A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon
October 1, 2018 2:37 AM   Subscribe

A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s … so far. [Vulture]

The Best Book of the Century (for Now)
1. The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt
The 12 New Classics
2. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (DISSENT: Freedom)
3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
4. How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti
5. The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante
6. The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
7. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño (DISSENT: The Savage Detectives)
8. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
9. The Outline Trilogy (Outline, Transit, and Kudos), by Rachel Cusk
10. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
11. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
12. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
13. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
The High Canon
14. Erasure, by Percival Everett
15. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
16. Platform, by Michel Houellebecq
17. Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana
18. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
19. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (DISSENT: The Human Stain)
20. The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst
21. Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill
22. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
23. Ooga-Booga, by Frederick Seidel
24. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
25. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
26. The Possessed, by Elif Batuman
27. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
28. Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi
29. Lives Other Than My Own, by Emmanuel Carrère (DISSENT: The Kingdom)
30. Zone One, by Colson Whitehead (DISSENT: Sag Harbor)
31. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
32. NW, by Zadie Smith
33. White Girls, by Hilton Als
34. My Struggle: A Man in Love, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
35. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
36. Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
37. All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
38. Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
39. consent not to be a single being, by Fred Moten
The Rest of the (Premature, Debatable, Arbitrary, But Still Illuminating) Canon
40. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
41. The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
42. True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey
43. The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos, by Anne Carson
44. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich
45. Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
46. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
47. The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Power
48. The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong
49. Mortals, by Norman Rush
50. Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte
51. Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace
52. Honored Guest, by Joy Williams
53. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
54. The Sluts, by Dennis Cooper
55. Voices From Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich
56. Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
57. The Afterlife, by Donald Antrim
58. Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
59. Wizard of the Crow, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
60. American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman
61. Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta
62. The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling
63. Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler
64. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
65. The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon
66. Home, by Marilynne Robinson (DISSENT: Gilead)
67. Fine Just the Way It Is, by Annie Proulx
68. Scenes From a Provincial Life: Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, by J.M. Coetzee
69. Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss
70. Spreadeagle, by Kevin Killian
71. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
72. Seven Years, by Peter Stamm
73. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
74. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
75. The Gentrification of the Mind, by Sarah Schulman
76. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
77. Capital, by John Lanchester
78. The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood (DISSENT: The Blind Assassin)
79. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
80. Taipei, by Tao Lin
81. Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward
82. Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
83. How to Be Both, by Ali Smith
84. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
85. Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish
86. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
87. The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander
88. The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin
89. What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell
90. Collected Essays & Memoirs (Library of America edition), by Albert Murray
91. The Needle’s Eye, by Fanny Howe
92. Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag
93. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
94. All Grown Up, by Jami Attenberg
95. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui
96. Tell Me How it Ends, by Valeria Luiselli
97. Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood
98. Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas
99. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, by Denis Johnson
100. Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday
posted by ellieBOA (75 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
*rolls eyes, fires up popcorn maker*

this list is a bit like that strategy currently en vogue among certain despot-inclined politicians, where you flood the discourse so that there's no one point you can get a grip on. Where do you start?

If nothing else, it reminds me that I have to fill in a gaps in my reading.

Also The Goldfinch (spoiler) is about a junky and if you've ever spent time with junkies and don't want to spend X-hundred pages with one, drop the book after the main character leaves Vegas.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:51 AM on October 1 [6 favorites]


How many person-hours did it take to slap this thing together, I wonder? I can't help wondering what better things might've been accomplished with all those hours by the thirty-two(?) contributors than this listicle-with-pretensions. Did they have a big committee-meeting where they all argued about it? Was it all done on conference calls or via e-mail or slack, and in spreadsheets? I like their top choice well enough, and am, as so often, conscious of how many books I've missed out on, and how many I'll never get the time to read. If I'd had a vote myself I might've put in a kind word for László Krasznahorkai's War & War or Seiobo There Below, but I would also have confusedly wondered why had I signed up for the exercise in the first place.
posted by misteraitch at 3:11 AM on October 1 [6 favorites]


I guess I should be pleased by how many of these I have read, but easily half of those I wouldn't think to include on a list like this.
posted by PhineasGage at 3:32 AM on October 1 [4 favorites]


#1 is a really good book; #100 is also a very good book.

Hope that helps.
posted by chavenet at 3:33 AM on October 1 [5 favorites]


I wonder why they didn’t include more non-fiction, and how the list would have looked different if they did. For example, one could make a good argument that the most important book of the 19th century was The Origin of Species. On the other hand, the most important literary work of the 20th century was clearly the novel Atlas Shrugged (best enjoyed with a hamburger).
posted by TedW at 4:19 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Aw jeez, not another listicle I gotta get mad at.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:29 AM on October 1 [6 favorites]


Pretty excellent list, imo. At least considering the ones I've read (about 40%). The only book on the list that I've read that I thought was utter shite was The Goldfinch, but all the others are among the better books I"ve recently read.

Though Denis Johnson's last is pretty great, I would have chosen Train Dreams over it. Love that book.

Odd omission is James Ellroy. I would have included Blood's a Rover.
posted by dobbs at 4:34 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


The Amber Spyglass wasn't even the best book in its trilogy.

