The Big Sleep
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The Mayor of Casterbridge
For Whom the
To Your Scattered
Editor Eric's Criteria
for choosing the Greatest Literature of All Time
How the choices were made
Why include books I don't like?
Is genre writing good writing?
How the selections
I've been inclusive in my decision-making, on the grounds that it is better to err on the side of including a few works that may not ultimately deserve it than on the side of excluding any that do. This way readers who use the list as a guide may be encouraged to read the works and decide for themselves what they think, rather than risk missing worthy books not brought to their attention.
The word "greatest" is applied quite liberally also. Works may be considered great in the traditional sense of having stood the test of time, remaining monuments of intellectual and artistic achievement. Or they may be called great in the more colloquial sense of "That was a great read!"
There are several other ways of using the G-word that you may be able to think of. No one of these definitions is used as the sole criterion for this list of the "greatest" literature ever. And none of these definitions are outside the scope of the list. Any or all the ways people talk of books being great are taken into account for each title.
Why include books I don't
Another book that often places at the top of favourite book lists is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In my opinion this is a dreadfully written novel of cardboard characters and unbelievable narrative, popular mainly due to its rousing message of individualism and its support by followers of Rand's ultra-capitalist philosophy. However this book too is on the list and I await the passage of time for the rest of the world's opinion to catch up to mine, at which time the book can be taken off the list.
These works are included, despite my individual misgivings, for two reasons. Firstly, "greatness" becomes applied through historical consensus. This is not a list of the "best" or highest quality of literary works. I'm sure there have been written many works that are technically superior to the works that we know well but have never become known outside small circles, perhaps never even published. Or they may have been published and forgotten because they didn't speak to people in a particular way at a particular time—their timing was off. Or their authors simply had bad luck. Whatever the reason, the works' good qualities did not lead them to become widely known. So, this is not a list of works chosen by an individual as the best ever. It's a list of works that have become recognized by humanity in general as the greatest ever. (Although which works are so recognized has itself been judged by an individual. Can't get away from that.)
The second reason for including books I don't personally consider worthy is that I recognize these are nonetheless works that one should become familiar with in order to be considered well-read in our culture. They're works you should read to make up your own mind about.
Is "genre" writing good
Doesn't this go against what I've said about seeking historical consensus? Not entirely, as such works I have included are generally those that the public in general—or a good portion of the public—have embraced.
For the most part, these disagreements occur over twentieth-century works. Many of the more controversial decisions involve what may be considered genre writing — science fiction, detective stories, "women's novels" and so on. I could argue that Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler and Daphne Du Maurier have had as great an impact on modern writing and modern life as any author with greater "literary" credentials. My real reason for including their novels though is that they offer great rewards to their readers. They may be as meaningful to readers of the 20th century as the gripping stories of Beowulf, Song of Roland, and King Arthur's knights were to people of the Middle Ages, and as the romances of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson and Charlotte Brontë were later. On the other hand, they may eventually turn out to be more like the once-popular novels of James Fennimore Cooper, H. Rider Haggard or Jacqueline Susann, and fade into obscurity. Time will tell.
Toward the tail-end of the twentieth century in this database, you'll notice fewer books listed than earlier in the century (and none listed in the twenty-first century yet). Neither I nor most of those whose opinions I have consulted are ready to declare that any books appearing in the past few years are among the greatest-ever. Give us another couple of decades to get some perspective on them.
I have added a section, however, that includes new literature for post-1999 books that are highly acclaimed and may eventually be considered for "greatest" status.
The biggest bias evident in the list though is that twentieth-century writing accounts for more entries than all other periods put together. Partly this is because indeed more literature has been produced in the past century than in any other era. Partly it is due to the fact that contemporary literature often speaks to us more directly than older works and thus seems "better" to those of us living now. And partly this preponderance of modern lit can be attributed to simple ignorance of older works. This imbalance is expected to be redressed somewhat as we gain longer perspective on recent works. (Reader input is always welcome.)
Until recently the database had a heavier representation of Canadian literature than an objective evaluation of world literature might justify. I am Canadian and many users of this guide are Canadian. We have a special interest in the literature of our country. Now however I have moved most of these works into a separately accessed list of The Greatest Canadian Literature of All Time, although I have left in the international list those many Canadian books that are indeed among the best in the world.
One final bias should be mentioned. Novels are cited more frequently than any other kinds of works (such as short stories, poetry or drama). This reflects the fact that novels constitute the most popular literary form. This wasn't always the case. At one time the writing that any literate person would know was poetry. Even earlier, stories told orally or recited metrically were the chief entertainment. But for the past century at least, the novel has been far and away the most popular literary form. I am not saying this to excuse any great poems, stories or plays being neglected by the list. The problem is simply that I and others in the modern world are not as familiar with them as we are with novels. This is another oversight it is hoped will be corrected over time.
Drama is an unusual case because it is usually not written to be read. In the days before movies and television many people were more familiar with drama live on stage than in print. Even today the quality of a play as a play depends on much more than its literary values. In general I have tried to select dramas that offer the greatest rewards as literature—that is, as read on the printed page. The success of a theatrical performance—like the success of a movie or television drama based on a written script—is irrelevant to our literary purposes here. I might even include an exceptional film or TV screenplay on the list in the future if a great one should be published and read as literature.
If you wish to propose a work to include in any category or time period, or if you wish to correct or dispute an existing entry, send me an email with your ideas.
© Copyright 2002–2005 Eric McMillan. All rights reserved.