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What Makes Great Novels Great?

Updated on May 29, 2016

Greatest Novels

What are your greatest books?
What are your greatest books? | Source

What Makes a Great Novel?

Have you ever compiled a list of your Top Ten Novels? This list took me about two weeks to complete. I compared several Top One Hundred Novels lists that are found in many different literary websites.

As I complied my list, I thought about what criteria I would use to make my decisions. I chose books which I read that had altered my views about life or influenced my worldview in some way.

This got me thinking about what criteria others used when choosing their list of greatest novels. So I started to explore what other criteria that may be used in selecting great novels. I have included comments of and criteria used by three men to choose great works of literature:

  1. Mortimer J. Adler (Author, Educator, Philosopher)

  2. Thomas Jefferson (President, Renaissance Man)

  3. W. Somerset Maugham (Author - Of Human Bondage)

Mortimer J Adler

Scholar, Author, Historian, Philosopher  Mortimer  J Adler
Scholar, Author, Historian, Philosopher Mortimer J Adler | Source

Mortimer Adler's Criteria

Mortimer Adler was an American author, educator, and philosopher who was influential in popularizing the idea of reading and compiling great literature.This scholar authored or edited more than fifty books. This included editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He wrote How to Read a Book (1940) which I found profitable in my personal study of history and literature. Along with Robert M. Hutchins he edited the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World (1952).

Adler listed three criteria for putting a book on the List of Great Books:

  • The book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times.
  • The book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit.
  • The book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.1

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson | Source

Thomas Jefferson's Criteria and List

Thomas Jefferson wrote letters to several friends and included lists for them to read in history, philosophy, religion, and literature.

"These by no means constitute the whole of what might be usefully read in each of these branches of science. The mass of excellent works going more into detail is great indeed. But those here noted will enable the student to select for himself such others of detail as may suit his particular views and dispositions. They will give him a respectable, a useful and satisfactory degree of knowledge in these branches."

p.426 The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 11 By Thomas Jefferson2 (free on Google play).

Jefferson's Library

Thomas Jefferson collected literary works voraciously throughout his life. A fire in his home in 1770 cause him to lament most for his beloved books. During the 1780's, Jefferson acquired thousands of books for his library at Monticello. Jefferson's library was always critically important to him. His reading and collecting of books acquainted him with a broader knowledge of the contemporary and ancient worlds than most of any world leader in his time. He sold his book collection the the United States government after the British burned the Capitol. His library formed the foundation for what we became the Library of Congress.

Homer's "The Odyssey"

The Odyssey of Homer - Easton Press Edition
The Odyssey of Homer - Easton Press Edition | Source

Jefferson's List of Great Literature

A resource that I discovered has compiled and organized a list of Jefferson's great literature. We have to remember that he did not have the benefit of the writings we have from the 19th Century until today.

I've included a partial list below. The complete list of history, philosophy, religion, and literature can be found here.3

Homer: The Iliad and The Odyssey

Virgil: The Aeneid

John Milton: Paradise Lost

Sophocles: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus (Oedipus trilogy) Ajax, Trachinian Women, Philoctetes, Electra

William Shakespeare: Plays, Sonnets, Other Poems

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels , A Modest Proposal, A Tale of a Tub, The Drapier's Letters

Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham  - Author
Somerset Maugham - Author | Source

Somerset Maugham's Criteria

Another resource I found was the Literary Tourist blog written by Nigel Beale. The blog summarizes a list made by Somerset Maugham in his introduction to a book he wrote called Great Novelists and their Novels. It is a collection of essays about authors and their novels.

The complete list culled by Nigel Beale has been removed from his blog.

I have condensed four from the list of the nine criteria that Beale summarized from Somerset Maugham's book.

Somerset Maugham's Criteria

1) The book's theme should interesting to men and women of all sorts. The novel has to have broad appeal, read by people of all ages, both men and women, young and old.

2) The story needs to be coherent and persuasive and have a beginning, middle and end. Plot structure should be clear and produce a satisfying effect on the reader.

3) The writing should be simple enough that it can be read it with ease by anyone of ordinary education.

4) The novel should be entertaining.

As I read this list, I feel confident that the Top Ten novels I have selected fit the criteria listed by Somerset Maugham.

Tom Jones Title Page

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749)
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) | Source

William Somerset Maugham Top Ten Novels

  1. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal
  4. Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
  5. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  9. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky
  10. War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ten Novels and Their Authors is a 1954 work of literary criticism by William Somerset Maugham

Have You Ever Considered Your Greatest Novels?

Have You Ever Made A List of Your Greatest Novels?

See results

To Kill a Mockingbird

My Top Ten List

Top Ten Greatest Novels:

  1. Harper Lee ~ To Kill A Mockingbird

  2. Fyodor Dostoevsky ~ Crime and Punishment

  3. Charles Dickens ~ Great Expectations

  4. Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ The Scarlet Letter

  5. Charlotte Bronte ~ Jane Eyre

  6. John Steinbeck ~ The Grapes of Wrath

  7. Ernest Hemingway ~ The Sun Also Rises

  8. Frank Herbert ~ Dune

  9. J. R. R Tolkien ~ The Lord Of The Rings

  10. Herman Melville ~ Moby Dick

Great Expectations Trailer

Summary of the Greatest Novels Of All Time

The selection of the Greatest Novels Of All Time are based on various criteria that are probably different for each one of us. I have presented evaluations of great literature used by two authors and one book collector.

