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Genius Literary Novels

Updated on March 31, 2011

A Novelist's Top 100 Literary Novels of Genius

Why Not Read the Best Novels Ever Written?

America overwhelmingly judges her writers by a single criterion: book sales.

Writers earn critical attention in large part by their performance reflected in their rankings on best-seller lists.

I would wager that more than once you’ve heard a conversation about books in which one reader recommends a book to another reader with this phrase: “This book is on the New York Times Best-seller List so it must be good.”

This criterion is fatally flawed in its ability to point American readers to our great nation’s best novels: in fact, I would argue that an inverse relationship exists between a novelist’s ranking on any best-seller list and the novelist’s genius in writing.


Best-seller lists are invariably populated by hacks who pander to the mainstream and write purely for commercial rewards. Strategically, they set out to write pap that they are convinced the public will buy.

Hacks aim squarely for mainstream, commercial royalties.

They are supported by agents who want to prosper from a percentage of book royalties and big publishers struggling to deliver dividends to shareholders. This modus operandus is the commerce of writing, which every serious American writer has had to face, until the recent emergence of the agency model through Amazon’s Chair, Jeff Bezos.

What is the long-term effect of the ideological model of the commerce of writing bent on foisting best-sellers upon one’s national literary culture?

The traditional publishing model grossly devalues writing.

If writers, as well as their agents and publishers, must collaborate to find mutual prosperity, then generally they must target the writing, agency and publishing to sell books of the broadest possible appeal to mass markets that actually read novels.

How many books did Americans read, on average, over the course of the last 12 months? On average, Americans read about 15 books per year and Australians read 20% more.

In a country of 308 million people how many novelists actually make a living through the sale of their novels?

Membership in the Author’s Guild of New York is about 8,500. Does that membership seem rather sparse, considering that it serves the literary culture of the USA?

A strong case can be made that America treats her hacks like literary lions and her literary lions worse than rabid dogs.

Our nation has little tolerance for literary genius and the mediocre state of our national literary culture reflects the dearth of such genius basking justly in the luminous light of broad readership.

How is it that America has no Cabinet Member for the national advancement of the Arts? Are the arts any less important to a great civilization than health, commerce or education?

Can you quickly name ten books published over the last decade in America that will endure for generations as the product of real American literary genius?

Do your nominees stand up to the highest standards of literary genius and rank with the world’s truly great writers? Do they measure up to Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Proust, Balzac, Laurence Durrell, JP Donleavy, VS Naipaul, John Barth, Henry Fielding, Henry Miller, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Saul Bellow or John Galsworthy?

Have they paid their dues as a writer and, perhaps, even suffered for their art?

Have they won awards for the singular quality of their writing?

Our last Novel Prize Winner for Fiction, Saul Bellow, lamented that probably fewer than 40,000 American were capable of understanding his genius literary novels.

Four real American literary geniuses writing in the genre of the novel come to mind: Alexander Theroux (Darconville’s Cat), William H. Gass (The Tunnel), William Gaddis (JR, The Recognitions) and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon, V, Gravity’s Rainbow). If you haven’t read much about them, it’s probably because they were not best-sellers.

If these real literary geniuses go unread, while America invests richly while swooning and handing out National Book Awards to best-selling hacks, then what is to become of our national literary culture?

Is America doomed to be remembered by the generations that follow as a nation of Yahoos?

Will generations who follow ask: is this really the best work that America was capable of producing back then?

American literary culture would be exponentially enhanced if the New York Times were to abolish its best-seller lists and let American readers fend for themselves.

Odds are that America’s real literary geniuses are starving unread underground and will die in total obscurity.

Surely, we can do better than enrich the hacks who earn millions produced from palimpsest created by formulas, focus groups and corporations comprised of contract writers laboring under best-sellers’ global brands.

Is it cause for genuine alarm that America’s national literary culture is shaped so overwhelmingly by hacks?

We desperately need a better model for literary criticism or we are destined surreptitiously to be relegated to the foul rag and bone pile of literary mediocrity in which our hacks prosper at the expense of America’s literary genius.

