The BBC released a list on Monday 2 December called ‘The 100 Greatest British Novels’. Jane Ciabattari collated this in an imaginative way, by asking literary critics (ie people who make their living from reviewing books) from outside the UK to give their personal lists of the 10 best British novels, assigning each title points from 1 to 10, with the best of their ten receiving 10 points. A total of 228 novel titles were sent in, the points were added up, and the top 100 were published.
I haven’t looked at the online comments on that article or on others piggybacking on the story: the Guardian had 603 by Tuesday lunchtime, which put me off straight away. I assume that I’m saying here what others may have said elsewhere.
There is a major statistical error in the list as published, since seven of the ‘novels’ are actually groups of novels: Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (3 titles), the Narnia books by C S Lewis (7 titles), Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (3 titles), John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (5 titles), the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn (3 titles), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (3 titles), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (4 titles), and Anthony Powell’s vast A Dance to the Music of Time (12 titles). So that a big problem, since it adds 32 titles to the apparent ‘top 100’. It’s not evident why these groups of titles were conflated into one: perhaps some critics were lazy and sent them in like that; perhaps The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers or The Return of the King all polled equally (which is unlikely). Nonetheless, these titles were originally published separately, and that’s important, since that’s the apparent methodology for the selection. One rule needs to apply for all. The Narnia books, the novels of A Dance to the Music of Time and of Parade’s End, for example, are discrete, separate novels, not multi-volumed entities, and should be counted as such.
Ciabattari compounds this error in her accompanying article ‘Are Britain’s best writers women?’ by trumpeting that women authors make up half the top 20, and ‘nearly 40%’ of the top 100. Ten novels by women authors do make up half the top 20 novels, but only by six women authors, up against eight male authors; which isn’t half at all. With the novels properly counted as individual works, women writers actually make up only 27% of the top ‘100’ (now a top 132), rather than the 36% as originally counted (which is still not ‘nearly’ 40%). Numbers matter!
I also disagree that women writers are represented well enough on this list, in its original or in its revised form, for anyone to claim that they are ‘best’. Six of the top ten novels are written by women, but only by five women. ‘Best’ is not 50% representation, that’s simply ‘equal’ in this reading: there’s no need to be triumphalist over that. The six women authors in the top 20 are the six most well-known British women authors publishing within the period of 1813-1931: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte (notice that E Bronte wrote only one novel and it’s in the top 20), Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and the inevitable Virginia Woolf. So there are no surprises there, just confirmation that English literature curricula the world over have done a jolly good reinforcement job on the usual suspects. They are very, very good authors, but to call them the ‘best’ suggests a level playing field and Queensberry rules, which this list is not.
Most of the titles were published in the 20th century, with the 19th-century classics coming up next in popularity (but no Fanny Burney, sniff). The staying-power of the six 18th-century standard works by Defoe, Sterne, Richardson, Fielding and James Hogg (yay for the Justified Sinner!) is really impressive. The top ten titles were all 19th-century or 20th-century novels, and the top 20 only had one 21st-century and one 18th-century novel: McEwan’s Atonement and Richardson’s Clarissa. The representation of the centuries across the list as it approaches peak popularity is rather telling: look at this colour-coded version: 100 best british novels coloured by century
Repetition also counts towards an apparent ‘best’ or ‘greatest’. Four of Jane Austen’s six novels are in the list, compared to four of Dickens’s 20 novels and novellas. Other repeat authors are from the 18th (1), 19th (4), 20th (9), and 21st (4) centuries are: Lessing, Waugh, Trollope, Greene, Hardy, G Eliot, Conrad, V Woolf, Lawrence, Hollinghurst, Winterson, Z Smith, Defoe, Forster, C Bronte, Ishiguro, Ford and Orwell. Repeat appearances in the list certainly suggests consistent ‘greatness’ across an oeuvre, so that’s something to take seriously. However, some of this ‘greatness’ may have come from familiarity with film and TV adaptations, which complicates whether the critics who thought that The Line of Beauty was great are thinking of the novel or the TV adaptation. One will very easily be influenced by the other, and those titles which have had recent mass-media exposure will have an advantage.
From my perspective as a scholar of forgotten authors, I was very happy to see that around 26 (this is very subjective) of the 20th-century authors are what I’d classify as ‘uncanonical’, ie not likely to be found in university English literature curricula, and certainly not in high school English syllabi. (I do not count 21st-century authors as admissible for canonical laurels, yet, as they haven’t been in print long enough for future generations of critics to regard them as highly as we do now.) This suggests that as well as being influenced by their literary education in how they chose authors less commonly seen on the best-seller lists than in the Worlds’ Classics, the critics polled chose from their own reading for pleasure by including more recent authors who are simply not taught at all: P G Wodehouse, Barbara Pym and Sybille Bedford epitomise this from the 20th century, as do Edward St Aubyn and Jane Gardam. These authors were undoubtedly discovered outside formal Eng lit education, which gives them an alternate route to readers’ hearts.
Children’s literature, which clutches the heart at the most impressionable age, is strongly represented, but, again, these titles are all classics, even those by Philip Pullman. The hugely popular novels about Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, for example, are not present, nor (thank goodness) Winnie the Pooh. It’d be interesting to see the rest of the list from 228 to 101, to see what was still counted, and by how much, as being ‘great’. It would also be interesting to read how each critic who contributed defined ‘great’ or ‘best’.
Other omissions are very interesting: no science fiction (other than Doris Lessing), no High Modernism (except perhaps Henry Green?), no novels in the detective, the western, the romance or the thriller genres; and with the exception of P G Wodehouse pipping in at 100 and Waugh’s Scoop, not much full-length comic genius, in which British literature is rich.
What does this list, flawed and subjective as it is, tell us? That literary education sticks in how we assess what we read. That novels we may love to bits and reread faithfully every year might not qualify for the list because, to a literary critic, ‘pleasure’ might not count as ‘great’. And that if you’re going to present data like this, you need to respect the numbers and count them properly.