Books: Classics of the Future; Which Novels Should Top the Pop Charts? Jason Beattie Takes Up a Bookshop's Challenge and Encourages a Few Colleagues to Name Their Favourites

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), January 23, 1999 | Go to article overview

Books: Classics of the Future; Which Novels Should Top the Pop Charts? Jason Beattie Takes Up a Bookshop's Challenge and Encourages a Few Colleagues to Name Their Favourites


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


There are lists and now there are lists of lists. Depending on your point of view, it is either positively Kafkaesque (who is on the list twice) or Orwellian (there for both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four).

It is a thoroughly-Tolstian exercise though he barely gets a mention but mainly it just goes Amis (both included though son beats pere by a whisker).

Waterstone's the bookshop, in a crude ruse to disrupt further family life after the Christmas argu-fest, has asked the great and good and (sometimes) not so good to nominate ten novels they believe will be classics in the next century.

The contributors were also requested to nominate ten novels they consider should never have been called classics.

To add a bit of spice to the proceedings, the bookstore has republished its 1997 national poll of readers' 100 books of the century.

The lists make interesting reading; indeed, at times they are more entertaining than some of the novels discussed.

At the first glance, the most striking aspect of the exercise is the professional contributors' personal indulgence. The majority have seen it as an opportunity to grind an axe and polish it with shameless relish.

Generally, women contributors have chosen women writers often with no regard for literary merit (Marilyn French sadly squeaks in) and male contributors have selected male writers and thus allowed a number of B-list science fiction writers a place in post erity.

One well-known female journalist in an appalling example of self-promotion, and who shall therefore remain nameless, chose her book on the grounds that it was the best novel written about the 1980s.

The poet, critic and television pundit Tom Paulin chose only one novel from the 20th century, Joyce's Ulysses, a book which was nominated by a large number of critics as the novel primer pares.

Another television star Vanessa Feltz was surprisingly eloquent in her choice, especially in her denunciation of The Golden Bowl by Henry James: "Were ever sentences so laboriously entangled? Were ever characters so tediously unentangled?"

Other contributors decided to break all the rules and nominated biography, poetry, short stories and in one extraordinary case, David Bowie's Station to Station lyrics.

A surprising number failed to acknowledge that being an adult carries extra responsibly not least of which is the need to realise there is more to literature than Roald Dahl.

It is the inclusion of writers such as Dahl at the expense of those excluded which offers the most contention. Some countries, Britain and America for instance, do very well indeed. Austen, Dickens and Eliot lead the charge for English literature while D eLillo, Roth and Cormac McCarthy head the American contingent.

On the other hand, Antipodean writers barely get a mention with Keneally and Carey being excluded. Africa fares little better with only a couple of South African writers mentioned.

There are almost no black or Afro-Caribbean names on the lists, an appalling omission considering the talents of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.

A large number of contributors acknowledged the influence of Latin American authors by mentioning Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (surprisingly for A Hundred Years of Solitude not the superior Love in a Time of Cholera) but Borges, Julio Cortazar and Mario Vargas Llosa were shamefully overlooked.

In Europe, Spain's Galdos and Cela, France's De Beauvoir and Sartre and Germany's Hesse and Grass all failed to garner a single mention between them. I'm afraid to admit I don't know any Scandinavian novelists but then nor did anyone else.

You could argue that being omitted is at least better than being damned which is the fate of D H Lawrence on several occasions, H G Wells and J D Salinger.

There maybe a clue there as all three of these writers prefer initials to first names - A A Gill be warned. …

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