Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Top Ten

News travels slowly around here, so it took two years for me to discover, courtesy of the Internet, a top ten list of novels assembled by the author of a book called, wait for it, “The Top 10.” The author, J. Peder Zane, polled 125 world-renowned authors, including Tom Wolfe, Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon and others, and asked them to name a personal top 10 list. Their lists was then squeezed through whatever weird algorithm of literature was at Zane’s disposal and out popped a master list.

As you might guess, Shakespeare comes out well represented among the individual author suggestions, as does William Faulkner and Henry James. A few of our authors, such as the late Wallace, decided to have fun with their lists. Wallace stuck C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters,” Stephen King's “The Stand " and Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears,” on his hit parade. This clearly gave the author of the Time magazine article I read hives.

The big time, tip top list that emerges is:

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

A few thoughts:

This isn’t my personal top ten, but mine might look a little similar. I’ve read half of these, I think - my uncertainty comes in that I’ve read some of the stories of Anton Chekhov, though there are several collections. And strictly speaking, “Hamlet” is a play, so it’s inclusion here is somewhat problematic. (I will say that if it wasn’t here, I would be ready to grab a sword.) One wonders why nothing from the whole of Dickens made the list, (perhaps a problem picking one representative work) and I might have expected something from Joyce though that’s only because of his appearance on similar lists. We have three Russians, two Americans, two English writers (and only one woman), and two Frenchmen. Only Count Tolstoy gets a repeat performance, and only he would deserve it.

What also stands out is that one can assume from a few of these titles that adultery makes for the ripping good beginnings of a plot. At least seven contain one extramarital affair, and most of the action in these books hinges on one. (Of course, in “Hamlet,” the affair is implied as having happened before the action of the play.) That leaves Huck Finn and Marcel as the adventuring boys who stand out, one going down the Mississippi and the other venturing into one of the longest multi-volume fictional works in history. Find out for yourself which one had it easier.

But what is more - nearly all of them involve some form of deception - a character concealing his or her true nature or identity in order to either exact revenge or leapfrog status. Figures outwardly do that which is most loathsome to themselves - or are liberated to act as never before - in order not to be discovered. The humiliation, or realization, that results from their lives can terrify, inform, and inspire us into hoping nothing similar happens in our own personal stories.

We see the thing we would avoid, and we inevitably fall into it, despite our worst fears and our best intentions. Conflict is the stuff of fiction, and the stuff of our lives, until we close the books.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with lists like this, beyond the fact they are lists like this, is that they tend to look like the people who get asked to make lists like this. One woman. No black folks. Man, I guess white dudes can really write. Would love to see who was asked. I like Stephen King, so know I say this with love, but any guy who writes a column for Entertainment Weekly defending “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” might not need be included in this survey.

    What? Diablo Cody didn’t get her ballot back on time?

    Seriously, “Madame Bovary” and “Lost Time” over “Hundred Years of Solitude” is not an oversight, it’s protectionist crap of the old guard. Let one brown face in and then do we need to consider everyone’s literature for the list? Oh no. Brits, Americans, French and a Russians, two of whom were popularized by the West and one (“Lolita”) was first published in the West. This is an embarrassingly narrow worldview of literature.

    Maybe I’m wrong.

    However, “Hamlet” can get crowned many ways – greatest play, greatest character, greatest work of fiction. All sound arguments. But “Hamlet” cannot be among the list of greatest novels because, much like calling Sandy Koufax the greatest right-handed pitcher of all time, it cannot be the greatest of what it is not. “Hamlet” is not a novel.