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The Lowdown on the Literary List

By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 1998; Page A1

   


   
"I think the process is to
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some degree a scam, but
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it's a good scam."

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– Christopher Cerf,
Modern Library board chairman
If someone made a list of the most successful recent publicity gambits in book publishing, the Modern Library's ranking of the 100 best novels would be No. 1.

Alerted by voluminous media coverage, people have been arguing, agreeing, sneering and making counter-lists for more than two weeks now. Above all, lit lovers have been debating the fine points of the rankings.

Why, for instance, is Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," a famous novel but rarely thought of as a great one, all the way up at No. 5?

The 10 eminent Modern Library board members, the panel that supposedly put it there, don't have much of a clue.

"God knows," says historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

"I have no idea," says novelist William Styron.

"I didn't vote for it at all," says novelist A.S. Byatt.

"Don't ask me. I don't understand it myself," says historian Edmund Morris.

"I can't believe that even one of us thought 'Brave New World' was one of the top five," says historian Shelby Foote.

For all of the criticism the list has received, it was never clear exactly how it was composed. It turns out that the way the list was made explains much of the reason why people are criticizing it.

Despite the Modern Library's assertion that the board "selected and ranked" these 100 works as the best 20th-century novels written in English, the members say they never ranked much of anything. The board members merely checked off books from a master list of 440 titles supplied by the classics publisher, without putting them in any particular order.

Executives at Random House, the publishing conglomerate that owns Modern Library, then tallied the number of judges who mentioned each book. (Several judges did not even mention 100 books.) The vast majority of books tied with many other titles – mentioned by four judges, say, or three. Judges were not asked to sort out these ties; instead, Random House brass took all the dead heats and turned them into rankings.

So when readers wonder how such eminent figures could rank James Dickey's "Deliverance" (No. 42) ahead of both Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" (No. 53) and William Faulkner's "Light in August" (No. 54), the answer is: They didn't.

In interviews, the judges do not even agree on what they were ranking – the best-written books, or the most important, or the most influential. One judge acknowledges that he voted for books he has not actually read.

"Brave New World," a pioneering novel of Utopia turned bad, reached its exalted heights simply because a lot of judges agreed it belonged somewhere on the list. But only one judge believed it belonged anywhere near the top.

"One of the reasons the list has received such a drubbing was that it was put together in such a strange way," Styron says. "There were a lot of terrible glitches."

Says board chairman Christopher Cerf: "I don't consider this a scientific or even a valid process. I consider it a swell process. It's got everyone I know talking about books, and it's books they don't usually talk about. This has succeeded beyond our wild est dreams."

In a way, it's the huge success of the survey that is prompting some regrets among board members. "If I realized it was going to be taken so seriously, I would have encouraged [the Modern Library] to get all of us together" to hash out the choices in person, Styron says. "But I didn't furrow my head over this."

Agrees Byatt: "It wouldn't matter so much if everyone wasn't taking it so seriously."

Interviews with the board – only one, art historian John Richardson, couldn't be reached for some form of comment – answered some of the mysteries that have enveloped the list.

For instance, some commentators have decried the absence of Thomas Wolfe's "Look Homeward, Angel," generally thought of as a classic American work.

Wolfe, it turns out, wasn't even on the list of 440 possible titles, although there was room for 21 titles by Gore Vidal, a Random House author and one of the Modern Library board members. That's more than William Faulkner, Henry James and Joseph Conrad put together.

Despite this encouragement, no works by Vidal made it to the list of 100. Styron's "Sophie's Choice" made it in under the wire at No. 96 – without, the author says, any assistance from him.

Several of the board members say they voted only for the works they felt sure of. "I contributed a list of something like 37," says Morris. Styron says he voted for only 50 or 60.

This means that it didn't take much to get on the lower reaches of the list. "Most of the books on the list got there with only one vote," maintains a board member. "The final list was put together largely by Random House."

Modern Library Managing Director Ian Jackman declines to be specific about how the voting was done, but says more than one vote was needed to make the final list.

