How we chose our 100 All-Time Greatest Novels
We’ve gotten a landslide of mail about the All-Time Greatest issue, much of it along the following lines:
“Dear Dips–t Editors:
How could could you possibly be so dips—-y?
You put [name of masterpiece] on your Top 100 list even though it fully sucks. I mean, even my 8-year-old sister who drools when she sleeps knows the immense power of its suckage! Yet you totally ignored the awesomeness of [name of something pretty good]. You can explain yourself but I don’t care, and won’t listen, and hate you. Please die. Sincerely, A longtime subscriber”
Well, then. Here’s how we assembled the books list: We sat in a conference room talking about books we loved and admired. Our books editor, Tina Jordan, then made a rough list based on the conversation, and we argued about it endlessly, moved things around endlessly, cut and added things endlessly. This went on for at least six months, during which time we read like fiends. Eventually, this guy named Lou Vogel, who’s in charge of making sure we actually get around to publishing a magazine every week, said, “OK, you absolutely must turn in the final list right this second or I will scream and never stop screaming.”
We never expected our books lists to please everyone. How could you agree with every book on a list like this unless you wrote the list yourself? And even you, whoever you are, like things that not everybody loves. Admit it, you like some pretty weird stuff.
Another reason we’ll all never agree on a list is that we’ll never even agree on the definition of “greatest.” Does it mean the most influential? The most perfect? The most moving? It means some unquantifiable combination of all these things. My daughter thinks The Great Gatsby should have been No. 1 because it’s the most flawless thing ever. My wife thinks The Road should have been number No. 1 because it’s astonishing and it bridges genres — and it isn’t prehistoric, like Anna Karenina. These are good arguments. I love having them because I love talking about books.
When we were down in the trenches arguing over this issue, I lobbied hard for things that ultimately made the list (Blindness, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Ender’s Game come to mind). But I lost battles too. Everyone here did. Ultimately, though, we stand by the list happily because it’s full of amazing, heart-stopping, heart-changing literature.
Probably you want me to admit to some super-nefarious backroom dealings, so here you go:
Confession No. 1: As our boss, Jess Cagle, said in his editor’s note in the magazine, we didn’t want a handful of authors to dominate the list at the expense of other authors. So there are people like Dickens and Austen who aren’t on the list as often as they could be. By not including six Dickens novels, we made room for a lot of cool voices who wouldn’t have had a chance otherwise. I will state here unequivocally that Austen and Dickens are both really, really good. You should read the novels they have on this list and other ones too.
Confession No. 2: We wanted diversity of every kind on this list. I don’t just mean in terms of the novelist’s gender or race, but also in terms of time period and genre. Our vision of literature is beyond highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. Some readers have complained because new books wound up alongside immortal classics. Others have complained that there weren’t ENOUGH new novels. We wanted a mix that reflected fiction as a continually evolving art form. You can’t please all the people all the time, but it turns out you can annoy a whole bunch of them.
One frequently asked question: Why is Harry Potter so high on the list? Because it’s an amazing coming-of-age story that will be read voraciously 100 years from now. You may disagree. We can talk again in 100 years.
Confession No. 3: Just as staffers advocated for novels they personally loved, they fought against stuff they disliked. I’ll give you an example. Phillip Roth is generally thought to be one of the most gifted novelists of the last 50 years. But here’s the thing: Roth has some extremely vocal detractors on our staff—people who feel that he represents everything that is wrong with everything that is wrong. I personally feel that he is underrepresented on our list, but then I feel strongly that The Hobbit (on the list) is a better novel than Lord of the Rings (not on the list), which many commenters have said is a ridiculous abomination of an opinion.
OK, enough explaining. The bottom line is that all our All-Time Greatest Lists are meant to be tributes, not trash-talk. You should find some stuff on the list you haven’t read and read it. We’re all reading all your comments and emails to look for suggestions, too. I like the idea that people still feel fiercely enough about novels to get mad.