had by all
August 20, 1998
By Franklin Harris
Everyone loves "best of" lists. They allow people to have opinions without actually backing them up.
The American Film Institute's recent list of the best 100 American films of all time is a nice example. If people actually had to justify why they think "Forrest Gump" and "Bonnie and Clyde" are among the 100 best movies America has ever produced, they'd be at a loss.
(I, likewise, am not going to attempt to explain why they don't belong on the list. It isn't for me to prove a negative.)
Still, top-10 and top-100 (and top-whatever) lists do have a useful function: they stimulate discussion among those of us who aren't afraid to justify our opinions -- that is, those of us who think "Forrest Gump" is sentimental drivel. Which it is. No matter how fine a job of playing an idiot Tom Hanks does.
(I could back up that statement, but, since we're talking best-of lists, I don't have to.)
The latest best-of list to crop up purports to list the 100 best English-Language novels since 1900.
The list was compiled by the Modern Library Board, whose august membership includes novelists Gore Vidal, William Styron and Larry McMurtry (who was unable to vote); historians Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Daniel Boorstin; and alleged poet Maya Angelou, who, like McMurtry, was unable to vote, thus preventing the list from being even sillier than it already is.
Ironically, Vidal, the best writer of the bunch, hasn't a single book on the list, even though his "Burr" certainly deserves inclusion.
(I'd explain why "Burr" deserves to be on the list, but, since we're still talking about a top-100 list, I am not obliged to explain myself.)
The list is full of the usual overrated works, the presence of most of which can be explained by the left-wing politics of the books in question and the equally left-leaning politics of the board members.
"The Grapes of Wrath" rests at the mind-numbingly lofty perch of No. 10. "Deliverance" ranks No. 42.
What is most bothersome about the list, however, is its snobbish exclusion of fiction from the most vital genre of the century: science fiction.
To be fair, a few genre titles do make the list -- and rate quite highly, in fact. "Brave New World" and "1984" both made the top 15.
But neither is ever regarded as science fiction by the sort of people who organize libraries or compile best-of lists.
"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess (No. 65) and "Slaughterhouse Five" by Kurt Vonnegut (No. 18) are two other SF novels that critics never think of as SF. If they're good, they can't actually be genre works, critics reason.
Vonnegut, in fact, spent most of his career denying that he even wrote SF. It was the only way to remain respectable.
But no science fiction novel that was ever actually marketed as science fiction makes the list.
There is no Robert Heinlein on the list. No Arthur C. Clarke. No Philip K. Dick. No Alfred Bester.
There is no Burroughs. No Sturgeon. No Bradbury. There isn't even an Asimov, whose merely workmanlike prose is nevertheless filled with interesting ideas. Sometimes the ideas are bunk, but that's the chance every SF writer takes.
I could make the case that every one of those writers belongs on the Modern Library list.
I could. But I don't have to.