about Citizen Kane– and have made some grumbling noises about the subject of books, but haven’t really devoted a lot of blog space to what I consider to be works of real greatness. (One could argue that I don’t devote a lot of blog space to things which are not Pretty Dresses, but Fluffy isn’t entirely fluffy.) When Entertainment Weekly published their list of the “100 Greatest Novels of All Time” this week, it accomplished its purpose in creating quite a bit of thought and discussion among literati and proles alike. While I place myself in neither camp, being a voracious reader who prefers entertainment to edification but still despises poor quality, I felt it necessary to chime in with my thoughts on the list itself because of my varied reactions to it– I’ve been by turns puzzled, amused, nodding in agreement and, inexplicably, seething with irritation. As with all such lists, no one will be in perfect accord with the contents, but it’s rare that a simple list provokes such a strong emotional response in me, and apparently in a lot of other people (that EW felt the need to include a column on how they assembled the list on their Popwatch blog speaks volumes, if you’ll excuse the pun, about the level of hate mail they’ve undoubtedly been receiving– and smacks of apology). There are some obvious choices therein, many of which I agreed with completely, and many not-so-obvious ones which have created some controversy, but there are a number of sticking points I feel quite vehement about and want to address. First off, I scanned the list looking for my least favorite book of all time and was pleased to see it was nowhere mentioned (that would be The Scarlet Letter, a book I have huge problems with on many levels; none of them due to comprehension, though it’s quite inaccessible, but rather thematic elements). Next, of course, I went straight to the top of the list, and had to contain a howl of outrage, especially when one considers the two books directly bested by it and placed at #2 and #3. If you haven’t seen it, the winner and the runners-up:
- #1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- #2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
- #3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I dislike Anna Karenina for a number of reasons. One, it falls into that disgusting nineteenth-century genre of Woman Destroys Self For No Good Reason, along with Madame Bovary (also on the list) and The Awakening (blessedly not). I’m really, deeply disturbed at my core reading about women who are just plain stupid, as the so-called heroines of all three of these works are. Yes, I said it, and I won’t take it back. Maybe I’m more of an Elinor than a Marianne (to take an analogy from another Jane Austen novel), but the underlying themes of women being unable to coexist with their realities and suffering madness and death thereby just piss me off, plain and simple. Do I have an issue with books that don’t have happy endings? No. Many of the books I love dearly end in sorrow or bittersweetness. It’s the cavalier attitudes of the authors toward women in general. The pervasive message throughout all three books I mentioned (and to a certain extent in The Scarlet Letter, as well) is Don’t try to think for yourselves, ladies, it will end in destruction. (That The Awakening was actually written by a woman is a whole other unpleasant can of worms.) It irks me on a cellular level when any of these works is held up as “an example of early feminism.” Really? Feminism consists of throwing oneself under trains, going for a forever-swim in the Gulf of Mexico, taking arsenic, dying alone and miserable? As much as I’d like to wish Lizzie Bennett or maybe Scout Finch into their respective stories to smack the living crap out these simpering, hysterical pseudo-feminists and tell them to put on their big-girl knickers, would it really do any good for characters intentionally written as thoughtless, short-sighted drama queens who can hold neither their composure nor their counsel?
Another thing I dislike about Tolstoy’s work is his tendency to meander from the meat of the story to tangential subjects; in Anna Karenina he expends a great deal of verbosity on the merits of pastoral life. This isn’t my grade-A prime beef with Tolstoy, as many authors I enjoy reading waste a lot of words describing everything from food to sex that holds no real relevance to story or characters. But in this case it feels like the author is holding up a placard for “Better Nineteenth-Century Russian Homes and Gardens” or something. It’s out of place, sticks out like a sore thumb really, and isn’t really presented as a means for Anna to have found something else to do besides play with trains; it’s just blatant author proselytizing that would have better served as a separate piece of essay work along the lines of Walden. It’s also kind of a drag reading about people I can’t bring myself to feel anything for (other than a very real sense of contempt), and there’s nothing remotely likable in Anna, Vronsky, Levin and Kitty or any of the rest– all are either too dumb or too disgusting for one reason or another for me to identify with them, which leads to a feeling of clinical detachment while reading– what’s the purpose of reading it, then? I didn’t have fun and I learned nothing, except that the Russian countryside is totes fab and apparently some people are too dense to live. Perhaps worst of all is the waste of one of the best opening lines ever written– “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a sharp, observant and quotable line, and nothing that follows lives up to its promise.