(Why are the Harry Potter books and Neapolitan Novels and the Broken Earth trilogy considered as one but His Dark Materials isn't?)
posted by corvine at 4:38 AM on October 1 [10 favorites]


Extremely presentist - like, I feel as if a disproportionate number of those came out in the past five years.

The Line of Beauty is good but I also feel like everyone name-checks it because it's the only novel by a gay British man they have heard of. That sounds so negative - I think it's a great novel although Swimming Pool Library is better, and yet I feel like I don't hear a lot about other books by gay men on themes of AIDS, sexuality and class and it's not like there's a shortage.

The Amber Spyglass is extremely disappointing. Just bafflingly so. I can't imagine why, out of all the YA available, you would put it on this list. It's poorly structured, it's philosophically waffly, the romance element is kind of unintentionally creepy, it's a giant let-down after the tremendous cohesion and force of the first book and the weird atmosphere of the second.

I dunno, this list seems more revealing about the preoccupations of the now than about what will actually be classic. Do you ever read old books of reviews? I love old books of reviews. I have a whole bunch by Joanna Russ from the sixties and seventies, for instance, and the majority of the stuff she really liked sank without a trace - big name science fiction and fantasy considered reputable and high-quality, but where are the snows of yesteryear? I mean, I'm sure those were pretty good books - sometimes I come across one in a used bookstore and pick it up on the strength of her reviews - but for the most part they were not influential and left no trace.

Where are the literary best-sellers of yesteryear, for that matter? How many can you name? There are a lot of books.

With the exception of the Phillip Pullman, I like everything on the list that I've read, some of it quite a lot. I don't think I could begin to guess what will still be influential in fifty or sixty years. I really couldn't even start, even for the books I admire very much.
posted by Frowner at 4:39 AM on October 1 [9 favorites]


It pleases me that there’s at least one Mefi’s Own on here.

I don't think I could begin to guess what will still be influential in fifty or sixty years.

When Central Park was being built, they wanted a proper, euro style walk of the literary greats for America- a proper canon cast in stone for the Elm section. After much debate, they settled on figures whom they were sure would be the basis of a new world artistic pedigree ...and today the majority of them no one has heard of in a long, long time (with the exception of the one guy who was suoer suoer gay as are his books and only cause I point him out on tours.)
posted by The Whelk at 4:40 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


Wow, would once have been perturbed to only have read 4-5 of these. I kind of derailed from reading novels 8-9 years ago in favour of non-fiction and didn't really get back on the train apart from the odd SF novel (mostly low end, occasional classics). Never really been sure why, I used to read a lot. I've picked up a couple off the list (Last Samurai & The Sellout) to see how they go. There may be blaming to follow.
posted by biffa at 4:41 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


I really am illiterate; I've read none of these. I've at least heard of a few of them but have never even attempted to real any of them. I used to love reading fiction and read a novel a week and then something switched and I just can't finish a novel to save my life now so I kind of gave up.
posted by octothorpe at 4:51 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Oh wow, thanks ellieBOA for taking the time of listing and linking the full list in your post! ._.
posted by bigendian at 4:58 AM on October 1 [19 favorites]


My unsolicited opinions of the ones I've read:

5. The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante

Great books, absolutely deserve to be on here.

15. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

It was fine. Probably wouldn't have made a top 100 list for me, certainly not this high up, but I did think it was a good book.

22. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Quite good. Once again, probably wouldn't have made a top 100 list for me, certainly not this high up, but I did like it a lot.

40. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon

This is a great book. Sure.

41. The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

Ha ha ha no. Pullman's flaws as a writer became very evident in this one. Don't put the third book in a series on a list just because the one you really wanted on was the first one but it didn't qualify because it was written too early.

46. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

No. This resolutely OK book does not belong on this list.

51. Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace

Well ... fine. It's clearly here because it's the only DFW book that met the qualifications, but ... sure.

58. Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Great book. Sure.

62. The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling

All right.

74. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

Sure.

78. The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood (DISSENT: The Blind Assassin)

Definitely Oryx and Crake, and I would also have accepted The Blind Assassin. If you want to toss the other two books in, I'll still take it.

83. How to Be Both, by Ali Smith

YEEEEEEEESSSSSS. Why is this so low on the list?

88. The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

YEEEEEEEESSSSSS. Why is THIS so low on the list?

93. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

An important book, but also a bit overrated because it's an important book. Wouldn't have made this list for me, although I did like it.

BOOKS THAT ARE OBVIOUSLY MISSING:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin
A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Hild by Nicola Griffith
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness
The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente
Farthing by Jo Walton
The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein
Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
The Tower At Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip
Coraline by Neil Gaiman
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
Declare by Tim Powers
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
posted by kyrademon at 5:00 AM on October 1 [22 favorites]


It is all novels which, as someone else has said, I read less of these days. The novel form seems like a holdout from the last century sometimes. In the 19th century people were reading serialised forms and then they were collected and now we all had to read Dickens in one lump. Then came the serious novel and we had to endure the torture of grand tomes everyone was supposed to read over the course of months and then have serious discussions about. It feels to me like perhaps the 21st century might back to the serials or short stories and that this is a good thing.

