WHILE not incandescent with fury, Australia's literati is seriously unimpressed with a list of the top 100 English-language novels of this century. Released yesterday in New York by the editorial board of Modern Library - ten of America and Britain's leading scholars and writers - the Top 100 is heavy on Americans (58) and Britons (basically the rest), unforgivably light on women writers (only eight). And totally void of "colonials".
No Australians at all. Not one. No Canadians either, nor New Zealanders, nor Southern Africans. There's a writer from the Caribbean, VS Naipaul, who lives mostly in the UK, as does the token subcontinental, Salman Rushdie.
Modern Library is a division of Random House. Coincidentally, all of the selection board - Gore Vidal, Christopher Cerf, Daniel Boorstin, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, AS Byatt, Edmund Morris, John Richardson, Arthur Schlesinger and William Styron - save for Gregorian, are published by Random House or the Bertelsmann group that owns it.
Given that that board is also 100 per cent trans-Atlantic and 90 per cent male, it's no surprise American and British DWM's dominate - this is surely the last hurrah of the Dead White Male school of significance. But it's also contemptuously out of touch with English-language publishing over the last quarter-century, particularly when most creative energy has come from women and post-colonial writers.
Random House's pr spin-doctors have iterated a millennial desire to "promote public awareness" about great fiction works of the 20th century. "We tried to pick books proven over time," said board chairman Cerf, the son of Random's founder Bennett Cerf.
"Board members were selected for their expertise ... and their friendliness to the cause." Then comes the clincher: "Titles were selected without regard to publisher." Forgive my cynicism. Bertelsmann does now command a huge canon of English classics, but just on 60 per cent of the all-time greats? Pul-leez.
Still, as an exercise in publicity generation, this has been spectacular ... although in the despised outposts of English literature, resentment may have a negative impact. Most commentators here have little argument with the "top of the pops" Joycean masterpiece Ulysses. Discontent begins at the second-placed Great Gatsby, and accelerates towards the cinematically-inspired selections bringing up the rear.
Ladders are for football, not fiction says novelist and former literary editor of The Australian Barry Oakley. "This is a pathetic list ... a parochial marketing tool rather than anything serious, and inappropriate for literature. Literature is meant to take you to regions where lists don't count."
How, he asks, can Patrick White's Tree of Man be missing? "Even more laughably, what has happened to John Updike's incomparable "Rabbit" quartet?" And Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison are also serious omissions.
Melbourne critic Morag Fraser says it's "scandalous" no Southern Africans are among the top 100 - "just about anything by Doris Lessing deserves a spot, as does Nobel Prizewinner Nadine Gordimer. And JM Coetzee's Waiting for The Barbarians would relegate half the titles named.
"As for leaving out Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, or Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, or Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart - that's an affront." Of Australians, she believes "White's Tree of Man, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children and David Malouf's An Imaginary Life all deserve ranking."
The Australian's Literary Editor, James Hall, cautions against "over-excitement". It's just another list, he says, "the third or fourth I've seen in the past few years. This one does seem to serve a particular American publisher very well, but let's not be too cynical - I think it fairly represents the strength of American writing this century." He questions the order - "Gatsby is too high, Hemingway too low. And are On the Road and The Magus really great books?" - but overall has few problems with it.
Melbourne academic Hilary McPhee, former chair of the Literature Board, thinks it "a remarkably old-fashioned list, containing nothing published since about 1975. It's essentially a map of American publishing as it was, and reflects the age of the panel. It's missed the major changes since women began to dominate post 1970, the post-colonial boom, the growth of gay fiction. It's a curiosity, and suspiciously like a promotional list."
Sydney novelist Roger McDonald agrees. "Around half this list feels like the back shelf of a second-hand bookshop holding long-unread favourites of the first half of the century. The other half feels like an agreeable consensus."
Melbourne writer and broadcaster Robert Dessaix is more sanguine than most: no point taking offence at no Australian writers, he says, because the list is obviously a statement of what the Yanks and the Brits like about themselves. "New York and London are the very paradigms of provinciality - we just don't enter their consciousness. But one would like to politely propose something by White for consideration. New Zealand's Janet Frame should be there, Canada's Robertson Davies and Ondaatje, Southern Africa's Andre Brink, Coetzee and Lessing, India's RK Narayan ..."
Adelaide writer Peter Goldsworthy says the exercise "reeks of provinciality", and is scientifically suspect. "Arithmetically, and given that we read and write twice as much per capita as the Americans and British, we should have representation. If it were the top 100 poets, we'd deserve a dozen spots; for novels, probably half that." His Australian musts? "White's Voss. Also Stead. And I'd consider Malouf's Johnno, Helen Garner's The Children's Bach, Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career and the sixth I'm too modest to name."
Melbourne literary critic Peter Craven agrees White and Stead should be ranked, "with White in a group with the Nabakovs and Becketts just behind Ulysses. And The Man Who Loved Children is ahead of almost every book published in the past 30 years." He thinks arguments could also be made "for Kathryn Mansfield's novellas, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. And Don DeLillo should be a definite."
Sydney novelist James Bradley says "having a selection committee doesn't negate subjectivity - it just exposes the inherent absurdities of designing a list like this. It's almost stereotypically American - big books by big men about big themes, all sound and bluster and modernist bravura. Imperial too, and incredibly sexist. It completely ignores black writing and the thriving traditions of Commonwealth countries."
His must-haves include "Canadians like Ondaatje and Atwood, Carribbean writers like Derek Walcott, and from the sub-continent, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth." Of the Australians, he includes Malouf's Remembering Babylon and An Imaginary Life, "maybe Carey's Oscar or Bliss, possibly The Children's Bach or Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River."
Director of the Australian Society of Authors Jose Borghino believes the listing "is useful only in defining the parameters for debate and for bringing to light novels that have been submerged for a while." If he had his druthers, "White, Stead, Carey, Garner, Malouf and Robert Drewe would make my list, as would Elizabeth Jolley and Thea Astley. Ultimately though, this is an attempt to publicise a publisher's list; as long as no one pretends it's some sort of gospel, there's no problem."
No one is, not even Random, although in retrospect Cerf wishes authors like Lessing and Morrison had made it. Byatt, the only woman on the judging panel, agrees the list was "very arbitrary, but we're getting exactly the results we hoped for - to get people talking about and reading books they're going to love."
Once this initial fiction friction dies down, we can all sulk quietly in our cultural superiority. At least until next year's Modern Library release of the century's 100 best nonfiction books.
This article was first published in The Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998
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