Either of the two runners-up, Fitzgerald’s Jazz-Age tragedy or Austen’s keen exploration of social mores, would have been a fine first place, and I can’t argue with their inclusion near the top of the list. Both are near-perfect works, and both are better than Anna Karenina. Gatsby is both a brilliant character piece and a story that moves swiftly,with a sense of foreboding and mystery, to its inevitable conclusion. It’s not a long work, and doesn’t need to be; it’s a perfect encapsulation of the era in which it was written in all of its hope and decadence, its descriptions never extraneous, its hero both fully human and a complete enigma. If its symbolism is occasionally a bit obvious (the Eyes of TJ Eckleberg, the green light on the dock), it makes up for it in spades with its lush depiction of a decade mad for life and joy and the foregone souring of both. P&P, while appearing a slight Regency romance, actually serves up a pointed commentary on the social conventions of the day, the perception of class, and the position of women in particular, while managing to be moving and frequently hilarious, and carries a far more feminist tone than any of the works I mentioned earlier which are so erroneously labeled. It’s interesting to note that while Tolstoy was afforded more than one place on the list with the inclusion of War and Peace, neither Fitzgerald nor Austen appear again. The vaguely apologetic blurb on the Popwatch blog acknowledged that the magazine staff wanted the list to be inclusive of many voices and that the other works of the authors represented are worthy, but that notion seems a little hypocritical in light of the observation that Tolstoy isn’t even the only writer included multiple times.
The list has some glaring weirdnesses– a few obscure recent works have been included, in some cases outranking true classics, ostensibly to give the appearance of topicality or something like it; I’ve never heard of some of these books. That’s not to say they’re bad at all, but if a bookworm like myself hasn’t even registered them on the radar, are they deserving of classic status? I can’t hazard an opinion– as I said, they’re news to me. Tolkien’s The Hobbit appears, but The Lord of the Rings does not. I was happy to see Amy Tan and Barbara Kingsolver, but I would argue that their chosen books– The Joy Luck Club and The Poisonwood Bible, respectively– are not their best works (I prefer The Kitchen God’s Wife and Prodigal Summer). Bastard Out of Carolina, Gone With the Wind, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter all deserve higher placements than they were awarded, though I suppose I should be grateful that Southern women’s fiction was included at all. Charles Dickens gets two nods, neither of them for Oliver Twist; The Good Earth is conspicuously absent, but Cold Mountain is here, and it outranks Frankenstein and Catch-22. To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t make the top ten, but John Updike’s windbaggy four-volume ode to White Guy Problems known as the “Rabbit” series did. Gabriel Garcia Marquez makes the list twice, once for book-about-nothing Love in the Time of Cholera. EM Forster makes the list with Howards End, but A Room With a View is better. Lonesome Dove, The World According to Garp, and The Bonfire of the Vanities– all good books, but not great ones. Night, The Last Unicorn and Stranger in a Strange Land– nowhere on the list. The usual suspects– Moby-Dick, My Antonia, The Brothers Karamazov– are all here, because Classic; in particular I am weary of the Moby-Dick faction that always wrangles this book onto such lists. Captain Ahab was just as stupid as Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, he just chose a slightly more creative path to self-destruction (Death By Whale), and I have no patience for him, either– despite the state of medicine being what it was at the time, the captain needed a Xanax the size of a grapefruit and possibly one of those cool jackets that make you hug yourself. Oh, and a hobby. The Catcher in the Rye didn’t make the top thirty; neither did The Sun Also Rises. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice (who isn’t on the list either) would say, curiouser and curiouser.
That said, there are some things that the list gets remarkably right, and many of them are bold choices. The inclusion of Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel Maus was heartening, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showing up was a delightful surprise. Judy Blume appears with Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and so does Madeleine L’Engle with A Wrinkle in Time. I can’t argue with the Bronte sisters– Jane Eyre places a respectable number 16, Wuthering Heights at a still-decent number 22. Margaret Atwood’s amazing The Handmaid’s Tale is here, just inside the top thirty. Charlotte’s Web and Beloved both made the top ten. Even Stephen King is represented– I have my problems with his book that made the list, The Stand, but it’s a colossal work and a great read (just because I’ve thrown the book at a wall doesn’t mean it’s all bad). However, the one move that seems to have induced the most controversy, with equally vocal supporters and detractors, was the placement of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as a unit, squarely in the top ten at number seven. Rabid Harry Potter fans are an internet subculture all their own, so naturally there was a lot of cheering, but some purists have taken offense to Harry’s magical adventures at Hogwarts rubbing elbows with the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy. Personally, I side with the Potterheads, and it’s encouraging to see so-called “populist” literature making the cut. Of course I’d be a little more impressed if the list came from, say, The Atlantic Monthly rather than EW, itself a populist magazine, but it’s a start. I mentioned the blog posting EW made explaining the mechanics of their listmaking, and its rationale for Harry’s high placement is in this case irrefutable– “people will still be tearing through it in a hundred years.” It’s true– good storytelling never goes out of style. While there are weak links within the series– ahem, The Order of the Phoenix– when considered as a whole, it truly is, as the article accompanying its placement exhorts, “the richest coming-of-age tale ever.” Even speaking of a list that’s tailor-made for argument, I can’t argue with that.