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The top 100?

100 Books

100 best novels list draws heavy dose of criticism

May 6, 1999
Web posted at: 9:20 a.m. EDT (1320 GMT)

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It didn't take long for the Modern Library's list of the best 100 novels of this century to meet heavy criticism from the masses.

Released on Monday, the library picked James Joyce's "Ulysses" as the literary topper, with "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" by Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" rounding out the top five.

Aside from the usual brickbatting that accompanies any list that tries to encapsulate a century, the Modern Library's rankings has rankled both women and people of color.

List of Top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century
What do you think is the "best" novel of this century?

Only eight female authors were represented in the top 100, and minority authors were noticeably scarce, despite a considerable presence in literature over the past 100 years.

'The last gasp'

"I don't know if this is the last great gasp of the white patriarchal male literary establishment, or if we are just going to try and bury all the wonderful writers out there," says Linda Bubin, co-owner of Women and Children First, a Chicago bookstore that specializes in feminist and children's books.

Bubin, while angered by the list, was not surprised.

"We (women) tend to think we've arrived someplace, so it's good to remind people that the whole establishment is incredibly sexist," says Bubin. "And this is one more piece of evidence of that."

"I am surprised that the committee chose to omit African, Indian, South American, and Australian writers, many of whom write in English."

-- Micky Black
from the CNN Interactive message boards

While Christopher Cerf, a member of the Modern Library panel that voted in the list, told reporters Monday that the list was created to spark debate and to get people reading, he also acknowledged his regret over some books left off the list, including works by Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison.

The Modern Library's panel, a division of Random House, included Cerf, Daniel J. Boorstin, A.S. Byatt, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., William Styron and Gore Vidal -- seven men and one woman.

Message board response

A reader's poll on the Modern Library's Web site puts Ayn Rand at No. 1 and 3, with "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," respectively.

On CNN Interactive's message board, posts overflowed with questions regarding the list's apparent lack of diversity. The absence of Morrison and Rand was mentioned often.

"Ulysses as the greatest novel of the century? Sure. And Plan Nine from Outer Space was the best movie of the century, too."

-- Howard Paul Burgess
from the CNN Interactive message boards

"I scrolled down the list and noticed that F. Scott Fitzgerald's second mention on the list, 'Tender is the Night,' was ranked above the second female novelist mentioned," noted Kim Berndt in her message board post. "No doubt, F. Scott Fitzgerald is an incredible writer. But are you going to tell me that only one woman's novel (Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" -- ranked No. 15) was better than 'Tender is the Night?'"

"I am surprised that the committee chose to omit African, Indian, South American, and Australian writers, many of whom write in English," posted Micky Black. "Also, what about Arab writers? How about more women writers such as Doris Lessing and Isak Dinesen?"

While much of the faultfinding focused on the lack of women or minorities, some readers found other problems with the picks. Many noted that "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee was excluded altogether from the list of 100.

List a 'practical joke?'

"This list must be a practical joke, either from the Saturday Night Live crew or perhaps Monty Python," posted Howard Paul Burgess. "'Ulysses' as the greatest novel of the century? Sure. And 'Plan Nine from Outer Space' was the best movie of the century, too. 'Ulysses' is the biggest pile of gobbledygook ever perpetrated on the reading public. I defy anyone to make sense of anything in that (admittedly, sometimes poetic) flow of words, words, words."

Other readers were reminded of the recent list of the top 100 movies this century, as compiled by the American Film Institute.

"This list is far more subjective than even the AFI's 100 greatest movies, or that insipid Time article about the century's greatest entertainers," Jimmy John posted. "You simply can't narrow down a century of books into one little list of 100. It's impossible."

Impossible, no. The Modern Library has done it. To compile a list that finds no critics may be the impossible task.

The Modern Library
Women and Children First Web site
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