They do include some short story collections but then add:
The short story is often offered the kiddie table when seated beside the novel..
but then, with this list, do little to help correct that imbalance.
posted by vacapinta at 5:11 AM on October 1 [4 favorites]


Oh, I just started reading The Last Samurai this week. What a coincidence. I did not realize I was reading the best book of the century. But it's pretty good so far.
posted by cpatterson at 5:41 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Yeah kyrademon, effing ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING by Jo Walton should be on here (I'd go with My Real Children, but Farthing is quite good as well).

I've read more books on the list than I expected, honestly. About half of those I strongly disliked. But I can't argue with the Broken Earth trilogy, or Men We Reaped, or Priestdaddy (FUCKING BRILLIANT), or Wizard of the Crow, which is a goddamned sumptuous novel.

"One Day I Will Write About This Place" by Binyavanga Wainaina ought to be on here, along with Diriye Osman's "Fairytales for Lost Children" while we're on the African tip.

Another reminder for me to finally sit down and read Ferrante.
posted by duffell at 5:44 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


BOOKS THAT ARE OBVIOUSLY MISSING:
....
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins


Wait, what?

Is this actually good or at least important (other than being a major film blockbuster event thingie)?
posted by sammyo at 5:53 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


So consider an author crossover (like in the SF world) how about Cormac McCarthy writing a novel set in the hunger games world and Suzanne Collins doing a sequel or sideview to The Road?
posted by sammyo at 5:56 AM on October 1


> "Wait, what?"

It's just, like, my opinion, man. But yeah, I'll happily defend those as Quality Lit.
posted by kyrademon at 5:59 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Whatever else I might think of the list, the inclusion of Percival Everett makes my day. Erasure was so good and funny and painful (SO painful) all at the same time. (For slightly less pain, try his collaboration with James Kincaid, A History of the African-American People [Proposed] By Strom Thurmond.)

I still have trouble understanding that we are nearly two decades into this century. A list of 21st Century books, says my instinct of time, must be very small since we've been here such a brief time...did we even get closure on the 90s yet? Why do some of these feel like 90s books? I would never have guessed Never Let Me Go and the Margaret Atwood books were from this century, if I came at them in isolation.
posted by mittens at 6:03 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


The Hunger Games (especially the first book) IS good, I agree.

I read mainly fantasy and science fiction novels, so the omission of the Expanse books is pretty glaring. Also, anything by Seanan McGuire (especially the October Daye books).
posted by Pendragon at 6:07 AM on October 1


It pleases me that there’s at least one Mefi’s Own on here.

I can only assume this is referring to Mefi's Own Tao Lin.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:11 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


Honestly, I think almost no science fiction should be on this kind of list. I love science fiction - in any year, at least half of what I read is science fiction - but I can rarely think of a science fiction novel that is as accomplished as, eg, anything by WG Sebald or anything by Horacio Castellanos Moya. I think that what science fiction does is really different from what other fictions do and that the things that make a science fiction novel great don't stack up neatly against what makes other fictions work; what's more, I think the audience for science fiction is looking for different things than when those same people sit down with, like, To The Lighthouse.

I think of a favorite non-SF novelist whose work (in English) I know fairly completely, like WG Sebald, and I try to think of a science fiction novel which has the same density, the same complex prose, the same seriousness of theme, the same complex sensibility, the same breadth of historical understanding....and it's really difficult! I can think of lots of science fiction novels that are well-written, that are historically situated, that have a relatively complex sensibility....but I wouldn't sit, say, Dune or a relatively morally reductionist book like The Dispossessed next to WG Sebald. And those are pretty significant SF novels!

There are science fiction novels that I would set beside Sebald - plenty of Delany, Le Guin's Always Coming Home (which is extremely underrated but IMO her best book), maybe Indra Das's The Devourers*...more than just those few, but not actually that many.

These lists work because we can never agree on what makes "a novel" great. You can probably come pretty close with "what makes a science fiction novel great" or "what makes a social novel great" but you're never going to get anything coherent about "the novel". So one makes such a list, throwing in contemporary favorites because they're clearly pretty good and they're popular, and there's no real way to dispute them since the criteria are exceedingly nebulous. Like, I'm sure almost everything on this list is above average in ambition and accomplishment. I do not have the faintest glimmer of a night thought about how they'll stack up in fifty years, if we haven't drowned meanwhile.

On another note: It's always obvious that the people who make these lists don't read science fiction/fantasy, because they always pick from whatever random stuff makes the mainstream bestseller lists. NK Jemisin's books are great science fiction, but Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam books are neither great Atwood nor great SF, and like Doris Lessing's Shikasta books they're going to survive as the lesser works of a greater writer rather than because they stand on their own.

I would put The Devourers next to the Jemisin - next to most things, really - without a second thought. It is a great, great book, but it's not especially accessible, didn't get a lot of press, isn't part of a trilogy* and is tightly focused on a small group of characters. It's a really smart book with a lot of depth - and it's a book about adults who are believable as adults rather than about teenagers finding their way. And yet it's probably going to sink like a stone. It probably won't be one of the "Best Science Fiction Books" on anyone's list, because you've got to read attentively even to notice it. This makes me skeptical of all such lists, because my assumption is that they're all full of this kind of absence, not just in terms of science fiction but in terms of all books.

