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Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Are The Top 10 Fiction Books?


Who is in the best position to determine which works of fiction are the greatest of all time?

Would you ask English majors or their professors?  Would you ask publishers or authors?  Would you ask readers, editors, book reviewers, librarians or MFA faculty?  How about historians, award-giving groups like The Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, or literary agents?  Perhaps we’d want all of them involved.

Almost a decade ago, book-review editor J. Peder Zane, with the Raleigh News & Observer, queried 125 authors and inquired upon their Top 10 favorite works of fiction of all time.  Zane created a point system – 10 for first place, 9 for second, 8 for third, etc.  He took into account all of their submissions and published a book in 2007 about it, entitled The Top Ten:  Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

Writers may not be the best qualified to say what the greatest books are.  They are more focused on creating books, not reading or judging the works of others.  On the other hand, they are generally well-read students of the written word and should know more than most when it comes to which books are good and which are not.

So what did they come up with as the best ten?

1.      Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2.      Madame Bovary by Gustave Flabert
3.      War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4.      Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5.      The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6.      Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7.      The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8.      In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9.      The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

You’ll notice one author made the list twice – Tolstoy. But absent from the list were some of my all-time favorites:

·         The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
·         1984 by George Orwell
·         Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
·         Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
       Lord of the Flies by William Golding
·         Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
·         The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

In fact, this group of British and American authors didn’t agree on much.  544 titles were named on these lists.  353 titles appeared only once.  Think about that.  The most these collective lists could’ve named was 1250 books.  So about ¼ of that total never repeated itself.  But 191 titles circulated enough times to fill ¾ of those slots.

Which authors participated in this survey?  Very accomplished ones like Tom Wolfe, Scott Turow, Stephen King, Robert Parker, John Irving, Jennifer Weiner, Gail Godwin, Adriana Trigiani, Carl Hiaasen, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connelly, Wally Lamb, Norman Mailer, and Ann Patchett.  Did they skew towards a certain demographic, genre, or preference?  Did any of them name the works of each other?

What might have influenced their lists?

·         Knowing their selections would be made public.
·         Their ability to recall books they enjoyed reading and/or found to be influential in their lives.
            How many other books they’ve read or haven’t.
·         When they read them – how long ago and at what point in their lives.
·         Their age, sex, ethnicity, politics, religion, I.Q., location, and ethics.
·         Their exposure to seeing other lists, awards and honors for books.

The Top Ten is not trying to anoint a canon,” says the book’s editor.  “Its message is not:  Here are the only ten books you need to read.  Instead it points you toward the many fine books awaiting your discovery, highlighting a multitude of books, each and every one of which is worth your time.”

He notes there are so many books available to us today and that we’re in a Golden Era, but laments that the choices are overwhelming.  “Never before have so many books been within such easy reach," he writes. “But when anything is possible, choice becomes torture.  What to pick?  Where to start?  This one?  That one?  How about this – and that?  What will I like?  What’s worth my time?  Help!”

Considering this was published in 2007, just before the e-book revolution exploded and the number of new titles launched in a year would exceed up to 1,000,000 books, there may have been available back then only half the number of titles available today.  I believe Amazon currently lists over 7.5 million titles for sale.

These authors that participated in the survey seemed to be partial to more recent times.  Of the number of books to appear on multiple lists more, came from the 1920’s than any other decade.  The 30’s – 40’s were next, and then the 50’s-60’s.

The lists provided by authors seemed to be virtually void of entire genres.  For instance, sci-fi didn’t rank high.  Neither did poetry or comedy, urban literature, or LGBTQ. I wonder if the system of voting were different, we’d have a different list.

For instance, what if the writers were allowed to talk to one another prior to voting, to determine through dialogue and debate which ones warranted inclusion?  Or what if writers named their Top 20 instead of 10, to see where more common ground could be found?  Or what if the point system were different and calculations were made to reward No. 1 picks a lot more than a No. 2 or No. 3 choice?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  It’s a subjective snapshot in time.  Take it for what it’s worth.

“One of my favorite findings concerns the once-hot wonders.” says the editor. “A total of 353 books appeared on only one list.  Twenty-three of those solo acts earned the top slot.  Put another way, there were 23 books that one writer considered his or her absolute favorite and that no other writer cast so much as 10th place none too shabby in this competition.”

I counted 93 different No.1 selections – out of 125.  This shows there’s nothing approaching a consensus here.  These selections included:

Paradise Lost by John Milton
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighetti
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Sound and the Fury by William Falkner
The Iliad by Homer
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
Ulysses by James Joyce
Candide by Voltaire
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Some authors had multiple no.1 titles, including Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Austen, & Joyce.

An author in the book, Sven Berkerts, sums it up best with this:

"We are all irrevocably, terminally subjective in our responses to art – it’s how we’re wired.  We like what we like for hundreds of reasons, and there is no arguing for stable hierarchies.  What could a list like the one in my hand offer besides a tabulation of errant subjectivities?

"And yet, the more I considered the more I had to allow that with a large that with a large enough sample – and certainly a pool of one hundred and twenty-five writers counts for something – certain convergences also had to be meaningful.  That a significant number of these practitioners time and again put the same works on their lists of ten could not be an empty fact.  If it didn’t tell us about greatness, it certainly said something about how writers read, how pigs (I mean nothing pejorative here) grade for themselves the varieties of bacon.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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