Thursday, 10 December 2015

How Others See Us - Or At Least Our Novels

Middlemarch: So good I bought it twice

Lists of the allegedly best British novels crop up from time to time but the most recent poll (7 December 2015) gives us ‘The 100 greatest British novels’ as seen by foreign critics.  Jane Ciabattari, who contributes to BBC Culture, asked critics ‘from Australia to Zimbabwe’, but not the UK, to nominate their favourite British novel.  According to the BBC Culture article, she polled 82 critics, but it seems more likely that that was the number who responded.  The terms of reference were specific.  As Ciabattari puts it: ‘This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) – novels only, by British authors (which means no James Joyce).’

That seems reasonable, and there is a little about the critics as well:

‘The critics we polled live and work all over the world, from the United States and continental Europe to Australia, Africa, Asia, India and the Middle East. Some of the critics we invited to participate are regular book reviewers or editors at newspapers, magazines or literary blogs – Lev Grossman (Time), Mary Ann Gwinn (Seattle Times), Ainehi Edoro (Brittle Paper), Mark Medley (Toronto Globe and Mail), Fintan O’Toole (The Irish Times), Stephen Romei and Geordie Williamson (The Australian), Sam Sacks (The Wall Street Journal) and Claiborne Smith (Kirkus Reviews).  Others are literary scholars, including Terry Castle, Morris Dickstein, Michael Gorra, Carsten Jensen, Amitava Kumar, Rohan Maitzen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Nilanjana Roy and Benjamin Taylor. Each who participated submitted a list of 10 British novels, with their pick for the greatest novel receiving 10 points. The points were added up to produce the final list.  The critics named 228 novels in all. These are the top 100.’

The first sentence sounds comprehensively global, but we are not given a breakdown by region.  The set of names, if representative, answers one question I had, but poses another.  A concern had been that critics would have been reading the books in translation, which raises the issue of availability, the danger that only selected titles have been translated into that particular critic’s language and skewing the sample in favour of a narrow range of classic titles; that is aside from the possibility that the evaluation of a book is affected by the competence of the translation.  That was not the case, as judging by the names listed they would generally have been reading the books in English.  The fact that they were though creates an anglophone bias; there is no indication here of how many respondents primarily spoke a language other than English.  How many of them were German, French, Italian, or Igbo for that matter?  How big was the Latin American contingent?  This is a selection of mostly English-speaking critics (and some academics), probably those who could respond to Ciabattari’s invitation emailed in English.

Considering the statistically dubious start, the resulting 100 titles are generally familiar, with a few surprises thrown in.  Middlemarch comes out on top, and I can see why a group of foreign critics would consider it a quintessentially English novel (Daniel Deronda is also present further down).  Middlemarch won by a ‘landslide’, with 42% of the critics including it.  That and numerous others sound the sorts of books that appear in university English literature courses, probably where a lot of these were read.

Female authors are well represented throughout and take the top three slots, Virginia Woolf punching above her weight at numbers two and three with To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway respectively.  I like both those enormously, but if you locked me in a room and threatened me with death if I didn’t name the writer of the second and third greatest British novels, I can’t imagine Woolf would immediately spring to mind.  The Waves and Orlando also make the list.  Naturally the Victorians are heavily represented, particularly in the top half, with Dickens (Great Expectations, Bleak House and David Copperfield) in the top ten, along with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair.  Dickens also has Dombey and Son, not normally considered one of his finest, on the list.  Austen appears four times, otherwise the pre-Victorians are fairly sparse –  Frankenstein (in the top ten), The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.

Some of the entries one suspects are better known from their film adaptations and that may have led them to be top of mind (Atonement, Never Let Me Go – not even Ishiguro’s best, let alone in the top 100 British novels – and The Buddha of Suburbia stand out in that respect).  The presence of The Remains of the Day compensates for Never Let Me Go.  There are some curious choices, including for my money the tedious Under the Volcano, and recent books that have not had the chance to establish a consensus on their value (four date from 2011-12).  Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith both appear twice – does that make them among the most significant British novelists who have ever lived, and will their reputations stand the test of time?  Some plumb the depths of obscurity, such as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth.  On the other hand it is nice to see titles which deserve to be better known, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, Henry Green’s Loving and (Dublin born) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.

Anyway, what criteria do you use to decide on how ‘great’ something is?  Is it how it moves you, how it lingers in the memory, was it something that stayed with you from a formative period, was it influential on the literature that followed (in which case how does one assess fairly recent novels?); is how much it has been written about by previous critics a useful guide, or the extent to which it has captured the zeitgeist, how ‘real’ it seems, how ingenious the plot, how subtle the characterisation, how fresh its view of the world….  Taking all these potential elements of greatness into account the value of such a list must be dubious, but if it sparks discussion, and encourages readers to try something they hadn’t thought about before, it has to be worthwhile.

Of course I went through and totted up the ones I had read, and was a little embarrassed at how many I have yet to get round to, and there were more than a couple of which I had never even heard.  We can grouse about novels we deem less worthy included at the expense of writers who have been omitted or underrepresented, or about writers who are represented by what we consider to be the wrong book(s), and there are a few of all those in this list, but it is still an interesting snapshot of what springs to mind when critics put their collective feet up with a cup of coffee and jot down what at that moment they think are their top (however defined) British novels.  Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective to refresh our own.  With all its flaws they have nominated a collection of novels to be proud of, as well as a timely incentive to pull my finger out and cross a few more off my list of those books I really should get round to reading.