When I was 17 or so, the the Modern Library came up with its list of 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, I immediately adopted it as my reading list. This proved to be a mistake, as my teenaged-self didn’t have a prayer of getting through the first entry, James Joyce’s Ulysses— this despite the allure of the porn hidden, somewhere, within it. I managed about 40 pages before I gave up in despair.
I wasn’t the only one rankled when the top slot went to Ulysses. Who are they to decide what the best novel was, anyway? Who gave them that right? What arrogance! What hubris! How dare they presume to know!
A much better approach would have been to ask me for my opinion. I would never be so unreasonable as to rank Ulysses so high (or at all. I still haven’t read it.)
Until the Modern Library comes begging for my input with a full, heartfelt, written apology, I will not deign to give them my list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century. I appreciate, however, that the public craves– no, needs— the authority of my opinion. I would never turn a deaf ear to the plight of my subjects. So here is my list of the Top 100 Novels of the Twentieth Century.
Except 100 novels seems rather a lot. How about we make it five. And… hmm… let’s do Living Authors instead of Best Novels, to spice things up a bit.
Five Best Living Authors
Brought to you by the Queen of the Libraries
Kurt Vonnegut. He’s brilliant. His fiction is engrossing and enduring, and his nonfiction is smack dab on target. (He speaks favorably of libraries.) He writes genre fiction! Isn’t that nice? You don’t have to read stuffy contemporary fiction junk to get good writing. His prose zings, his characters compel, his plots are zany, and his social messages are of supreme importance.
Margaret Atwood. I confess I’ve only read The Handmaid’s Tale, but I’m assuming everything else is really good, too. Her prose is absolutely taut. Thought you liked Nineteen Eighty-Four, did you? Pah! Doesn’t even begin to compare! Pick your framework– sex, class, religion, politics– and get blown away by her near-future dystopia.
Cormac McCarthy. I read a review somewhere suggesting that McCarthy was the best living writer, and for a change, I agree. He’s one of the best, at any rate. Again, I can’t say I’ve read beyond one book of his, Blood Meridian, but it took my breath away. The style is nigh-on incomparable. Faulkner comes closest. The writing is dense, provocative, and brutal. The action is violent but the narration is distant, meaning that– see if you follow this– meaning that the violence is that much greater: because it is not limited to a specific emotional scene, it becames grander, even universal. McCarthy is bleak and disconcerting and visceral. He is gut-wrenching. No: He is mind-wrenching.
Alexander McCall Smith selects his words very carefully, but without pretense. He is a delight to read. For a white man, he does a phenomenal job of creating the black African female lead of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. And have you read his von Igelfeld series? It is ironic without being cynical, charming without being banal, excruciatingly funny without being predictable. He turns mundane things into plot-driven page-turners.
Neil Gaiman is from England, so naturally everything he writes is a lot funnier than us colonists can manage. He does brilliant, fresh, unexpected things for Horror and Science Fiction and Fantasy. He writes novels and short stories and graphic novels with equal aplomb. His characters are human (even the ones who aren’t) and his style is clean. Also, he’s really hot.
Oh shit. No ethnic minorities on this list. (Well, McCall Smith is from… Botswana, I think? Still a white guy, though.) I totally suck.