Monday, September 10, 2018

The 10 Greatest Novels, But Not Exactly

While re-visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time in several decades, I stepped into an old used bookstore.  Cooperstown, New York a town that has preserved the past well, puts you into a time warp as you walk down its streets of 19th century architecture.  The bookstore, filled with old books, is simply a collection of floor to ceiling shelves filled with books by deceased authors who wrote about bygone eras.  One such book was The World’s Ten Greatest Novels:  Great Novels and Their Novelists.

The mass market book from 1958 was filled with brittle, yellowing pages.  It held great content from the pen of W. Somerset Maugham, who was a British playwright, novelist and short story writer.  He lived to be 90 and reportedly was among the most popular writers of his era and reputedly the highest-paid author during the 1930s.

His book is filled with essays about the 10 books he deems as the greatest novels ever written, but what’s more interesting is what he says in his introduction and his postscript.  Though he acknowledges many different books would fill anyone’s top 10 list, he names these as his best 10:

·         Tom Jones
·         Pride and Prejudice
·         The Red and the Black
·         Old Man Goriot
·         David Copperfield
·         Wurthering heights
·         Madame Bovary
·         Moby-Dick
·         War and Peace
·         The Brothers Karamazou

Interestingly, he says though all of these books were best-sellers, three of them “were dead failures when first published,” referring to Moby-Dick, The Red and the Black, and Wurthering Heights.

Why were those three initially abject failures?  He writes:

“Such critics as noticed them had little good to say of them.  The public ignored them. That is easy to understand. They were highly original.  Now, the world in general doesn’t know what to make of originality; it is startled out of its comfortable habits of thought, and its first reaction is one of anger.  It needs a long time, and the guidance of perceptive interpreters, before it can abandon its instinctive recoil and accustom itself to novelty.”

Here are selected excerpts:

1.      Let me begin by saying, however, that to talk of the ten best novels in the world is to talk nonsense.  There are a hundred, though even of that I am far from sure; if fifty persons, well read and of adequate culture, were to make lists of the hundred best novels in the world, at least two or three hundred, I believe, would be mentioned more than once; but I think that in these fifty lists, supposing they were made by persons of English speech, the ten novels I have chosen would find a place.

2.      Now this great diversity of opinion can be somewhat easily explained.  There is a variety of reasons that may make a particular novel so much appeal to a person, even of sound judgment, that he is led to ascribe outstanding merit to it.  It may be that he had read it at a time of life or in circumstances when he was particularly liable to be moved by it, or it may be that its theme or its setting has a more than ordinary significance for him owning to his own predilections or personal associations.

3.      But the chief reason for the great diversity of opinion that exists on the respective merits of novels comes, I think, from the fact that the novel is essentially an imperfect form. No novel is perfect.  Of the ten I have chosen there is not one with which you cannot in some particular find fault.

4.      I think Balzac is the greatest novelist the world has ever known, but I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel.  No novel with such a wide sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with such a vast array of characters, was ever written before, no, I surmise, will ever be written again.  It has been justly called an epic.  I can think of no other work of fiction that could with truth be so described.

5.      But before I enlarge upon this statement I wish to say something about readers of fiction.  The novelist has the right to demand something of them. He has the right to demand that they should possess the small amount of application that is needed to read a book of three or four hundred pages.  He has the right to demand that they should have sufficient imagination to be able to envisage the scenes in which the author seeks to interest them and to fill out in their own minds the portraits he has drawn.  And finally the novelist has the right to demand from his readers some power of sympathy, for without it they cannot enter into the loves and sorrows, tribulations, dangers, adventures of the persons of a novel. Unless the reader is able to give something of himself he cannot get from a novel the best it has to give something of himself he cannot get from a novel the best it has to give.

Now I will specify what, in my opinion, are the qualities that a good novel should have. It should have a widely interesting theme, by which I mean a theme interesting not only to a clique, whether of critics, professors, highbrows, truck drivers or dish washers, but so broadly human that it is interesting to men and women of all sorts.

6.      The story should be coherent and persuasive; it should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning.  The episodes should have probability and should not only develop the theme, but grow out of the story.  The creatures of the novelist’s invention should be observed with individuality, and their actions should proceed from their characters; the reader must never be allowed to say:  So and so would never behave like that; on the contrary he should be obliged to say:  That’s exactly how I should have expected So and so to behave. I think it is all the better if the characters are in themselves interesting.

7.      And just as behavior should proceed from character, so should speech. A fashionable woman should talk like a fashionable woman.

8.      The narrative passages should be vivid, to the point and no longer than is necessary to make the motives of the persons concerned and the situations in which they are placed clear and convincing.  The writing should be simple enough for anyone of ordinary education to read it with ease, and the manner should fit the matter as a well-cut shoe fits a shapely foot.  Finally a novel should be entertaining.

9.      But even if the novel has all these qualities, and that is asking a lot, there is, like a flaw in a precious stone, a faultiness in the form that renders perfection impossible to attain.

10.  When I consider how many obstacles the novelist has to contend with, how many pitfalls to avoid, I am not surprised that even the greatest novels are not perfect, I am only surprised that they are not more imperfect than they are.  It is largely on this account that it is impossible to pick out ten and say that they are the best.  I could make a list of ten more that in their different ways are as good as those I have chosen:  Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Cousin Bette, The Charterhouse of Parma, Persuasion,  Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch, The Ambassadors, Gil Blas.  I could give good reasons for choosing those I have just mentioned.  My choice is arbitrary.

11.  It is to induce readers to read them that this series has been designed.  The attempt has been made to omit from these ten novels everything but what tells the story the author has to tell, exposes his relevant ideas and displays with adequacy the characters he has created.  Some students of literature, some professors and critics will exclaim that it is a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece, and that it should be read as the author wrote it.  But do they actually do this?  I suggest that they skip what is not worth reading, and it may be that they have cultivated the art of skipping to their profit; but most people haven’t: it is surely better that they should have their skipping done for them by someone of taste and discrimination.  If he has made a good job of it he should be able to give the reader a novel of which he can read every word with enjoyment.

12.  They will lose nothing that is valuable, and because nothing is left in these volumes but what is valuable, and because nothing is left in these volumes but what is valuable, they will enjoy to the full a very great intellectual pleasure.

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource.” He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America and participated in a PR panel at the Sarah Lawrence College Writers Institute Conference.

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