Why perpetuate the hack-worship so prevalent in American literary culture?

Perhaps, we need a better model to criticize our novels, which enables the most gifted, serious novelists to experience the broad readership in which hacks bask.

This blog post, and others that follow, will attempt in good faith to offer readers of serious literary novels a better way to discern the best literary novelists and to cull their work from the pure pap to which America seems so devoted.

If we fail to discern great literary novels from lesser commercial tripe and support only the latter, our literary culture -- and ultimately the civilization that we build for better or worse by our collective choices -- becomes diminished by such an absence of collective discernment.

Surely, we can do better. Here's a list of 100 of the best literary novels ever written. Each is a masterpiece written by a real genius.

Want to consider yourself well read? Then read all 100 literary novels.

A Novelist’s Top 100 Literary Novels

1. ULYSSES by James Joyce

2. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by Marcel Proust

3. WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy

4. LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

5. FINNEGAN’S WAKE by James Joyce

6. DON QUIXOTE by Cervantes

7. JR by William Gaddis

8. BROTHERS KARAMAZOV by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

9. THE TUNNEL by William Gaddis

10. DARCONVILLE’S CAT by Alexander Theroux


12. THE RECOGNITIONS by William Gaddis

13. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway

14. THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Laurence Durrell

15. SOTWEED FACTOR by John Barth

16. A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS by V.S. Naipaul

17. LOST ILLUSIONS by Honore de Balzac

18. MAGIC MOUNTAIN by Thomas Mann

19. THE SOUND AND FURY by William Faulkner

20. THE FORSYTE SAGA by John Galsworthy


22. TRISTRAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne

23. DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens

24. THE DEATH OF VIRGIL by Hermann Broch

25. THE METAMORPHOSIS by Franz Kafka

26. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

27. THE PLAGUE by Albert Camus

28. HUMBOLDT’S GIFT by Saul Bellow

29. MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

30. TIN DRUM by Gunter Grass

31. MASON & DIXON by Thomas Pynchon

32. TOM JONES by Henry Fielding

33. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway

34. UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry

35. VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray

36. MALLOY by Samuel Beckett

37. MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot

38. CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller

39. SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut

40. V by Thomas Pynchon

41. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck

42. CANDIDE by Voltaire

43. BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago

44. HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain

45. DEAD SOULS by Nikolai Gogol

46. LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner

47. 1984 by George Orwell

48. USA TRILOGY by John Dos Passos

49. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf

50. TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller

51. BLUEBEARD by Kurt Vonnegut

52. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison

53. HERZOG by Saul Bellow




57. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald

58. THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx

59. A DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVITCH by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

60. THE TRIAL by Franz Kafka

61. BRIGHTNESS FALLS by Jay McInerney

62. AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS by Flann O’Brien

63. LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe

64. HOWARDS END by EM Forster

65. GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by Jonathan Swift

66. DR. ZHIVAGO by Boris Pasternak

67. HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad

68. LANCELOT by Walker Percy

69. THE MANTICORE by Robertson Davies

70. WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin

71. TROPIC OF CAPRICORN by Henry Miller

72. THE STONE RAFT by Jose Saramago



75. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy

76. OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham

77. A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway

78. THE STRANGER by Albert Camus

79. EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo

80. RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow

81. THE CASTLE by Franz Kafka

82. THE GINGER MAN by JP Donleavy

83. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE by Gabriel Garcia Marquez



86. NATIVE SON by Richard Wright

87. A HERO OF OUR TIME by Mikhail Lermontov

88. EUGENE ONEGIN by Alexander Pushkin

89. THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov

90. PERE GORIOT by Honore de Balzac

91. INFINITE JEST by David Foster Wallace

92. JACQUES THE FATALIST by Denis Diderot


94. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen

95. OBLOMOV by Ivan Goncharov

96. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

97. MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

98. THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ by Carlos Fuentes

99. OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

100. THE RED AND THE BLACK by Henri Stendhal


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