There are many lists on the Internet and in the great works of people such as F.R Leavis that detail the best novels in the world; the ‘classics’. However, I tend to greet these lists with a degree of scepticism. I find myself debating with my friends and family the merit of Pride and Prejudice, and find myself vilifying it repeatedly. When discussing feminism in philosophy recently, I somehow managed to spark a rather heated debate on Austen’s merit as a feminist writer and on her position as a ‘great’ author. In hindsight, this was not the wisest of topics to broach at that particular moment. Nonetheless, I defended my position and maintain it today in relation to that particular novel.
Let us for a minute consider Time’s list of the top ten novels; which can be found here. The list is of American origin, and includes novels such as The Great Gatsby, alongside Hamlet, and even Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. It is not rare for Proust to appear on the top ten lists; despite being rather inaccessible, and being one of the longest texts ever conceived in the world. Time’s list is a rather complex one and is also rather multinational, ranging from America, to Russia, to France, to England. I do however wonder what criteria leads to the formation of this list; the top one hundred novels in Time Magazine also provides the beginning of a very lengthy literary debate, I think.
On listverse, also an American website, we see many similarities in their list of the top ten novels of all time; Lolita is also included. The nature of this novel is rather controversial, and as a result it often appears as one of the great novels. American lists on the whole tend to include more Russian novels, a form of literature that is perhaps neglected in English universities. Undoubtedly however they are stylistically fascinating, and are another particular interest of mine.
In the English lists, there is an abundance of European texts, strewn among the classics of English literature. A seemingly omnipotent Middlemarch is included in most of these lists. An interesting and rather comprehensive collection is The Telegraph’s. Some lists, such as F.R Leavis’s have extremely strict criteria for selecting ‘the best’; at the beginning of the rise of critical theory was the simultaneous beginning of a systematic categorisation of the novel in general: what is the best, most profound, and most influential? These questions were all necessary to be considered when attempting to classify “great” ideas.
From a wholly liberal perspective, the best, and the most influential is a very subjective idea. Influential events are not the same for every person, and may be the most minute things; a person never wakes and realises that this day will be the most extraordinary of their existence; in the same way, the best novels could not be considered the greatest by everyone, a prime example being my aversion to Pride and Prejudice. My opinion on the novel is very rarely shared. This does infer however that an opinion on a novel is always different; in an academic environment a novel is put on a syllabus, and even though there is the scope to decide one’s own opinion, it is always slightly guided. An engaging lecturer can always lead the mind down a different path, and encourage a person to consider interpretation beyond their own psyche. This is one of the highlights of university, at least for me.
The great literature of the world can be explored by anyone who wishes to delve in, whether they are a banker, a builder, an electrician, an academic, or a child. The greatness of literature can be explored by everyone, and their own greats may diverge hugely from the culturally accepted, however this does not make them any less valid. I’m curious to know what we all consider to be our greats, for instance the writers who shaped our own ambitions to be writers, or who inspired us to be something.
Who’re your greats? Suggestions welcome!