The 100 Greatest English Language Novels

While I agree with many of the selections in Robert McCrum’s list of the 100 greatest novels written in the English novels, I do have some disagreements. My first disagreement is with the name of the list. I think it should be “the 100 greatest writers who wrote in English” because if you were to create an actual list of the 100 greatest novels three would be written by Defoe and three by Dickens, crowding out a lot of other great novels and writers.

My other objections are more in detail. Only by the standard of influence on modern culture is Dracula a great novel. It’s more a novel-length penny dreadful. It’s not the first vampire novel in English and it’s far from the best vampire story in English.

How could you name Kidnapped over Treasure Island? If it’s because Kidnapped is less of a boy’s book, how could you name Kim? While E. A. Poe was a great writer, I don’t think he wrote a great novel. If the only thing he had ever written was Arthur Pym, IMO he’d be languishing among the many 19th century writers ignored today.

If you’re going to use influence as your yardstick, it’s pretty hard to explain why Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t on the list. It’s pretty awful but it’s probably the most influential novel in the English language not in the sense of having had a strong influence on subsequent literature but in the sense of having had an influence on world events.

There are a number of novels I was glad to see on the list: Three Men in a Boat, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Cold Comfort Farm, Joy in the Morning. In particular I think that humor, probably the most difficult of genres, is too frequently ignored as great literature.

While I was gratified to see some mysteries on the list, both English and American, I think that the absence of any Westerns on the list is a significant omission. There are any number of truly great Western novels. If the yardstick is by writer and by influence, it’s an even more significant omission.

Finally, if you’ve never read The Wind in the Willows, you owe it to yourself to do so. It is a great novel.

13 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Seems fairly conventional to me, with what appears to be self-imposed constraints of one title per author (and that title should be “central to the author’s voice and vision”), and an eye towards being representative, such as it was “essential to acknowledge the emerging American literary tradition.” So the oddities are in picks that are considered representative, but perhaps not the greatest, or picks omitted that are already represented.

    More willingness to pick genre works, which is good. Surprising number of Americans for an English publication (28 of 67 twentieth century writers listed are American).

    Disagree on Dracula. It’s well-written and no doubt listed as one of the best gothic novels, along with Frankenstein. It’s on Harold Bloom’s western cannon list.

  • What attracted my attention to the original article was a conversation among Irish literati complaining that Irish writers were under-represented in the list. I’m of mixed minds on that particular subject. On the one hand an astonishing number of the greatest writers in the English from the 18th century forward are Irish or Anglo-Irish.

    On the other hand, many of the writers they were touting are practically unknown outside of Ireland. There have been similar complaints about the list from women. My off-hand guess is that as a percentage of women who were published in the 19th century women might actually be over-represented.

  • TastyBits

    I would disagree with some of the included works from the author, but the list is limited to novels. Mark Twain and Henry Miller were Gonzo writers before the term had been coined, but their best work is non- or semi-fiction.

    Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp was my favorites, but it is one of those books I am reluctant to re-read. It might have been the place and time in my life that made it magical. It is poetic prose.

    Trying to list the “best” without any qualifiers is meaningless.

  • PD Shaw

    How do they think Canadians feel? In one of these discussions on book lists recently, a Canadian commented that his high school had courses in American literature, British literature, and Canadian literature. The idea that there would be a whole class surprised me, since the first “Canadian” author I could think of was Saul Bellow, and then Margaret Atwood.

  • I was glad to see that at least one Joseph Conrad novel made the list. He was truly one of the great wordsmiths which is surprising since he didn’t learn English until he was in his late teens.

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