*Trilogies are hip now; I feel like all the "big" SF novels are trilogies, and it seems like people who have ambition write them. Which means sprawl - books geared toward giant landscapes, global conflict, epic weapons, very large casts. This means that small books with tight focus lose out, and it also means that there are a lot of bloated books out there.
posted by Frowner at 6:15 AM on October 1 [11 favorites]


I’ve read maybe 50-60% of the titles (I loved several of them). This list is unsurprising, but not offensively so.I read novels and love novels (I also read plenty of non-fiction) and I think there’s a lot be said for the form (in particular) and fiction (in general). I will admit that I always feel a little sad at the I only read non-fiction commentary that comes my way because there is so much marvelous, gorgeous, incisive, intelligent, hilarious, heartbreaking fiction out there. A whole world, a whole universe of worlds, full of experiences and points of views. But we’re all different and so it is with tastes.

Wizard of the Crow is really wonderful, by the way. I’m delighted to see it on the list.
posted by thivaia at 6:18 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


I read The Corrections on a recommendation from a coworker and all it did was confirm to me that what I thought I liked about IJ - postmodernism, length, wordiness - were just superficial aspects that had no real import. Almost all of the other postmodern novels of that cohort (DeLilo et al) came off to me as cartoonish and on-the-nose and Really @*#^ Precious. Also: everyone is a professor! So, no, The Corrections should not be on that list, because it was to The Great White Novel what Styx's Kilroy Was here was to the concept album: a sign that everyone had run out of good ideas.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:20 AM on October 1 [7 favorites]


Very pleased to see Claudia Rankine and Eula Biss, less pleased to see a few others, but I won't yuck others' yums.

A few they're missing:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Maybe recency bias on this one, but I think it will hold up)

My heart wants to include Rothfuss or Martin, but they've got to finish their series before they make the list.
posted by matrixclown at 6:26 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


46. Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters

No. This resolutely OK book does not belong on this list.


I dunno; I thought it was a fantastic read (well, listen to) and very satisfying.

I wish there was more love for Caitlín Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, but it’s a horror novel (or at least has the shape of one). I was more excited by that structure and story and themes of identity and self-understanding than I have been with any book for a long time.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:48 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


I would say that Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" books are better than the "Hunger Games" books, because they take three different kinds of genre novel -- mysteries, police procedurals, and fantasy -- and make something that's even better than the simple combination. Witty, interesting, clever, consistently inventive over seven books and a few shorts: these are really good work.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:58 AM on October 1 [8 favorites]


(Hey, ellieBOA: did you use some kind of script to fetch these URLs and build all the hyperlinks, or do it *gasp* manually? This is a hell of a post!)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:00 AM on October 1


I did it manually! Didn't really think about how long it might take, and was a quiet morning at work!
posted by ellieBOA at 7:07 AM on October 1 [11 favorites]


I really am illiterate; I've read none of these.

I am illiterate and childish, and have only read the novels written for children.
posted by jb at 7:28 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


62. The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling

This is the "one" thing on this list that I have read, and I don't actually remember whether I read them all due to watching all the movies first, listening to a couple in audiobook form, and reading at least two.

They're not great, they're just culturally relevant.
posted by Foosnark at 7:48 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Surprised to see Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates missing from this list...

On the other hand, the most important literary work of the 20th century was clearly the novel Atlas Shrugged...

So, if you're saying the book is important because it created something for a delusional political cult to rally around, Atlas Shrugged isn't even the most important or influential work of this genre in the 20th century. That'd have to be Mein Kampf. But maybe this was a joke, poking fun of Rand's fans to swing towards hyperbole when discussing her work's "genius."
posted by touchstone033 at 7:56 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


The Hunger Games books are pretty good on their own merits, probably better than Philip Pullman's stuff to be honest (although I liked the Dark Materials books, and I guess I didn't get the creepy vibe that some people did; maybe I should take another look?). But I think it's going to be an uphill battle to ever have them taken seriously because of the movies—the unfortunate side-effect of having a book made into a movie is it necessarily crushes a lot of the ambiguity out of it, leaving less room for interesting interpretation. About the only serious knock on them is the love-triangle aspect, which is clunky as hell, and leads to some of the worst dialog and character-arc movements.

I'm a bit surprised there's no Iain M. Banks on there either, but maybe that's because the books that tend to get the most critical praise are outside the time window of the list? Look to Windward, while enjoyable, wasn't as approachable as Consider Phlebas or The Player of Games, and I don't think it had as much to say as Use of Weapons, all of which were written in the 80s or 90s. Matter was probably not a good jumping-off point for the Culture books either. I think Surface Detail is quite good and probably has some cultural relevance, but I can imagine it might be a little too "SF-y" and not big-L Literary Novel enough for the list.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Maybe this is just me, but I started reading the book thinking it was at least partly autobiographical, and it changed my perception of the book when I discovered, somewhere around halfway, that it wasn't—at least not in the important aspects. The author is from a Greek immigrant family, did grow up in Detroit, etc., but isn't intersex; while I suppose he at least did his research, it just seems a bit odd to me that one of the most high-profile books dealing with the topic (bestseller, Oprah's book pick, etc.) isn't written by an intersex person. I gather based on the book's reception it must not be that far from the mark, but still, it felt a little weird knowing it was written by some dude who's personal experience is probably closer to mine than to the main character's—I'll call it the "Memoirs of a Geisha" effect.

