- Books, Literature, and Writing
Genius Literary Novels
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
11. THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH by Saul Bellow
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
21. DESTINIES OF DARCY DANCER, GENTLEMEN by JP Donleavy
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
54. A MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES by Robert Musil
55. A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce
56. BRIDESHEAD REVISITED by Evelyn Waugh
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
73. THE MAMBO KINGS SING SONGS OF LOVE by Oscar Hijuelos
74. CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY by Alan Paton
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
84. YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME AGAIN by Thomas Wolfe
85. THE BEASTLY BEATITUDES OF BALTHAZAR B. by JP Donleavy
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
93. TOO LATE THE PHALAROPE by Alan Paton
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