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Checking the List Twice

It'll Get 'Em Talking, but Will It Get 'Em Reading?

July 22, 1998|STEVE WASSERMAN | TIMES BOOK EDITOR

List Fever continues to spread. Hot on the heels of the American Film Institute's 100 greatest American movies, the editorial board of the Modern Library, a division of Random House, has compiled its choices of the 100 finest English-language novels published in this century.

Executives at Random House say they hope this latest list will stimulate discussion of great works of fiction as well as stimulate sales. (Of the 100 novels selected, 59 are published by Random House or a division of its parent company, the Bertelsmann group of Germany.)

However, even before the list is announced officially (Friday at Radcliffe College, during a workshop for young publishers), it is being criticized for including too few women (eight) and only three works (all by James Joyce) by writers who live or lived outside the United States and Britain.

Here, the list is evaluated by Wanda Coleman, an author and poet who lives in Marina del Rey, and by Steve Wasserman, book editor of the Los Angeles Times.

The modern mania for list-making is seemingly insatiable. It is one of the ironies of our democratic age that, despite the impulse to include and honor every voice, no matter how marginal or mediocre, nostalgia for hierarchies of quality and authority finds its most vulgar expression in the concoction of lists and rankings of all kinds.

A striking example is the publication of a list of 100 novels that the editorial board of the Modern Library, an imprint of Random House, regards as the best books written in the English language in the 20th century. Even a cursory glance through the list raises multiple questions of the criteria used to select the lucky titles. Issues of merit, nationality, race and gender loom large.

Fifty-eight of the books are by Americans including William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James and Ralph Ellison. Thirty-nine are by British writers including D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Only eight women made the cut including Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf.

At a time when the so-called Culture Wars have coarsened the texture of American culture, such a list smacks of unabashed (and faintly disreputable) notions of tradition and merit. The Modern Library's list of best novels of the century is sure to spur debate and, Random House hopes, sales. Ann Godoff, Random House's president and editor in chief, has said that "it's a way to bring the Modern Library to public attention. We want to grow the Modern Library and its stable of classics." She may well be onto something: Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble report continued robust sales of the so-called backlist titles previously issued by publishers, which all too often languish on the shelves of warehouses and bookstores.

The list was chosen after considerable reflection and debate by Modern Library's 10-member editorial board. With two exceptions, the members are all Random House authors: Christopher Cerf (son of Bennett Cerf, the firm's co-founder), Daniel Boorstin (the former Librarian of Congress), Shelby Foote (the acclaimed Civil War historian), A.S. Byatt (the English novelist and author of "Possession"), Edmund Morris (the biographer of Theodore Roosevelt and author of a biography of Ronald Reagan to be published this fall by Random House), John Richardson (author of the multivolume "Picasso") and William Styron (author of such novels as "Sophie's Choice" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner"). The only board members not published by Random House are Vartan Gregorian, the former head of the New York Public Library, and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., chronicler of John F. Kennedy's presidency.

Certain to arouse criticism as much for what it includes as for what it excludes, the list already has garnered attention as a marketing gimmick. Every reader will have his or her own complaints. V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie, for example, are the only writers on the list who were not born in the United States or the British Isles. Patrick White, the Australian writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, is a notable omission. As for women, the absence of such gifted and influential writers as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and Doris Lessing, to name only three, is striking. But Random House is confident that the list, whatever its critical merits, will revivify a remarkable and influential imprint.

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