After reviewing the criteria some great writers and thinkers have used as a measure for great novels, what do you think? Have you ever thought about why you like the novels you do? What criteria would you use when choosing certain literary works to be among your greatest?

Whatever criteria you decide upon using, I hope you compile a list and share with me in the comment section.

© 2013 ajwrites57
A Long

© 2013 AJ

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    • adriannajoleigh profile image

      Adrianna Joleigh 4 years ago from Europe

      I enjoyed reading this article that you have written. :) 1st- Very well written. :) and 2nd- It makes a person think just how it is that they have come to love the books that they have. I, for one, have not given it much thought until now. I look back at my list and I've to say that my criteria would be what moves me to feel the pain I already have. I seem to seek disaster in what I read and I thrive off of it. Hopelessness, romances, hidden symbolism, poetry in writing, are what I seemed to have sought out when I chose my top 10. I'm interested, like you, to find out how others chose their top 10.

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Adrianna, thanks for reading and your thoughtful comments. Novels that we read strike us with such force that at times it affects us for a lifetime. Our motivations for choosing our favorite works will vary from person to person, but in many cases we can agree. Please let me know what you discover when you review your choices.

    • wayne barrett profile image

      Wayne Barrett 4 years ago from Clearwater Florida

      Hey, A.J. Of course I'm one of the group on google+ and have enjoyed seeing others lists. I like this article and your comment about how people choose their criteria. I know some of the books on my list are not considered classics, but they had a significant influence on my life for one reason or another. Example: The Exorcist. It may or may not go down in history as a classic, but it was the first adult novel I read and took me over that hurdle from juvenile to mature. By the way, because of the lists and discussions I have seen, i have started reading Orwell's, 1984. I'm already thinking I might have to alter my list ( :

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      wayne barrett, thank so much reading and adding your thoughtful insights to this discussion. For good or for ill, we have so many more books at our disposal than any of our literary forbears ever dreamed of! The exciting thing is we have the freedom to read other great books and change our ideas and or favorite books. Indeed, The Exorcist is an impacting book--the movie was the same for me. As for 1984, one cannot go wrong by adding that book to any list, unfortunately, it too much mirrors our society in many ways. Thanks again Wayne! :o)

    • profile image

      Brian D. Meeks 3 years ago

      My criteria is simple. Do I set the book down multiple times and marvel at a singular phrase or sentence that is so finely crafted that it slows time and forever leaves a mark on my soul.

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Brian, thanks for reading and adding your comments to my Hub. The literary impact as criteria cannot be taken lightly. Ultimately, the creative artistry of the writer is paramount! Thanks again Brian!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      "Huckleberry Finn" would have to top any list I would make. I would probably include something from Isaac Asimov, Dickens "Tale of Two Cities," King James Bible from the literary standpoint, although I am not Protestant. Certainly something from Raymond Chandler.

      By the way. You previously asked my about influences. Somehow the other day Arlo Guthrie popped into my head but I like his tongue in cheek humor.

    • profile image

      Mklow1 3 years ago

      Fantastic Hub! This was well written and thoroughly researched, especially your use of how the experts choose their top ten list. I found it especially interesting that some of Jefferson's picks included Homer, Milton, and Shakespeare, but not Dante, which confirms what most experts said about his work; it didn't pick up steam until the late 1800's.

      Bravo! Your diligence is reflected in your fine selections. I look forward to reading more of your essays.

    • Dee aka Nonna profile image

      Dee aka Nonna 3 years ago

      Very good list. I've read all but Lord of the Rings. Can't tell you why I never read it....just didn't. Some of the other did make an impact. Really enjoyed reading this. I think those of us who love to read have a personal Top 10 list for some or all of the reasons you mentioned.

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Great choices dahoglund! I appreciate your reading and comments. I have read so much of Dickens and Asimov and love Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity were both movies he wrote for that I adore, all noir! Yes the KJB should be read by all!

      All I can think of by him is Alice's Restaurant. lol! Thanks for stopping by friend!

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Mklow1 thanks for your great comments! Yes, I did spend some time researching, thanks for noticing! Yes, one of my favorite of the Romantics, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was enamored with Dante! Thanks for your interest friend!

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Dee aka Nonna thanks for reading and commenting! I agree, most readers could come up with a list of their own favorites! I appreciate your input! maybe when you come up with a list you will share it?

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 3 years ago from Lagos

      wow! great write. Now, i know in details how to grade a book. The criteria listed here will be very useful for me as a writer. Good one! Good write.

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 3 years ago from Pennsylvania

      ubanichijioke I'm gratified that you find this information useful! Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope it can inspire your creativity and in turn inspire others! God Bless!

    • Jennifer Mugrage profile image

      Jennifer Mugrage 5 months ago from Columbus, Ohio

      Wow. Quite a challenge to pick only 10.

      I like the universality criterion, but ... but. I am pretty sure there is no book out there that appeals to everyone, even if it deals with universal themes.

      Anyway, here is my poor little list ...

      I Heard the Owl Call My Name

      Pavilion of Women, by Pearl Buck

      The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

      To Kill A Mockingbird

      Pilgrim's Progress

      'Til We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis

      Anna Karenina

      Lord of the Rings

      Little House on the Prairie

      One well-chosen Miss Marple mystery, by Agatha Christie (more research needed as to which one)

    • ajwrites57 profile image
      Author

      AJ 5 months ago from Pennsylvania

      All worthy selections, Jennifer. I enjoy Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien also. Yes, very difficult to choose just ten or one hundred. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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