"I didn't set up the system as Price Waterhouse might have set it up," he concedes. "I personally didn't feel I could go back to the board and say, 'Rank them all.' I knew that was a lot to ask."

The judges weren't even sure exactly what they were voting for. "I was going for artistic vitality – which of the books would still be alive a century from now," Schlesinger says. But Foote says he was going after "not the best-written books, not even the best books, but the 100 novels that would have to be included in any literary history of the novel of the 20th century."

Cerf, meanwhile, is honest enough to admit he voted for many books he hadn't read. "I voted for about 20 or 30 because I thought they belonged there based on reputation or influence."

Bottoms Up


The place where the poll went furthest afield from the board's intentions is, ironically, the part of the list that has received the most publicity – the top five books. In order, they were "Ulysses," by James Joyce; "The Great Gatsby," by F. Scott Fitzgerald; "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," also by Joyce; "Lolita," by Nabokov; and "Brave New World."

Apparently all these titles were selected by nine out of 10 board members. The judges were then asked by the Modern Library to rank them in order from one to five. This was the only time the board did any actual ranking.

Thus was Huxley's 1932 tale of a misbegotten Utopia lifted from the depths to the heights, something none of them intended. If they had been ranking the books, board members say, they would have put "Brave New World" low on the list. Styron says he would have ranked it about 75. Schlesinger says he'd put it in the low eighties, Morris in the sixties, Cerf perhaps 25. Only Vidal says he doesn't disagree with its current placement.

Another board member, former librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, is so firmly against the notion of rankings that he refuses even hypothetically to assign a slot to "Brave New World." "Literature does not live in rankings," he says.

A number of the judges say the same thing that happened with "Brave New World" boosted "Portrait of the Artist" to No. 3. They hadn't liked it quite that much. "Personally, I'd have put 'Portrait' in the low thirties," says Byatt. Schlesinger says the same.

None of this would matter if so many people hadn't seized on the list as a spark for a cultural debate. For that, thank the media, particularly the New York Times, which was leaked the list by Random House and gave it huge play on July 20.

That same morning, Cerf discussed the rankings on "Today" with Katie Couric. That night, Peter Jennings announced on ABC that "Ulysses" was on top. Within 24 hours the news was spreading around the world, with everyone adding a local angle ("Little surprise at Canadian exclusions from literary list," headlined the Ottawa Citizen) or anti-intellectualism ("Denver Prefers Grisham," said the Rocky Mountain News) or anti-American sentiment ("U.S. Media Mocks '100 Best Novels of the Century' List," noted Agence France-Presse).

For those who fear the printed word, the New York Daily News pointed out how many of the novels had been filmed. And columnists everywhere offered up their own, improved lists.

Controversy Pays


All of this has created action at the cash register, which was what former Random House chief Harold Evans intended when he came up with the idea. Evans dreamed big: He had wanted to negotiate cooperative ventures with other publishers to allow the Modern Library to issue every book on the list. It would have been a publicity masterstroke – the best novels of the century, all available from the Modern Library.

That idea never came to fruition, although the Modern Library is issuing 10 of the titles over the next year, in addition to the many it already has in print. Meanwhile, the inscrutable "Ulysses" has become, of all things, a bestseller. A year's supply of the book disappeared in a few days, Jackman says.

Amazon.com, the online bookseller, says the list "sparked instant comeback" for some of the titles. "Ulysses" is No. 2 on its paperback bestseller list, while "Brave New World" is No. 7, "Lolita" No. 8 and "The Great Gatsby" No. 10.

For Cerf, son of the longtime publisher of Random House, that makes it all worthwhile. Sure, he says, "I think the process is to some degree a scam, but it's a good scam. I mean that in the best sense of the word."

In other words, the ends justify the means.

"The statistics weren't valid, but if you had a list that was really diverse and incredibly thought out, it would cause less controversy," he says. "And then people wouldn't be talking about books."

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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