Listmania! The Millions and Wasafiri weigh in

September 25, 2009 by · 11 Comments 

We’re into the waning months of the first decade of the 21st century, and it seems as though people feel that it’s an appropriate moment to assess the temper of the times vis à vis world literature. To that end, The Millions has published a list of the 25 20 best books of the new millennium (so far), as voted on by a coterie of noted writers and critics.

The list contains some strong titles, and some surprising ones. The list in full:

#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

As ever with lists like this, the results are somewhat arbitrary, and immediately open to debate. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Roberto Bolaño doesn’t deserve a spot on the list, but whether the specific title should be 2666 or The Savage Detectives is up in the air. (Speaking of which, Up in the Air by Walter Kirn didn’t make the list.) Noah Richler would likely complain that there’s only one Canadian title represented. I’d respond that this just goes to show that Victoria Glendinning was more right than many CanLit pundits would care to admit.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Cloud Atlas, finding it too much of a self-indulgent technical performance, and I don’t think that either Twilight of the Superheroes or Varieties of Disturbance are representative of the respective authors’ best work (although each collection does contain strong stories). And Atonement? Remove the postmodern framing device and you’re left with a fairly standard historical romance, complete with all the requisite frippery. I’d replace these with some of my pet MIAs, such as The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, or The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq (which, to be fair, was published in the original French before the year 2000).

Also absent from the list are such talked-about books as Remainder by Tom McCarthy, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, and The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon.

Instead, three of the titles, including the top two, are books anointed by Oprah. Of the number one title, Scottish writer Margot Livesey writes:

The novel itself opens with a storm. “You could feel that something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder.” In the gorgeous, cascading pages that follow, those gusts blow through the Lambert family. Illuminated by Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant prose, bill paying, grocery shopping, depression, Christmas holidays, a walk to the corner shop become subjects of breathless interest and, often, wild humor. Over and over he gives us the deep pleasure of seeing the world around us – and the world inside us – in new ways. For once, the prophets were right.

Meanwhile, over at Wasafiri, there’s a list of 25 books that have been most influential on the course of literature in the last quarter-century. Not all of the titles were published in the last 25 years; the list is meant to gauge which books have had the most sway over literary thought, practice, and trends in the recent past. Chosen by a panel of international experts, the list (along with each title’s respective champion) is:

Aminatta Forna: The Famished Road by Ben Okri
Amit Chaudhuri: Collected Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
Bernardine Evaristo: Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Frye
Beverley Naidoo: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Brian Chikwava: The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Blake Morrison: The Stories of Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver
Chika Unigwe: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Daljit Nagra: North by Seamus Heaney
David Dabydeen: A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Elaine Feinstein: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
Fred D’Aguiar: Palace of the Peacock by Wilson Harris
Hirsh Sawhney: River of Fire by Quarratulain Hyder
Indra Sinha: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
John Haynes: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
Lesley Lokko: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Maggie Gee: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Marina Warner: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Maya Jaggi: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Horovitz: Collected Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Minoli Salgado: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Nii Parkes: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Roger Robinson: Sula by Toni Morrison
Sujata Bhatt: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Sukhdev Sandhu: The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui
Tabish Khair: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Again, only one Canuck represented, albeit for two separate titles. And one title – One Hundred Years of Solitude – appears three times. (So, in fact, these are the 23 most influential books of the past 25 years, but who’s counting?) Of the Wasafiri project, Susheila Nasta says:

Writers have always moved worlds with words, transporting us beyond the known and familiar. The eclecticism of this selection showcases the true diversity which is international contemporary writing today. Twenty-five years ago “international writing” was considered off-centre. This selection shows how much the landscape has changed, with many of these titles now part of our literary canon.

So, what do people think? Are these lists representative, or do they need to be revised? Is such a project an exercise in futility from the very start? Or, at minimum, does it give literary types something to argue over at cocktail parties?


11 Responses to “Listmania! The Millions and Wasafiri weigh in”
  1. Rob in Victoria says:

    I think the main problem with The Millions list of the 25 best books of the millennium is that it seems to only include 20 books…

  2. Steven W. Beattie says:

    It’s not a problem with The Millions’ list; it’s a problem with me not paying sufficient attention to what I’m typing.

  3. Alex says:

    Lists like this are always fun. Steve, you should take the lead in coming up with a list of the top 20 Canadian books. I can think of a few titles.

    As for the Millions list: Agree with you on Atonement. But I guess they figured they HAD to have McEwan on the list, and his best work was all pre-2000. Ditto for McCarthy. God The Road was silly. I think I would have taken No Country for Old Men ahead of it. Definitely would have taken 2666 over Savage Detectives though. No debate there. Cloud Atlas is worthy of the list, though maybe not so high. I can’t think of why Never Let Me Go made it, except for Ishiguro being another one of those authors who simply had to be represented. The Corrections was a good book, but I don’t know about putting it number one. I don’t agree with you on The Plot Against America or Kafka on the Shore. I’d love to see Roth and Murakami on the list, but (as with McEwan) their most recent really good stuff was all just before 2000. Same with Graham Swift, Peter Carey, J. M. Coetzee . . . come to think of it, this hasn’t been a great millennium for the old guard.