I very much agree with others that the list seems extremely heavy on novels, and it's not at all clear to me that format will be the dominant one going forward into the 21st century. I don't believe the "reading is dying" trope that pops up nervously in NYT columns from time to time—I think quite to the contrary, public discourse and communication is more focused on the written word than ever—but the novel as a particular format was born out of 19th and 20th century practical tradeoffs. (Why are novels the length they are? Because that's the length you can print, bind, and sell at reasonable cost, with the text being a legible size, and the book being reasonably handy. It's not an artistic decision, it's a practically-driven one.) In the age of the Kindle or mobile-phone-as-tablet, it doesn't make as much sense. Shorter episodic works which flow together into bigger ones—each of which can be purchased separately and on-demand—are where I think we'll see the most growth, although that's for its own less-than-artistic reasons (it's easier to get people to pay $30 if you do it in five $6 installments than if you ask for it upfront, especially for pre-orders which are important).
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:59 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


Americanah and The Night Circus before Gone Girl, to be sure. I've read a large number of these and I'm mostly OK with them. Also, no Ann Patchett?
posted by wellred at 7:59 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Turns out that I'm not mad at all, just a little disappointed. Any number of kyrademon's suggested alternatives would have been worthy (if not worthier) inclusions.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:33 AM on October 1


I would substitute Marlon James' The Book of Night Women for his A Brief History of Seven Killings. I never understood for the life of my why Night Women didn't get more attention than it did; it's a criminally underrated book.
posted by holborne at 8:39 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Every time I see lists like this, I am reminded that who really cares if some other person, someone with some connection to having opinions about stuff on the list, likes something? There are books that mean a lot to me. A lot. I don’t need someone else to certify the book’s greatness for me. I can recommend the book to friends who probably wouldn’t like it as much as me. But whatever. I was moved, changed by reading this book. That’s enough. When I have had the chance to meet the author of such a book, I have always thanked them. It’s rare when I learn something new from these lists. The book descriptions are not reviews, they are just back of the dust jacket descriptions that read in many cases like marketing. The books you love? Love them. Share them. Reread them. Let them lead you to other books. Just be open to discovering new books in whatever way they appear on your path.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:07 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


Actually, yeah, if there's anyone on this list where I feel relatively confident that their work will be on Important Books lists in the future, it would be Marlon James (and WG Sebald). I'm sure that a reasonable number of the others will too, but I could not guess which ones.

I have such a lot of trouble with lists like this because presentism is so powerful - not just for Those Foolish Others Over There, but for me.

I remember when I was about eight and I assured my father that The Sword of Shannara (which he loathed) was a timeless fantasy classic and not actually a ripoff of Lord of the Rings. Now, I got a lot of enjoyment out of the first few Shannara books and I am happy that my eight year old self had the experience of such intense delight, but they're schlock. At the time, that particular level of heroic fantasy really spoke to me - the heroes! danger! tunics! swords! good! evil! thing really resonated with my concerns as a weird little kid.

As an adult I'm a smarter reader with more background, but I'm still one weird human whose present-day concerns contour what speaks to me. It's difficult for me to parse out the really good from the merely timely, and it's difficult for me to parse out the complex from things that merely chime with my experience - the more so when looking at a list where everything is pretty good. I don't feel confident that I can really tell the difference between a pretty good book that speaks to my immediate concerns about the zeitgeist and a really outstanding book that has a lot to say, because the experience of reading them in this particular moment is likely to be about the same.

Sometimes things jump out at me, but they're usually the weird, dense or difficult books where I really have to work to engage with the text, or where there's some rebarbative quality that sort of intensifies and complexifies the experience of reading. It's easier to assess those, because I'm more conscious of their many qualities. A book that I just find very accessible, solidly constructed and satisfying I find much harder to assess - is it great, or do I just like it?

But then there are so many books. I don't even think I could give you a really solid list of the important science fiction in english by writers of color from 2010 to the present, and that's something I pay attention to. I could make a list with some, but there's so much - and even if it were 2050, I am not sure that I'd have read deeply enough to make good decisions, since so much is inevitably lost.
posted by Frowner at 9:19 AM on October 1 [5 favorites]


I like lists like this when it triggers good commentary (like above) which is one of the best ways to find new works that have a good probability to "work for me".
posted by sammyo at 9:19 AM on October 1 [3 favorites]


Capital is so, so overrated. Great premise goes absolutely nowhere. I think literary people like it because they feel so baffled by what happened in 2007-08 that they'll grab onto anything that promises to make sense of it, even if it's only about half-right.

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates missing from this list...

This list seems to have a weird relationship with non-fiction, and with memoir in particular. I only recognize one other memoir title, though maybe I'm failing to spot some? I'd put Beautiful Struggle over what I've read of Priestdaddy, for sure. I would make room for The Empire of Cotton, which ought to be read by every American. A very effective work of popular history though perhaps lacking the literary flair which ensures longevity for such a book.
posted by praemunire at 9:40 AM on October 1


Wolf Hall should be higher. Citizen should be higher.

