I've Got a Little List

This article appeared in The Nation.

I've Got a Little List


When Random House's Modern Library imprint issued a list this past summer of the best novels in English published during the twentieth century, surely I was not alone in noticing that only nine books written by women were among the designees. The list created controversy–as lists are meant to do.

There was plenty of printed reaction to the Modern Library announcement, but none I saw seemed to offer an alternative list. The Random House Web site was deluged with reactions from angry readers who wondered where their favorite novels were, but nobody (not Harold Bloom with his Western Canon, nor Camille Paglia with her six-shooter, nor the Modern Library itself) thought to come up with a list of women writers in English who published novels in this century. Surely a century that produced Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir and Edith Wharton has been an extraordinary one for women authors. Released from compulsory pregnancy every year, released from having to pretend niceness, goodness, meekness and amnesia toward our own anger, women have produced an astonishing literature in English–and a host of other languages. The twentieth century has been the first in which women publicly roared. Why then have the good people at the Modern Library not heard? Well, women's achievements tend to be overlooked even by the enlightened who think themselves sensitive to such things. A woman's name on a book practically guarantees marginalization–which is why so many geniuses, from the Brontë sisters to George Sand and George Eliot, chose to use male noms de plume.

And yet I find myself thinking–in 1998!–that we have abandoned that practice at our peril. Oddly, books written by women tend to be marginalized by both male and female reviewers. Yes, it is true that certain hunky male authors like Sebastian Junger and Ethan Canin have been reviewed for their jacket photos, but generally the practice of reviewing the writer's photo rather than her text, her personal life rather than her novel, her love affairs rather than her literary style, is the fate reserved for women authors. A recent example of a writer's life being reviewed even before her book is published is Joyce Maynard–but many authors, from Charlotte Brontë to Colette, have met this fate. Why this automatic response? Surely, given the works of Sappho, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen, it should be clear that a vagina is no obstacle to literature. Yet in a sexist society, both women and men automatically downgrade women's work. A poetess is never as good as a poet. An actor is more serious than an actress. An aviator navigates better than an aviatrix. The response today may be more unconscious than deliberate, but, alas, it remains. (I suggest that some compulsive scholar do a computer search of the typical weasel words in reviews of women's books. They are: "confessional," "solipsistic," "self-aggrandizing," "self-indulgent," "whining.") For a woman to claim to have a self is, I suppose, "self-aggrandizing."

I have been the recipient of this sort of literary "criticism" for so many years that it makes me snort and laugh rather than smart and weep, but my heart goes out to the novice female writers who run this gantlet with their first novels and are so wounded they never show up for the second act. This is, of course, the point. Boo the women off the stage with catcalls and rotten tomatoes and get them back to their proper womanly duties–editing men's books, feeding the egos of male writers, writing theses about James Joyce, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway–as if we didn't already have enough. Political correctness has rapped us on the knuckles for doing this to writers of color who are female. As a result, those artists are starting to be reviewed on their merits rather than their gender. This is a welcome change. As recently as twenty-eight years ago Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was turned down by Random House (where she then worked as an editor) because it was assumed that African-Americans did not buy books and that nobody else would want to read novels about black people. The arrogance of those assumptions has long since been dispelled. But while it is clearly racist to attack writers of color, women writers who appear to occupy no minority niche are still fair game. Women are the scapegoats of the human race, and if scapegoats don't exist in nature, they have to be invented. The Modern Library list contained only eight women because a ratio of 92 to 8 probably seems normal to literary folk. (Edith Wharton accounted for two of the nine titles.) Diversity has come to mean racial diversity rather than gender fairness. Wherever possible, the token woman on a committee, a panel, a list, is apt to be endowed with melanin. This is a condescending way of including two "minorities" in one fell swoop. But women are not a minority; we are 52 percent of the population. We are, in fact, an oppressed majority. If we didn't already know this the Modern Library list would have made it abundantly clear.

I've no particular wish to dump on the Modern Library. That venerable venture, started by legendary twenties publisher Horace Liveright and sold to Random House long before it was a vast agglomeration of formerly independent imprints, has always had a worthy mission: Bring good books to the people inexpensively. The Modern Library was clever to devise the 100 best list as a way of getting column inches for books. It worked. Anything that gets people talking about books in a video culture is to be applauded. The composition of the original list was, however, hard not to quarrel with.