    I think Danielewski’s House of Leaves came out in 2000. I would have liked to have seen it make the cut.

  4. Andrew S says:

    I’d respond that this just goes to show that Victoria Glendinning was more right than many CanLit pundits would care to admit.

    This is a fairly ridiculous statement, and not only because to appeal to The Millions’ list’s authority, and then to quibble with it, smacks of eating your cake and then wondering where you left it.

    Let’s consider that any list like this is biased by what its contributors have access to, and also, that the number of significant works from any given country will likely reflect the size of that country’s fiction market, which drives the number of books published there.

    Think that approach is unreasonably mathematical? Consider that the US (10x Canada, in population terms) contributes over half the list, and Britain (2x Canada) has four entries. The numbers are roughly in line with what we might expect.

    Also, Glendinning didn’t say that Canadian literature sucks and that Canada doesn’t produce its share of good books. No; she simply said that Canada’s mid-list is “perfectly dreadful.” You’re imposing your own meaning on her remarks.

    I don’t think we’ve proven anything here, except that certain of Canada’s critics will choose any opportunity to mount their favorite hobby horse.

    To which I might remark that, if indeed a good national literature relies on good criticism, then perhaps it behooves our critics to outgrow their established patterns of thinking, just as it behooves Canlit to outgrow its fascination with history and identity.

  5. katherine says:

    the ‘fist’ decade?

  6. Steven W. Beattie says:

    Yes, Katherine, the “fist” decade: as in the one I’m shaking madly in the air right now … (Fucking spellcheck.)

  7. Steven W. Beattie says:


    And Norway, with a population of just over 4.6 million (as opposed to our roughly 33 million) has an equal representation on the list. I’m not suggesting that biases, access to titles, etc. are unimportant considerations, but a nation that constantly congratulates itself on its “world-class” literature (whatever THAT means …) needs to be able to walk the talk. And at the moment we don’t. At least, not from where I’m sitting.

  8. Andrew S says:

    Yes, but Norway is an outlier here.

    How many other Norwegian authors of the past decade are in English translation? And would Petterson even have come to this panel’s attention, had he not won the Impac Dublin award? I’ll wager on zero, and no.

    (Won the Impac Dublin award for his hushed, history-obsessed novel whose protagonist spends most of his time cutting down trees, I might add….)

    Let me put it to you this way (or don’t; I will anyway): much of Canlit does, indeed, suffer from a parochial, nationalist sentiment that attempts to define and conform to some notion of “the Canadian novel.” But how does this differ from similar attempts to define “Western” or “Southern” writing in the United States? By criticizing Canlit as Canlit, are you falling into the same trap that it has laid for itself?

  9. Steven W. Beattie says:

    It doesn’t necessarily differ from attempts to define “Western” or “Southern” American novels … although neither of those has ever (to my knowledge) been equated with a NATIONAL American literature. Southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, McCullers, Welty) self-define as Southern, and share certain thematic and formal traits in common with one another … but they are night-and-day removed from “Northern” writers such as Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, Henry James, etc. The States (largely, I grant you, because of its mass audience) has a national literature that is able to make room for different voices, approaches, attitudes, etc. It’s not that we are bereft of that here in Canada (I’ve said before and I’ll say again: ours is not a monolithic literature), but for whatever reason (I have my suspicions as to what they might be), those iconoclastic voices don’t get the same kind of airing as the dominant, muted, minor-chord novels that continue to win prizes and get all the publicity.

  10. Andrew S says:

    On the other hand, some American writers (Ford, McGuane) have strongly resisted attempts to shoehorn their work into those regionalist projects, characterizing them as parochial attempts to perpetuate a regional identity.

    I see the idea behind Canlit as being fundamentally similar — to the point where someone like Coupland, who is a Canadian writer working in Canada, doesn’t seem to belong in “Canadian literature.”

    Your point is well taken, that Canada doesn’t have a large enough market to support the same diversity of voices you see in the US. That, in itself, is the best argument for subsidies, I think … unfortunately, publishers have a habit of trying to sell the same books again, and again, and again.

  11. Finn Harvor says:

    ” those iconoclastic voices don’t get the same kind of airing as the dominant, muted, minor-chord novels that continue to win prizes and get all the publicity.”

    Steven: I agree with your general argument, but you’ve lost me here. Is iconoclasm the opposite of the minor-chord (by which I take you to mean, thematically minor) novel? Once one scrapes away the pejorative crust of of the phrase, one is simply left with the fact that there are works that have minor themes and some that have major ones. I doubt any serious person of letters would argue that we only need one thematic type of novel; a mix is what is desirable.

    But then, perhaps your point is different. Maybe you’re suggesting that Canadian lit actually *shies away* from thematically major work. This would be an interesting argument, and one with some evidence to support it.

    So I repeat the question I posed a couple of posts back: what *is* a thematically major novel? What’s its definition? We need to know what we’re aiming for before we start, keyboards in hand, firing away.