I really enjoyed The Goldfinch but I doubt it'll end up on the list long-term. I did not care for the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and don't think it'll stand the test of time.

If Rothfuss ends up on this list in 2100 I will throw myself off a bridge.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:58 AM on October 1 [5 favorites]


Wait, no Jack Kerouac!
posted by clavdivs at 11:02 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


One of the joys (?) of discussing canons is that the term always means so many different things at once. Nobody that I know of, for example, thinks of J. S. Le Fanu as a canonical short story author, and yet people quite cheerfully read his work without it being stuck on a syllabus. We do think of Alexander Pope as canonical, yet a lot of his work is not very teachable or, in some cases, readable (The Dunciad is hilarious! but the footnotes have to be footnoted!). Arguably, Shakespeare's plays are differently canonical in England than in the United States. And when we think about canonical authors, are we thinking about the author or the work? (There's an awful lot of Wordsworth out there that nobody reads. I haven't noticed a recent run on the Ecclesiastical Sonnets.)

Anyway, TJW's First Law of Literary Survival is that the "shakeout" usually happens quite abruptly after a century passes--in other words, about three generations. Dickens, yes; Eliot, yes; Lever, nah; Bulwer-Lytton, uh, no. (Looking at early Everyman editions is a very enlightening experience. Many Victorianists these days haven't read Anne Manning's The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell, afterwards Mistress Milton [1849], yet there it is as a "minor classic.") There may be ups and downs, especially after the author dies (Emily Bronte's rep didn't pick up until the late nineteenth century, for example), but if people still read the book past the century mark, then they will probably keep on doing so.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the SF and fantasy titles stick around, given how well nineteenth-century Gothic and horror continue to do--in fact, I have no trouble believing that Stephen King will be read in a century while a lot of literary authors are completely forgotten.
posted by thomas j wise at 11:14 AM on October 1 [7 favorites]


Fascinating list.

Thank you for composing this post, ellieBOA.
posted by doctornemo at 11:20 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


WHY IS FRANZEN ON HERE
posted by pxe2000 at 11:28 AM on October 1 [4 favorites]


Whenever someone recommends 1Q84, it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read any other books by Murakami, because every single one of them is better.
posted by panama joe at 11:37 AM on October 1 [6 favorites]


I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the SF and fantasy titles stick around, given how well nineteenth-century Gothic and horror continue to do

On the other hand, no one reads Looking Backward and Brave New World survives only the grim life of books read only by force in high school. Modern SF is creeping up on its first century (if you pick, semi-arbitrarily, the founding of Amazing Stories in 1926) and frankly the immediate forebears like Verne are more widely-read than anything from the first three decades or so, which is almost all now work for fanatics only.
posted by praemunire at 11:40 AM on October 1 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, no one reads Looking Backward

Hey!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:04 PM on October 1


Why am I so compelled to jump into the fray whenever someone makes a ranked list of books? What is wrong with me? Oh well here goes.

The highest-ranked book I have read is How Should a Person Be, and if anyone is up for it, I would really like for someone to explain what it is that I am missing about Sheila Heti. The brilliance of the Neapolitan Novels, directly below it, is well documented on Metafilter.

I agree that Americanah and Homegoing are glaring exclusions. I really need to get around to reading I-Hotel so that I can decide whether I need to complain about its not being on the list. I hated Everything I Never Told You but am still somehow surprised not to see it here.

Thinking about The Hate U Give and trying to figure out if there's any other YA that should have been on here reminded me that I need to read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, so thanks for that.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:05 PM on October 1


If Rothfuss ends up on this list in 2100 I will throw myself off a bridge.

To be fair, his next book will have only recently come out in 2100, it will still be fresh in people's minds.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:05 PM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Whenever someone recommends 1Q84, it makes me wonder if they’ve ever read any other books by Murakami, because every single one of them is better.

They wanted Murakami, but his heavy hitters are all from the 20th Century. Although yeah... why 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore (from 2002/English translation 2005)? 1Q84 is easily the weakest book he's ever written. After Dark is better, although it I guess it lacks the literal weight of the brick that is 1Q84*. Speaking of shorter works, I would be glad to find the 21st Century Muriel Spark, who writes great, compelling novels that clock in at around 120-150 pages in length. Likewise, if you're curious about Elena Ferrante but can't commit to a four-part 1000+ page work, go for Days of Abandonment. Only 188 pages!

*To be fair, it was originally published in Japan as three volumes over the span of a couple years.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 12:05 PM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Not a bad list, and i will definitely add some of these to my to-read list. My thoughts on the ones I've read:

2. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Good, but not #2 good.

3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I was so impressed but how aptly a male writer captures teenage girlhood. Also, I liked the understatedness of the sci-fi elements.

7. 2666, by Roberto Bolaño 
Most of this book was excellent but it would've benefitted from more heavy-handed editing.

8. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
Creative, amusing, pointed satire.

10. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Good, but maybe a tad boring?

15. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
One of my all-time favorites.

18. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
Good, but not particularly memorable.

22. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
I'm a McCarty fan who loves post-apocalyptic fiction so this ticked my boxes.

24. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
Wonderful. A fresh, memorable main character and interesting story.

31. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
I was initially surprised to see this ranked so highly (pop fiction), but it's a well-done modern thriller.

35. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
About 300 pages too long.

40. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon
Love love love. A top 5 on my list.

41. The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
Kind of a random choice (the 3rd of a trilogy) but I did enjoy the series.

42. True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey 
A fun historical novel by a great writer.

62. The Harry Potter novels, by J.K. Rowling
A series that makes kids loves reading is a winner in my eyes.

66. Home, by Marilynne Robinson(DISSENT: Gilead)
I haven't read Home yet but Gilead blew me away and is arguably the true great American novel.

71. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
So good. Also- post-apocalyptic fiction!

73. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
The only thing I remember about this book was not liking it.

78. The MaddAddam Trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood(DISSENT: The Blind Assassin)
The Blind Assassin was fantastic, still need to read the trilogy.

84. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Loved the story, struggled with the brutal violence.

86. The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Loved the story, struggled with the torture chapter.

93. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
I enjoy YA fiction and this is a worthy choice.

I love talking about books and am enjoying this thread.
posted by emd3737 at 12:44 PM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Came here only to say FUCK YES PRIESTDADDY, easily my favorite book of last year or whenever it was that it came out. Time has gone all fuck-shaped over the past couple of years, forgive me.
posted by palomar at 12:46 PM on October 1


Although yeah... why 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore (from 2002/English translation 2005)? 1Q84 is easily the weakest book he's ever written.

Interesting -- I think Kafka on the Shore is by far the weakest book he's ever written.
posted by holborne at 12:46 PM on October 1


On another note: It's always obvious that the people who make these lists don't read science fiction/fantasy, because they always pick from whatever random stuff makes the mainstream bestseller lists. NK Jemisin's books are great science fiction, but Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam books are neither great Atwood nor great SF, and like Doris Lessing's Shikasta books they're going to survive as the lesser works of a greater writer rather than because they stand on their own.

As far as I'm concerned, Never Let Me Go (#3 on the list) is another example of a respected author producing not-good literary science fiction. [I'd rank it somewhere between "forgettable" and "can they rescind the Nobel".] For context, I read it at a relaxed, happy time in my life while I was living on an island with very little to do with my free time beyond reading other people's discarded books while sipping pastis in the sun, and I read it back to back with Atwood's The Blind Assassin (dissenting opinion for spot #78!) which I thought was wonderful, and a much better example of how you can weave science fiction into literary fiction without embarrassing yourself.

I'd guess that I've read a much lower proportion of the books on this list than others in this thread - probably between 10 and 15% - however, based on the books I have read (and extrapolating from the inclusion of authors whose book I decided not to read because I didn't like one or more of their other books) it's obvious that the critics who made the list have very, very different opinions to me as to what makes a classic. (Sadly, this means that they are Wrong and that their list can - indeed, must - be ignored. Sorry! I don't make the rules!)

On the other hand, I'd love to read Frowner's list of important science fiction in English by writers of colour since 2010, regardless of the order and accepting the possibility of omissions.

And on preview, apologies emd3737, I wrote this comment before seeing that opinions obviously differ substantially on Never Let Me Go...

posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:56 PM on October 1 [1 favorite]


My theory on Murakami is that your favorite work of his depends on the order in which you read them, because he gets so same-samey after a while. For me, Kafka on the Shore hit that sweet spot, but for people who started reading him earlier, it seems to be Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (I didn't get around to reading that one until after I had read a good 8 or 10 of his books, and I was bored by it.) I do think that a lot of fans had tapped out by the time 1Q84 was released.
posted by sunset in snow country at 12:59 PM on October 1 [4 favorites]


Totally agree with above comments regarding the unfortunate absence of Americanah, Homegoing, and Ann Pachette. Also Barbara Kingsolver and arguably Dave Eggers (admittedly not everyone's cup of tea but very much of the 2000s). I enjoy the Morning News' tournament of books and some of the winners were absent- Cloud Atlas, Station Eleven, The Orphan Master's Son. Alas, no list is perfect.
posted by emd3737 at 1:02 PM on October 1


Don't worry, Chapelle, Ambrose. I fully agree that The Blind Assassin is heaps better than Never Let Me Go. I did enjoy NLMG but it is ranked quite highly for what it is.
posted by emd3737 at 1:05 PM on October 1


No love for Liu Cixin's Remembrance of Earth's Past? :(

Some of the best hard Sci-Fi I've ever read.

