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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor
The Heath Anthology Newsletter
Fall 1998

An Alternative to the Modern Library's Top 100

by Paul Lauter

Most of you probably read in the papers about the effort of a panel, appointed by the Modern Library/Bertelsmann publishing group, to establish a list of the "top" 100 novels published in English this century. The general effort is, no doubt, a product of fin de siècle silliness and midsummer madness.

But this project is peculiarly egregious, especially given the amount of media play it received in July--not to speak of the apologetics from the panel that have filled pages of the New Yorker and the New York Times in August. There were at least two problems. First, nine of the ten board members were middle-aged males, and an equal number white (apparently Maya Angelou and Larry McMurtry, who are supposedly on the Modern Library's board, did not participate in this strange exercise). Not surprisingly, their list gives priority overall to books reflecting an utterly nostalgic, not to say generally ugly, view of women--for example, Molly Bloom (Ulysses, #1), Daisy Fay (The Great Gatsby, #2), Lolita (#4), just to mention a few at the top of the list. And there are only eight women on the list, not including Toni Morrison, Kate Chopin, Doris Lessing, Tillie Olsen, Katherine Mansfield, Olive Schreiner, among many, many others one could name.

Similarly, there are only three African-American writers on the list, predictably, Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright. When I was in grad school in the 1950s, they were then the only ones who existed, so far as I and my classmates--and apparently this fraternity... uh, board--knew. As for other "minorities," the sum total is two books by V. S. Naipaul and one by Salman Rushdie. There are no other Latino, Asian-American, Indian, Caribbean, or African writers included, not Momaday, not Achebe, not Kingston, not... well, the point is obvious.

The excuse proposed by Vartan Gregorian, head of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of Brown University, was that the books on the list should have been in print for a long time thus showing that "they have really stood the test of time." No doubt he had in mind items like James Dickey's Deliverance, published in 1970, the same year as Morrison's The Bluest Eye, or perhaps Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Maybe it was William Kennedy's Ironweed (1983), issued a decade after Olsen's Yonnondio. Or perhaps Styron's Sophie's Choice, published in 1979, three years after Kingston's Woman Warrior and two after Silko's Ceremony. It could hardly be that Styron's choice had something to do with the fact that he sat on the board and is published by Random House.

Which opens the second problem with the list: 59 of the 100 titles, and nine of the ten board members, according to the New York Times story, are published by Random House or the Bertelsmann group. But then again, as anyone living in this historical moment well knows, self-promotion should come as no surprise. What's surprising is that anyone would take such an absurd project seriously, which is why I've renamed it, more accurately I think, the White Boys' Top 100.

Unfortunately, once such things are loosed in the arena of public discourse, they can accumulate a certain credibility. And since one can't beat something with nothing, we are asking readers to help us construct a realistic alternative to this humbug. That we can do if you will send us an email with your own list of the 25 finest novels published in English during this century.

Art and democracy do not, as we all know, always coexist comfortably. But I'd always prefer democracy to the elitist and self-serving Modern Library approach. Besides, and probably more important, since readers of this Newsletter are teachers and students of literature, I think what you have to say on the subject is far more interesting and about as meaningful as these things can get.