Last week, when the Modern Library released its rankings of this century's 100 best novels written in English, a fierce debate began.
Across the country, as literary types took issue with the publisher's choices, two patterns emerged:- Some agreement (generally that James Joyce's "Ulysses" deserved to be ranked No. 1).
- Lots of disagreement (the list was filled with white American and British males and almost totally excluded women, minorities and authors from other English-speaking countries).
The top ranking was ironic revenge for Joyce's massive novel about one day in the life of three Dubliners - a difficult, complex book using stream-of consciousness technique. Its erotic language caused "Ulysses" to be banned in the United States from 1920 to 1933 because it was considered obscene.
Last month, some scholars praised "Ulysses" as the top choice.
"It's the greatest novel of the 20th century in English," said Steven Weisenburger, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky. "For most people, it's almost a no-brainer."
"It's one of those absolutes," said Guy Davenport, an internationally respected author and critic and a retired U.K. English professor. "It's like asking if `The Divine Comedy' is the most important poem of the 14th century."
"In any language in the 20th century, it's THE book," said John G. Cawelti, a U.K. professor of English. "It's the most revolutionary, the most far-reaching. It brought together all of the elements at work in modernism and raised it another notch to give a completely fresh view of life."
Roberta White, the Luellen professor of English at Centre College in Danville, Ky., said she agreed with the top ranking for Joyce's "Ulysses," but like many others, she thought the list was seriously flawed.
"It was blatantly intended as a publicity ploy," she said. "It's very American. We love to do it, but it's a little simplistic."
(Random House, Modern Library's parent company, made no bones about it: It said the poll was designed to stimulate interest in great works of fiction and to stimulate interest in the Modern Library titles.)
White also said the voters were "primarily a male book club" who came up with a "very outdated" list that read like the "literary canon of 30 years ago."
"It's a screwy list once you look at it carefully, I think," Cawelti said.
The voters were the editorial board of the Modern Library, which traditionally publishes classic works in reasonably priced, hardcover editions. (It recently launched a paperback line.)
The board's chairman is Christopher Cerf, son of Bennett Cerf. The Modern Library was created in 1917 and bought by the elder Cerf and Donald Klop-fer, the founders of Random House.
The board members who voted were: novelists A.S. Byatt (the only woman), novelists William Styron and Gore Vidal, historian and retired Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., novelist/Civil War historian Shelby Foote, biographer Edmund Morris, art historian/ biographer John Richardson, and Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Corp. and former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library.
The other board members - black author Maya Angelou and novelist Larry McMurtry - did not vote for unknown reasons, said Tom Perry, director of publicity at Random House.
Of the 100 titles on the list, 58 are by U.S. authors, 39 by British. Only eight women are on the list - Virginia Woolf, Carson McCullers, Edith Wharton (twice), Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Jean Rhys and Iris Murdoch.
None of the writers is from outside the United States and Great Britain. V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie are natives of India, but they live in Britain.
The perceived built-in biases drew much of the criticism.
"Somebody's ox gets gored all the time," said U.K.'s Wei-sen-bur-ger, "but what I don't like is when the goring takes a gender and racial bias."
Some of the omissions were glaring. Missing were at least three Nobel laureates: Toni Morrison of the United States, South Africa's Nadine Gordimer and Australia's Patrick White.
"Where's 'Song of Solomon' or 'Beloved'?," Weisenburger asked rhetorically in protest of Morrison's exclusion.
Two other American authors were noticeably absent: Eudora Welty ("The Golden Apples"; "Delta Wedding") and Flannery O'Connor ("Wise Blood").
Davenport said of Welty: "I think there's no denying that among living American writers she is tops."
Weisenburger called the absence of Welty, O'Connor, Gertrude Stein and Doris Lessing "extraordinarily stupid."
The scholars said William Faulkner should have been rated higher and agreed with Cawelti the absence of Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" was a "terrific oversight."
Cawelti said he would put Faulkner at No. 2, for "The Sound and the Fury," which was No. 6, or "Absalom, Absalom."
There was consensus Virginia Woolf should have been ranked higher ("To the Lighthouse" was No. 15) and her "Mrs. Dalloway" was a disturbing omission.
Cawelti and Weisenburger also said Thomas Pynchon belonged on the list, probably for "Gravity's Rainbow."
Joseph Conrad made the list three times but only got as high as No. 46, with "The Secret Agent."
"(Kurt) Vonnegut ahead of anything by Joseph Conrad? That's a big, `Hello!?' " said Weisenburger.
OVERRATED: The scholars mentioned several books on the list as unworthy or overrated: Max Beerbohm, "Zuleika Dobson"; Muriel Spark, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"; Arthur Koestler, "Darkness at Noon"; Vladimir Nabokov, "Lolita"; Aldous Huxley, "Brave New World"; Joseph Heller, "Catch-22"; Malcolm Lowry, "Under the Volcano"; Robert Graves, "I, Claudius"; Kurt Vonnegut, "Slaughterhouse-Five"; John O'Hara, "Appointment in Samarra"; James T. Farrell, the "Studs Lonigan trilogy"; James Dickey, "Deliverance"; Henry Miller, "Tropic of Cancer"; Henry Green, "Loving"; Erskine Caldwell, "Tobacco Road"; J.P. Donleavy, "The Ginger Man"; and William Kennedy, "Ironweed."
LEFT OFF: The following are authors and titles that should have been on the list, the interviewees said:
- Weisenburger: Zora Neale Hurston, "Their Eyes Were Watching God"; Alice Walker, "Meridian"; Gloria Naylor, "The Women of Brewster Place"; Chester Himes, "If He Hollers, Let Him Go"; Ishmael Reed, "Mumbo Jumbo"; James Weldon Johnson, "Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man"; Ernest J. Gaines, "A Gathering of Old Men"; Norman Maclean, "A River Runs Through It"; William Gaddis, "JR"; Willa Cather, "O Pioneers!"; Truman Capote, "In Cold Blood"; and Raymond Chandler, "The Big Sleep".
- Davenport: Flann O'Brien, "The Third Policeman" ("absolute master of Irish humor"); Samuel Beckett, "Molloy" ("funniest novel of 20th century in any language"); David Jones, "In Parenthesis" ("most realistic novel of trench warfare in the First World War"); Thomas Wolfe, "Of Time and the River" ("Wolfe's faults are generosities"); George Santayana, "The Last Puritan" ("perfect form and absolutely marvelous theme"); Rex Stout, "Fer de Lance" ("finest detective story of our time, this side of the Atlantic"); Dorothy Sayers, "The Nine Tailors' ("may be the most beautifully written of the British detective stories"); P.G. Wodehouse ("anything; he never failed"); Norman Douglas, "South Wind" ("absolute masterpiece" by a comic novelist).
- White: Margaret Drabble; Kate Chopin, "The Awakening"; Alice Munro; Margaret Atwood; Edna O'Brien; John Updike; Kingsley Amis, "Lucky Jim"; Jamaica Kincaid; Iris Murdoch, either "Under the Net," "A Severed Head" or "The Black Prince".