Also, nothing for Brandon Sanderson? Not even a big fan of fantasy, but The Way of Kings was a lot better than The Goldfinch IMHO.
posted by hankscorpio83 at 1:09 PM on October 1 [1 favorite]


Part of me feels like the creators of the list watch a lot of movies. Seconding and whoops forgot Kingsolver - I might even vote for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
posted by wellred at 1:09 PM on October 1


I feel like a more accurate 21st canon will have little no actual novels and be more like twitter threads, memes, think pieces, articles, long-form youtube essays, and the like.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:43 PM on October 1 [2 favorites]


This list (and this thread?) are evidently from a parallel universe where George Saunders does not exist.
posted by oulipian at 3:56 PM on October 1 [6 favorites]


Where is the Sixth Extinction and other nonfiction?
posted by maurreen at 8:33 PM on October 1


I really liked the Goldfinch even though I wouldn’t have expected to if it were described to me. Way more than anything by those Boring Men — Chabon, Franzen, zzzzZzzZ.
posted by dame at 10:11 PM on October 1


The Last Samurai is weird and wonderful. Lightning Rods, DeWitt's other novel, is appalling, and I like to pretend it doesn't exist. I haven't read her new book of short stories yet.

I would insert A Little Life somewhere near the top. Also The Time Traveler's Wife; I don't re-read books much, but I read that for the first time and immediately went back to page 1 and read it a second time.
posted by nnethercote at 12:44 AM on October 2


I've read 28 of these. Some were worthy and some weren't. Either way, though, I'm pretty sure that the top 100 would involve far more translated fiction and far more stuff on indy presses like Dalkey Archive and New Directions.
posted by bootlegpop at 1:43 AM on October 2


I just picked up a copy of The Sellout at our local library's surplus sale, on "one dollar a bag" day based solely on the back jacket blurbage. The library uses an algorithm to cull books that haven't been checked out for a while, so now I'm experiencing that minor buzz that comes from having made a savvy purchase.

From the NYT review: "A member of the father’s group, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, has rewritten a version of “Huck Finn” in which he has replaced “the repugnant ‘N-word’” with “warrior” and “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer.” The retitled book is “The ­Pejorative-Free Adventures and ­Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-­American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” (My favorite reworked ­classic by this character, who becomes integral to the court case that frames the book, may be “Measured Expectations.”)"
posted by mecran01 at 5:20 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Ooh, this is in my wheelhouse. Two recent litfic selections that I have deeply enjoyed and which are not present:

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma, 2013
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, 2015
posted by zeusianfog at 7:26 AM on October 2


I think I've read about a third of the books on this list, with probably another third lying in stacks around the house. From the ones I've read, The Argonauts, Veronica, Austerlitz, The Flamethrowers, and The Year of Magical Thinking are probably my favorites. I like Train Dreams better than anything else I've read by Dennis Johnson, which isn't much. When I read The Plot Against America in '06, its depiction of the slow horror of creeping fascism and the helpless rage of people caught up in it felt unparalleled. That feels like practically another life ago now.

Definitely side-eying the absence of The Beautiful Struggle or anything else by Coates. And also the absence of Bechdel's Fun Home or Are You My Mother? Also anything by Patrick Modiano.

The Line of Beauty is good but I also feel like everyone name-checks it because it's the only novel by a gay British man they have heard of. That sounds so negative - I think it's a great novel although Swimming Pool Library is better

Agreed. I love Hollinghurst, and I liked The Line Of Beauty—I liked The Stranger's Child, too—but Swimming Pool Library and The Folding Star seem deeper, more complex, less enraptured by a kind of English pastoral kitsch.

I dunno, this list seems more revealing about the preoccupations of the now than about what will actually be classic.

Yeah, it's all a fine list of books, but it'd be a mistake to see this list as anything else than "Here's what looks good now" and even more so "Here's what's received critical acclaim from the current literary establishment." (For example, there's a whole genre of fiction by trans writers about trans experiences that's exploded over the last half decade or so that probably remains largely unknown outside lgbtqia circles. Will readers of 2040 find Imogen Binnie's Nevada more influential than Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex? )
posted by octobersurprise at 9:22 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


Lists are fun.

The best book in this list that I've read: The White Tiger (special mention to Wolf Hall which I'm halfway through and is great)
The worst book on this list that I've read (non-Harry Potter division): The Sympathizer. Cargo cult lit fic IMO.
Hot take on a controversial novel: The plot of The Goldfinch is dumb but the vivid writing and characterization redeems it.
Most embarrassing omission: Lincoln at the Bardo
Most embarrassing omission by me: The Last Samurai
posted by no regrets, coyote at 1:06 PM on October 2 [2 favorites]


For a read-alike from the previous century, the now-dormant blog Pornokitsch has a post on The Best Books of Our Time: 1901 - 1925 (with a mouthful of a subtitle: "A clue in the literary labyrinth for home library builders, booksellers and librarians, consisting of a list of 1,000 best books selected by the best authorities accompanies by critical descriptions written and compiled by Asa Don Dickinson, Librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, Author of 1,000 Best Books").

From what I can tell, Dickinson did a similar project: surveying critics and including the books with the most nominations, although he made his query for books considered "best" instead of "canonical." I don't think the entire list is available online, but the round-up includes the most nominated authors, the most nominated books, and then how genre-y books fared in the list. Non-fiction didn't fare as well with literary critics a century ago, either: Einstein's Relativity: the Special and General Theory had six noms, though! (I mean, I haven't actually read it either, but I'm glad to know it was recognized as important.)
posted by mixedmetaphors at 2:59 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Tao Lin? Uh ohs.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:05 PM on October 2


I made an attempt at a Modern Day Literary Canon on my blog back in 2010 with some very different results.
posted by hubs at 1:55 PM on October 3


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