|The 100 greatest novels
of all time
The British love to read and, as the BBC prepares to reveal the nation's best loved books, The Observer has compiled its own list of essential fiction from the past 300 years. Don't like the list? Feel free to disagree and put your thoughts direct to Robert McCrum
The list in full
In a few days, the BBC's Big Read campaign is going to ignite this papery landscape in a firestorm of bookish discussion. In place of the eternal 'What shall I read next?', a series of nine programmes will answer that not-so-simple question, 'What's my favourite novel?' and broadcast the result of a massive poll into the nation's 'best loved' books.
The BBC should be congratulated on this bold initiative, which is bound to excite controversy. It's safe to predict that there will be every possible reaction, from eye-rolling disdain to chin-wagging enthusiasm. Lists - we love them and loathe them. Books - we care passionately about our reading. The books on the bedside table and in the coat pocket shape the inner landscape of our secret lives. Put the two together and you have the fissile materials for some literary fireworks.
Here at The Observer, we have no idea what the BBC's list, a closely guarded secret, will look like, though we have heard on the grapevine that it reflects the popular reading preferences of the past 20 years. No doubt Gandalf and Harry Potter will be competing for votes with Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. To add to the debate, and to join the beginnings of a national conversation, we have humbly compiled our own list of One Hundred Books which, we felt, our readers could not do without.
Ours is not a list of 'best loved' books. It is less sentimental, and probably less contemporary. It is a catalogue of just a hundred 'essential' titles - as we see it. Of course it is not scientific. Neither Mori nor Gallup was involved. It is partial, prejudiced and highly personal. It reflects whim and fashion. And as we compiled it we began to see actually how difficult - even questionable - the idea of such a unified literary inheritance has become at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Even more agonising are the impossibly hard choices that a list of a hundred forces one to make.
First of all, our list is fundamentally English and inevitably reflects the age, sex and education of its Observer contributors. We started with an intra-office email, inviting nominations for a top 10. The matrix of replies produced a surprising unanimity.
Top of the list were the universal favourites: Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. When a vociferous and influential minority, led by the editor, argued for Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, we had to introduce a few basic rules. This is a list of prose fiction, not poetry, and not plays. Never mind that Beowulf has the same plot as Jaws, it's a long poem in Old English, by Anon. This rule also eliminated the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which are, by any standards, books for a desert island. In that category we also included the Authorised Version of the Bible.
The play and poetry rule also excluded Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and Auden. With great reluctance we also decided that The Canterbury Tales could not be part of our list. We began at the beginning, with Daniel Defoe and the founding fathers of the English novel. So far, so good.
But what about the European tradition? A new set of anxieties hove into view. Ever since Skelton translated Don Quixote, English readers have been dazzled and diverted by the importation of foreign classics. The English Channel exercises its own rough form of literary criticism, and no doubt some important French, Spanish and German titles have been overlooked down the centuries, but we felt we could not exclude, for example, Cervantes, Laclos or Flaubert. Among reluctant omissions were Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand.
Once we had passed the Romantics and reached the Victorians, a coherent English list became further complicated by the competing claims of American literature. Just as many nineteenth-century English writers crossed the Atlantic to find audiences and make money in the New World, so American writers became enthusiastically adopted here. Once again, we let the tastes of previous generations of English readers shape the list. Exercising some retrospective affirmative action, we replaced James Fennimore Cooper with Melville and Hawthorne.
By the turn of the century, the Anglo-American literary hegemony was firmly established but, to modern tastes, it has become alarmingly dominated by men: James, Crane, Kipling, Wells... You have to look hard to find a woman writer of any consequence, excluding E. Nesbit and Beatrix Potter, between, say, 1880 and 1910. The achievement of Virginia Woolf is all the more remarkable for its assertion of the woman's right to join what had become an exclusive men's club.