1. Ulysses by James Joyce

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

8. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

9. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

11. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

12. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

13. 1984 by George Orwell

14. I, Claudius by Robert Graves

15. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

16. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

17. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

18. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

19. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

20. Native Son by Richard Wright

21. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

22. Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

23. U.S.A. (trilogy) by John Dos Passos

24. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

25. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

26. The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

27. The Ambassadors by Henry James

28. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

29. The Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell

30. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

32. The Golden Bowl by Henry James

33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

34. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

35. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

36. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

37. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

38. Howards End by E.M. Forster

39. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

40. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

41. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

42. Deliverance by James Dickey

43. A Dance to the Music of Time (series) by Anthony Powell

44. Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley

45. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

46. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

47. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

48. The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

49. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

50. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

51. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

52. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

53. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

54. Light in August by William Faulkner

55. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

56. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

57. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

58. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

59. Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm

60. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

61. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

62. From Here to Eternity by James Jones

63. The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

64. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

65. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

66. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

67. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

68. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

69. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

70. The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

71. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

72. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

73. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

74. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

75. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

76. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

77. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce

78. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

79. A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

80. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

81. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

82. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

83. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul

84. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

85. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

86. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

87. The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

88. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

89. Loving by Henry Green

90. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

91. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell

92. Ironweed by William Kennedy

93. The Magus by John Fowles

94. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

95. Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

96. Sophie's Choice by William Styron

97. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

99. The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy

100. The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Ulysses by James Joyce, a formerly banned book that is now safely verified as a masterpiece because nobody reads it in its entirety, was the safest of safe top choices. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita gave the list a bit of derring-do, circa 1955. Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, a personal favorite of mine, is a wonderful satirical novel about how the press starts wars, then covers them, but it is in no way as large a portrait of the world as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. The Modern Library did make an attempt to include writers of color–V.S. Naipaul, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin–though women were not among them. Of the women on the list, Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are inevitable rather than courageous choices. (I would probably give a limb to have written The House of Mirth, but it hardly takes imagination to praise Wharton this long after her death–in 1937–and recent transfiguration into film.)

The Random House readers who posted their choices on the Web site wound up with a list that puts four Ayn Rand novels in place of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22 and Darkness at Noon. Since Ayn Rand is not my cup of tea, I'm not impressed, but the readers' list is far more gender neutral than the original and doesn't discriminate against sci-fi or horror authors. (Robert Heinlein and Stephen King figure prominently.) The attempt to create a women's fiction list proved a fascinating exercise. I wrote to the 250 or so distinguished women writers and critics whose correct addresses I have in my database. I posted a notice on the rather lively writers' forum that's on my Web site (www.ericajong.com), and then, for good measure, I wrote to about thirty male novelists, critics and poets whose judgment I respect and whose addresses I happen to have. The results of this informal survey were instructive. Because I promised anonymity to my respondents, they were frank with me. They apologized for liking certain books that they deemed to be important in their own lives–Gone With the Wind and Interview With the Vampire are two examples–but that they suspected Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom might pooh-pooh. The scholars responded quickly–-as if they had been list-making all their lives. The poets' and novelists' lists dribbled in more slowly. Pretty much everyone I wrote to tended to take the project seriously. They congratulated me on raising the question of a women's list at all–whether or not they had seen the original Modern Library list. Sometimes they included lists from their best friends, members of reading groups or seminars.

Here are the books most frequently repeated (after 1. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and 2. Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire):

Virginia Woolf
3. To the Lighthouse
4. Mrs. Dalloway
5. The Waves
6. Orlando

Djuna Barnes
7. Nightwood

Edith Wharton
8. The House of Mirth
9. The Age of Innocence
10. Ethan Frome

Radclyffe Hall
11. The Well of Loneliness

Nadine Gordimer
12. Burger's Daughter

Harriette Simpson Arnow
13. The Dollmaker

Margaret Atwood
14. The Handmaid's Tale

Willa Cather
15. My Ántonia

Erica Jong
16. Fear of Flying
17. Fanny

Joy Kogawa
18. Obasan

Doris Lessing
19. The Golden Notebook
20. The Fifth Child
21. The Grass Is Singing

Harper Lee
22. To Kill a Mockingbird

Marge Piercy
23. Woman on the Edge of Time

Jane Smiley
24. A Thousand Acres

Lore Segal
25. Her First American

Alice Walker
26. The Color Purple
27. The Third Life of Grange Copeland

Marion Zimmer Bradley
28. The Mists of Avalon

Muriel Spark
29. Memento Mori
30. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Dorothy Allison
31. Bastard Out of Carolina

Jean Rhys
32. Wide Sargasso Sea

Susan Fromberg Shaeffer
33. Anya

Cynthia Ozick
34. Trust

Amy Tan
35. The Joy Luck Club
36. The Kitchen God's Wife

Ann Beattie
37. Chilly Scenes of Winter

Zora Neale Hurston
38. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Joan Didion
39. A Book of Common Prayer
40. Play It as It Lays

