|This list is a composite of four
earlier lists compiled by the Modern Library, the Library Journal,
Koen Book Distributors, and students of the Radcliffe Publishing
Course, each of which purports to identify the best
twentieth century fiction written in English.
It was compiled in hope of arriving at a more comprehensive view of
what the century's best fiction actually is. For more on the genesis of
this project, see the column I wrote about it for the now defunct web journal Calliope.|
The present list is a thorough revision of the version
originally posted in 1999, essentially constituting a new edition of this work. It
utilizes an improved ranking system that more faithfully represents and reconciles the
rankings of the source lists. My appreciation to John Young for
demonstrating the deficiencies in the system previously used.
Together the four source lists feature
253 different titles. Thirty-two of these are excluded from this composite
version for various reasons (published prior to the 20th century, not novels, not fictional
works, not originally written in English), but this still leaves an impressive
221 works to represent the best of the century. The sources provide
different selections of titles as well as rating differently those they share in common,
but also display a broad degree of consensus. Twenty-four titles
in the composite list are common to all four sources, thirty-one are common to
three and sixty-one are common to two. Thus, there are 116 "best" works on which
there is at least some agreement, as opposed to 105 that stand alone.
Part of the apparent consensus may be due to
copying. Undoubtedly the Modern Library list, the first to appear,
had some influence on the later lists, all of which were issued in response to it.
Yet there is also evidence of agreement on a deeper level. For
instance, the Library Journal and Koen lists, apparently
compiled independently, show broad agreement in their
top titles and rankings.
This is not to imply that the
sources lack flaws and biases. Indeed, their failings prompted the
compilation of the present work. Details on these are provided
in individual discussions of each source. Generally, the flaws
- fuzzy inclusion standards
(inconsistency as to what constitutes a single work, resulting
in the inclusion of short story collections, trilogies and series).
- divergent inclusion standards
(exclusion of children's fiction by one list, inclusion of translations
- inclusion errors (admission
of works that fail to meet the lists' own inclusion criteria, such as
nineteenth century works in the Koen and Radcliffe lists, translations in
the Koen and Modern Library lists, and nonfictional works in the Koen,
Library Journal and Radcliffe lists.
The current composite list attempts
to reconcile the ratings in the sources and cancel out their biases. In this
regard, I believe it an improvement over its predecessors. I have not presumed
to add additional works, feeling the sources' large-scale efforts will have
picked out the truly worthy better than I or any other single person could.
My listing includes
most titles from the source lists, ranked according to their cumulative
weight in the sources. As noted above, works translated
from other languages, non-twentieth century works, and nonfictional works
are excluded. Other divergent works, such as series, trilogies and
collections, were allowed to remain, as
some at least can validly be regarded as single works.
Qualifying titles from the
source lists were re-ranked in a manner that both reflects the sources'
rankings and rewards appearance in two or more sources. Details about the
method used are provided in the explanation of the ranking system.
A prime feature of the composite list is to show
what source lists a given work appears in and how each ranked it,
as well as its ranking in the current list. For further information on the
data included, see the column key.
I owe particular thanks to
While some errors may have been present in
my sources, others were likely committed by me in compiling and reconciling the
data; in either case it was my responsibility to catch and eliminate them. I
appreciate the efforts of these sharp-eyed reviewers in rectifying my mistakes,
and am pleased to be able to recognize their contributions here.
- Esther Erman and
Geoffrey Skinner for assiduously identifying errors in draft
versions of this work prior to the initial posting,
- Mitchell Marks for observing
that there should be no apostrophe in the title of Finnegans
- Jon Skavlan for spotting a
math error (four years after posting!) requiring the re-ranking of
- Elese Veeh for pointing
out that the author of Bonfire of the Vanities is Tom Wolfe,
- Patrick O'Daniel for
observing that the final "r" had been left off The Outsider,
- John Young for
demonstrating fundamental flaws in the system I originally used to reconcile
the source lists,
- Jim Smith for finding
typos in the entries for Ford Madox Ford, The Killer Angels and The
Magus and misdatings of Animal Farm, The Good Soldier,
Studs Lonigan, and U.S.A., and for helping in the resolution of a
complicated problem regarding The Wapshot Chronicle,
- J. Michael Andresen for
an impressively extensive statistical critique of the current rating system,
which in due course will result in another revision thereof,
- Ross Jallo for
discovering I had left the initial article off The Satanic Verses,
- Ivett G. Peimbert for
uncovering a typo in the review for L. Frank Baum,
- Joe M. Williams for
pointing out that The Outsider is nonfiction,
- and Jared Shadix for
identifying a broken link on the Links page.