The mass mobilisation of the Great War finally enfranchised women. It also revolutionised British reading habits. With the arrival of mass culture, which had been in development from late Victorian times, a new strain creeps into the list: the genre novel, from spy thrillers to science fiction. We have tried to select the most distinguished examples of these but are only too painfully aware that some important examples, especially of detective fiction, have been left out.
One genre that accounted for several valuable nominations was children's books but, in finding space for Philip Pullman, we had to exclude Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series and C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which some will find perverse, even baffling. Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo , another recent children's book for which The Observer has shown a particular liking, was also excluded for being a picture book for the under fives. We had to draw the line somewhere.
Time is a ruthless critic. Books that 50 years ago seemed essential have already dwindled in significance. Virtually nothing survives from 1903. After the Twenties, and after the watershed of Modernism, there are decades when many of the books we considered seemed to be scarcely more than footnotes to the works of Joyce and Woolf.
Approaching our own time, if you were to characterise the postwar English literary tradition in a single phrase it would be: The Empire Strikes Back.
The proliferation of competing literatures from Australia, India, Canada and South Africa has produced a host of important writers, from David Malouf and Rohinton Mistry to Michael Ondaatje and the recent Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. The superabundant vitality of so-called Commonwealth literature has made it correspondingly difficult to arrive at a list that has the earlier clarity and simplicity. Gone are the days when almost all the English writers of consequence lived within a short coach ride of one another.
From so many points of view, this has also been a golden age of Anglo-American writing: there has certainly been strong competition from the United States, though The Observer's list has not found space for a number of important figures, from John Steinbeck to Lorrie Moore.
At times, a Top Hundred seems cruelly limited. Several women writers were edged out by the intense contemporary competition for space, and also by the inclusion of big names from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Among the men, too, in the battle for space, there were some other notable casualties. How - alas - could we leave out Christopher Isherwood and Jonathan Coe whose What a Carve Up!, a memorably indignant comic assault on Thatcher's Britain, has been one of The Observer's favourite contemporary novels? No doubt there are many more we have wrongly overlooked. This was always a list intended to provoke discussion.
There's a further difficulty about selecting contemporary work. The books you read as a teenager, the books you devour in all-night sittings, are the books that enter your imaginative bloodstream like a fierce, exotic drug and stay with you for decades. These are the titles you are likely to nominate for such a list. But The Observer is not written by teenagers. Already it is too late for the books of the 1990s to have that narcotic effect.
No doubt in 20 years' time another list will include Don DeLillo's Underworld, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Monica Ali's Brick Lane. For the moment, our list largely draws a line at 1989.
The year the Wall came down was the end of an era in a double sense. In historical terms it saw the end of the Cold War that had provided the political backdrop to two generations of European writing. In English literary terms, it was the end of a decade that had seen the emergence of an exceptional new generation, from William Boyd and Timothy Mo to Maggie Gee and Vikram Seth. Those, I remember, were stirring times for new fiction. It is tempting to declare 1980, the year of Midnight's Children, as a literary Year Zero. Tempting but wrong. We cannot ignore our inheritance.
Who did we miss?
So, are you congratulating yourself on having read everything on our list or screwing the newspaper up into a ball and aiming it at the nearest bin?
Are you wondering what happened to all those American writers from Bret Easton Ellis to Jeffrey Eugenides, from Jonathan Franzen to Cormac McCarthy?
Have women been short-changed? Should we have included Pat Barker, Elizabeth Bowen, A. S. Byatt, Penelope Fitzgerald, Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch?
What's happened to novels in translation such as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Hesse's Siddhartha, Mishima's The Sea of Fertility, Süskind's Perfume and Zola's Germinal?
Writers such as J. G. Ballard, Julian Barnes, Anthony Burgess, Bruce Chatwin, Robertson Davies, John Fowles, Nick Hornby, Russell Hoban, Somerset Maugham and V. S. Pritchett narrowly missed the final hundred. Were we wrong to lose them?
Let us know what you think. Send your own suggestions for the 100 best books ever to:
firstname.lastname@example.org Or debate the choices live with
Robert McCrum at 3pm on Wednesday.