Mary McCarthy
41. The Group
42. The Company She Keeps

Grace Paley
43. The Little Disturbances of Man

Sylvia Plath
44. The Bell Jar

Carson McCullers
45. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Elizabeth Bowen
46. The Death of the Heart

Flannery O'Connor
47. Wise Blood

Mona Simpson
48. Anywhere But Here

Toni Morrison
49. Song of Solomon
50. Beloved

Stella Gibbons
51. Cold Comfort Farm

Sylvia Townsend Warner
52. Mr. Fortune's Maggot

Katherine Anne Porter
53. Ship of Fools

Laura Riding
54. Progress of Stories

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
55. Heat and Dust

Penelope Fitzgerald
56. The Blue Flower

Isabel Allende
57. The House of the Spirits

A.S. Byatt
58. Possession

Pat Barker
59. The Ghost Road

Rita Mae Brown
60. Rubyfruit Jungle

Anita Brookner
61. Hotel du Lac

Angela Carter
62. Nights at the Circus

Daphne Du Maurier
63. Rebecca

Katherine Dunn
64. Geek Love

Shirley Jackson
65. We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Barbara Pym
66. Excellent Women

Leslie Marmon Silko
67. Ceremony

Anne Tyler
68. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
69. The Accidental Tourist

Nancy Willard
70. Things Invisible to See

Jeanette Winterson
71. Sexing the Cherry

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
72. Disturbances in the Field

Rosellen Brown
73. Civil Wars

Harriet Doerr
74. Stones for Ibarra

Jean Stafford
75. The Mountain Lion

Stevie Smith
76. Novel on Yellow Paper

E. Annie Proulx
77. The Shipping News

Rebecca Goldstein
78. The Mind-Body Problem

P.D. James
79. The Children of Men

Ursula Hegi
80. Stones From the River

Fay Weldon
81. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil

Katherine Mansfield
82. Collected Stories

Rebecca Harding Davis
83. Life in the Iron Mills

Louise Erdrich
84. The Beet Queen

Ursula K. Le Guin
85. The Left Hand of Darkness

Edna O'Brien
86. The Country Girls Trilogy

Margaret Drabble
87. Realms of Gold
88. The Waterfall

Dawn Powell
89. The Locusts Have No King

Marilyn French
90. The Women's Room

Eudora Welty
91. The Optimist's Daughter

Carol Shields
92. The Stone Diaries

Jamaica Kincaid
93. Annie John

Tillie Olsen
94. Tell Me a Riddle

Gertrude Stein
95. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Iris Murdoch
96. A Severed Head

Anita Desai
97. Clear Light of Day

Alice Hoffman
98. The Drowning Season

Sue Townsend
99. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole

Penelope Mortimer
100. The Pumpkin Eater

That is the preliminary culling. It gives us, at least, a starting point. An equally long list could be made of memoirs, poems and novels in languages other than English.

All lists are highly arbitrary. And this, like all such efforts, is a work in progress. If you will write your favorites to me at my e-mail address (jongleur@pipeline.com), the next edition will surely include books I and my respondents have missed. This exercise may turn into a publishing project, so I hope to be as inclusive as possible.

Ranking the listed books seems to me like a useless exercise. Books are not prizefighters. They don't compete against one another. It may even be that many worthy volumes escaped the notice of my helpers because they were printed in tiny editions and disappeared into the pulping machine before they were even discovered. Many good women's books doubtless go unpublished. What the list chiefly teaches us is the extent of our own ignorance. I don't claim to have read all these books, but it strikes me that this list would make a fascinating beginning course in women's literature. If we could only begin to immerse ourselves in the riches of the writers who came before us, we would see that we had an excellent broth to nourish our future efforts.

It interested me greatly to learn how hard it was for most of my respondents to name 100 books. I received scribbled notes that said things like: "Don't forget Angela Carter!" Or "What about the short story writers whose novels are less good?" Since the list was of novels written in English, I had to exclude favorites of mine--like Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Yourcenar. Memoirs like Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior were excluded because there will be a separate list of memoirs. Poetry was excluded because that, too, must wait for a future tally. (Women poets in English in this century could fill a very large library.)

Assembling the preliminary list, I kept being reminded of Emma Goldman's wise words: "When you are educated, when you know your power, you'll need no bombs or militia and no dynamite will hold you."

Copyright ©1996, The Nation Company, L.P. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call The Nation at (212) 242-8400, ext. 226 or send e-mail to Max Block.

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Erica Jong
Photo Credit: Paul Brissman



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