Given the sheer volume of literature out there — and just in the English-speaking world alone! — deciding the best works of fiction seems virtually impossible. Every great book has something exceptional to offer, and each is distinct enough in style, theme, narrative, and so on that none really compete; rather, these works complement each other, together offering a rich selection of morals, concepts, characters, and inspirations to draw from.
Nevertheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see what books have most captivated and impacted readers, especially when the audience consists of other authors of great books. Who better to weigh-in on the subject than some of the (Anglophone) world’s current literary greats? The Atlantic has more:
The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”
Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list—so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.
As the article observes, you can learn a lot about a writer from what they selected as their favorites books and authors, since it reveals some of the possible influences, motivations, and ideas that color their own works — after all, what great writer hasn’t had at least contemporary or predecessor to inspire them?
You would have to read the book to see what each respondent listed, but you can view the overall consensus below (the asterisks denote links to free public domain works):
Top Ten Works of the 20th Century
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
- Ulysses* by James Joyce
- Dubliners* by James Joyce
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Top Ten Works of the 19th Century
- Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
- Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- The stories of Anton Chekhov
- Middlemarch* by George Eliot
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
- Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Emma* by Jane Austen
Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected
- William Shakespeare – 11
- William Faulkner – 6
- Henry James – 6
- Jane Austen – 5
- Charles Dickens – 5
- Fyodor Dostoevsky – 5
- Ernest Hemingway – 5
- Franz Kafka – 5
- Tied: James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf – 4
Top Ten Authors by Points Earned
- Leo Tolstoy – 327
- William Shakespeare – 293
- James Joyce – 194
- Vladimir Nabokov – 190
- Fyodor Dostoevsky – 177
- William Faulkner – 173
- Charles Dickens – 168
- Anton Chekhov – 165
- Gustave Flaubert – 163
- Jane Austen – 161
I would have to put a lot of thought into what my own top ten would be in these categories, although I do personally concur with most of the top selection (namely Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude). I am definitely intrigued to read more James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, whom I have always heard are amazing.
It is also interesting to see Tolstoy figure so prominently in terms of 19th century literature and total points; he is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I never realized his works were that acclaimed until recently (I have seen a lot more articles discussing his brilliance and literary influence as of late).
I would love to see the answers and opinions of non-Anglophone writers, especially since the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-English literature remains untranslated and thus largely unknown. I am sure it would be very revealing. A similar list involving non-fiction works, perhaps divided by genre (politics, science, etc.) would also be very interesting, if perhaps a bit more difficult.
Anyway, what do you think of these results? What would your own top ten lists look like?