If you Google “Greatest Novels” you’ll find Encyclopedia Britannica’s opinion on the subject. In their words: Here is a list of 12 novels that, for various reasons, have been considered some of the greatest works of literature ever written.
- Anna Karenina/ Leo Tolstoy
- To Kill a Mockingbird/ Harper Lee
- The Great Gatsby/ F. Scott Fitzgerald
- One Hundred Years of Solitude/Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- A Passage to India/E.M. Forster
- Invisible Man/Ralph Ellison
- Don Quixote/Cervantes
- Beloved/Toni Morrison
- Mrs. Dalloway/Virginia Woolf
- Things Fall Apart/Chinua Achebe
- Jane Eyre/Charlotte Bronte
- The Color Purple/Alice Walker
To this I respond, “Really?” Is this the best we can do? Is, I don’t know, is The Great Gatsby really one of mankind’s most important literary contributions? Sure, it’s a fine book and, after all, it would be fair for you to respond- “Okay, let’s see your list!” Well, I can tell you my list would include not one of the books on Britanica’s list, but I can also tell you my list wouldn’t be any better, and we can both tell each other- it’s easy to criticize.
So, let’s try again. Here’s the list from the folks at ModernLibrary.com:
- Ulysses/James Joyce
- The Great Gatsby/F. Scott Fitzgerald
- A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man/James Joyce
- Lolita/Vladimir Nabokov
- Brave New World/Aldous Huxley
- The Sound And The Fury/William Faulkner
- Catch-22/Joseph Heller
- Darkness At Noon/Arthur Koestler
- Sons and Lovers/D.H. Lawrence
- The Grapes of Wrath/John Steinbeck
- Under The Volcano/Malcolm Lowry
- The Way Of All Flesh/Samuel Butler
Hmm, I see Gatsby made it onto another list. Maybe we are underestimating it. Maybe we aren’t. So, let me pick on a different book- let’s say Darkness At Noon.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that book. It’s far better than anything I could ever write, but is it one of the twelve greatest literary achievements of all time? If it is, I propose that it is also evidence of the limitations of the literary form we call the novel.
So, if I am right and the greatest novels ever written are not all that great, does the problem lie with the crummy collection of writers humankind has produced, the limiting form of the novel, or some other reason. Or, maybe I’m being too harsh.
Let’s compare and contrast with a very different form of pen to paper creativity:
Allclassical.org’s Ten iconic pieces of Classical Music.
- Toccata and Fugue in D minor/Bach
- Fur Elise/Beethoven
- Moonlight Sonata/Beethoven
- Symphony Number 5/Beethoven
- Symphony Number 9/Beethoven
- Ave Maria/Gounod
- Eine Kleine Nachtmusic/Mozart
- The Blue Danube/Strauss
- Also sprach Zarathustra/Strauss
Maybe I’m showing my prejudice here but don’t the ten greatest classical music pieces feel, as a group, heftier than the twelve greatest novels. Is Ulysses a finer intellectual achievement than The Blue Danube? Yes, it is. But I will argue that Beethoven’s Fifth rises above everything else we’ve looked at so far. That is, except perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth.
This list confines itself to classical music. What about popular music? Let’s not be so effete. Here we go- Rolling Stone’s list of Top Ten songs ever:
- Like a Rolling Stone/Bob Dylan
- Satisfaction/The Rolling Stones
- Imagine/John Lennon
- What’s Going On/Marvin Gaye
- Respect/Aretha Franklin
- Good Vibrations/The Beach Boys
- Johnny B. Goode/Chuck Berry
- Hey Jude/The Beatles
- Smells Like Teen Spirit/Nirvana
- What’d I Say/Ray Charles
Here we go again. Each of these songs is fine–who doesn’t like Aretha Franklin–but as an all-time Top Ten list, let’s face it, it gets pretty thin toward the bottom. In fairness, the list doesn’t consider contributions before 1959, but still… Maybe it is the format of popular music that limits greatness. Whatever the reason, there’s something about the effort and the orchestration we find in classical music that causes it to rise above the entrepreneurism and timely appeal of popular. I would put John Williams’ score to Indiana Jones, ahead of any of the songs on the Rolling Stone list.
Continuing our meander around Culture Blvd., let’s drop by the home of the baby of arts family- cinema. The first novels were written maybe 1,000 years ago. Composed music is arguably 600 years old. The first motion picture was shot in 1889. That gives the others a considerable head start. Taking that into account, let’s see how they’ve done with the time they’ve had.
The Chicago Tribune gives us this list of greatest films:
- Citizen Kane
- The Godfather
- Rear Window
- Three Colors:Red
- Singin’ in the Rain
- City Lights
While I am not familiar with Three Colors:Red and Boyhood, the rest of the list is so outstanding that I’m going to assume they fit right in. Even the music inside such films as The Godfather and Casablanca which we could reasonably include in the list of greatest compositions, plays only a supporting role in the totality of the film product. Before we get carried away with the wonderfulness of film compared to novels, popular music and even classical music, let’s remember that those creations are the work on one individual. Film is the combined artistic accomplishments of hundreds of people. But still, good for movies.
Leaving the cinema, let’s walk across the street to the legitimate theatre, where listchallenges.com gives us their version of the greatest plays of all time and–spoiler alert–there’s not much for this observer to disrespect.
- King Lear/Shakespeare
- Oedipus the King/Sophocles
- The Oresteia/Aeschylus
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night/O’neill
- Waiting For Godot/Beckett
- The Twelfth Night/Shakespeare
We learn that, according to these experts, Shakespeare is to theatre as Beethoven is to music as Hitchcock is to film. Taking a broad view this list, in terms of gravitas, leaves the other lists behind. Find for me the weak entry. I can’t. (Just for fun, number eleven was A Doll’s House and number thirteen was The Importance of Being Earnest. Hurray for theatre! Well done!
Just two more stops in this cultural forced march. First, let’s duck into the art gallery on the corner, just to see what they’ve hung on the walls. The Guardian.com has these:
- Fetus in the Womb/da Vinci
- The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist/Caravaggio
- Self Portrait/Rembrandt
- Cave paintings/Chauvet region
- One/Jackson Pollock
- Las Meninas/Velazquez
- Sculpture/from The Parthenon
- Mont Sainte-Victoire/Cezanne
We tend to forget how powerful art can be.
To close, we go full-circle and revisit the novel, but in it’s purest form. So, let’s dig a little deeper, hold the written word to a higher standard, and broaden our view. I’m going to offer poetry, specifically the epic poem, as the antidote to my cynicism toward the novel. Greatest epics ever-
- The Iliad/Homer
- The Odyssey/Homer
- The Argonautica/Apollonius
- The Aenid/Virgil
- The Divine Comedy/Dante
- The Faerie Queene/Spenser
- Paradise Lost/Milton
- The Cantos/Pound
I see Canterbury Tales didn’t make the list. They’re pretty tough over at InterestingLiterature.com
Wren is a contributing editor to HeadMagazine.com. He considers Ezra Pound, specifically The ABC of Reading, most influential in forming his view of literature and writing.