Friday, April 2, 2010

A novel kind of March Madness

The good folks over at “First Thoughts” have just concluded a Tournament of Novels, in which sixty-four great works were pitted against each other in four brackets, in the same style as the NCAA March Madness tournament. “First Thoughts” is the blog of First Things, a periodical “published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life, an interreligious, nonpartisan research and education institute whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society” (so says their website). For those unfamiliar with the magazine, as I was until now, be sure to take a look at one of the feature articles in their current (April 2010) issue, “Science Friction”, which discusses, among other things, the 1943 kerfuffle between C.S. Lewis and Arthur C. Clarke. You can read the article online, here.

But back to the Tournament of Novels. As with any bracket competition, a lot depends on how the original sixty-four contenders are selected, as well as how they are seeded against one another. Such subjective issues set on one side, the list was very broadly representative of the best works of world literature (but disproportionately favoring Western Europe and the United States). A few choices and omissions were surprising, but most of the greats are there: Tolstoy, Melville, Twain, Hawthorne, Austen, Joyce, and plenty of others. Of more interest to Lingwë readers, I daresay, we had authors such as Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Stephen King, Frank Herbert, and of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Well, it’s fait accompli now. And the results were a repeat of many surveys before — Waterstone’s in 1997,’s in 1999, and plenty of others — crowning Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the ultimate champion. In fact, in the Tournament finals, The Lord of the Rings decimated Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by roughly nine to one.

This merely confirms what we have known all along, that The Lord of the Rings is one of the greatest novels ever written. At the same time, I think my wife has a good point that the novel largely owes its impressive showing in surveys of this sort to the cult of Tolkien. She’s right. How many Melville or Twain fanboys do you find out there, scribbling away obsessively on blogs and discussion groups? Not many.

For those who are curious, the complete list of contenders follows. Any glaring omissions, in your opinion? Any peculiar choices here? Who do you think should have won? And if the answer reconfirms the vote of the masses, then do you agree with Twain as runner-up? Or would you have rather seen a different second place finsher? Myself, I was disappointed at the omission of Graham Greene. And there were no representatives of the modern African novel. How about Chinua Achebe or Ben Okri? Nothing from the Far East either.

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
Ulysses, Joyce
The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald
Moby-Dick, Melville
Robinson Crusoe, Defoe
Pale Fire, Nabokov
Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon
Pride and Prejudice, Austen
Wuthering Heights, Brontë
Starship Troopers, Heinlein
Ender’s Game, Card
Daniel Deronda, Eliot
To The Lighthouse, Woolf
The Lord Of The Rings, Tolkien
Atlas Shrugged, Rand
Brave New World, Huxley
1984, Orwell
Gulliver’s Travels, Swift
Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Carroll
On The Road, Kerouac
The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger
Lord of the Flies, Golding
To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee
Beloved, Morrison
Wise Blood, O’Connor
The Way We Live Now, Trollope
The Wapshot Chronicles, Cheever
Gone With The Wind, Mitchell
Madame Bovary, Flaubert
David Copperfield, Dickens
Jane Eyre, Bronte
A Bend In The River, Naipaul
A Clockwork Orange, Burgess
Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Twain
Don Quixote, Cervantes
The Hunt For Red October, Clancy
The Big Sleep, Chandler
Arrowsmith, Lewis
Herzog, Bellow
In Search Of Lost Time, Proust
Brideshead Revisited, Waugh
Invisible Man, Ellison
Native Son, Wright
One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Márquez
Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth
The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting, Kundera
The Charterhouse Of Parma, Stendhal
The Stand, King
The Plague, Camus
The Sound And The Fury, Faulkner
The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
The Call Of The Wild, London
Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The Trial, Kafka
The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan
U.S.A. (Trilogy), Dos Passos
Dune, Herbert
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Adams
The Moviegoer, Percy
Under The Volcano, Lowry
Charlotte’s Web, White
Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury


  1. Your wife's observation begs the causality question: Does LOTR beat out other novels because of its "fanboys ... scribbling away obsessively on blogs and discussion groups," or is there a huge Tolkien fandom because the novel really is so great? In other words, is there a reason there aren't as many obsessive Twain or Melville fans, and does that reason have bearing on the intrinsic quality of their works?

    -- David Emerson

  2. Hi, David. I think it’s both; the one feeds the other, as in a virtuous circle. It remains to be seen whether the popular cult of Tolkien will still be as strong as it is today when The Lord of the Rings is as old as Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn, roughly 70 and 100 years older than Tolkien’s novel, respectively.

    There may be intrinsic reasons for the lack of Twain and Melville fanboys. What do you think? This goes to the heart of the perennial debate on the merits of genre fiction versus literature (so-called). Of course, I believe Tolkien’s novel is both. But there is still enormous resistance from the literatary intelligentsia to admitting Tolkien into the canon.

  3. I'm as much of a Huck Finn fanboy as I am a Lord of the Rings one, if the term can be applied at all. I've read both books dozens of times, I've worked out their geography, I've explored the author's other works, I avoid movies based on them ...

  4. pretty dang cool to see the Hitchhikers Guide on that list, that book is brilliant. but id have to say that i dont think a good many of those books should be there (though ive not read them all). a clockwork orange was just plain stupid, and Farenheit 451 wasn't all that impressive either. im dissapointed to not see Asimov books as well.

  5. David, nice to hear there are still a few Twain fanboys left! :)

    Whitefrozen, yes, such things are completely subjective. I know people who would disagree with you about Bradbury and Burgess, but everyone’s tastes are different, aren’t they?

  6. indeed it is, i dont mean to come on to strong about my personal tastes in books. i just happen to feel particularly strong about those two:p

  7. Very interesting to see Stephen King on there. I happen to like him, so I tend to think he gets less than his due, but I understand those who struggle to think of him as a "great writer," or his books as "great books."

    I would've liked to see The Bridge of San Luis Rey on there, as well as something by McCarthy - I would pick Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses. Also, Lolita, I think, is a worthy pick.

    Another American novel I've loved is Lonesome Dove. A really good revisionist Western, I think (not that I'm an expert in any way on revisionist Westerns), though it seems as though it is a book being forgotten. Perhaps I'm just not in the right circles!

    Jason, do you think any of these awesome Tolkien gatherings will ever come to St. Louis? Because, well, I, you know, kind of live there :).

  8. As an aside, if I were picking the picks, I think Tale of Two Cities blows David Copperfield out of the water any day of the week. But perhaps that's just me.

  9. The FishWife4/10/2010 3:15 PM

    Alex: I think Great Expectations blows both of them out of the water. Just a humble opinion.

    I know Jason and I both agree that many authors were there who deserved to be there, but wondered at the novel selection. Best example off the top of my head: Daniel Derida by George Eliot. Why not Middlemarch? Is it so that she could lose? I don't know....

    Alex (again): I agree about McCarthey. We both were just struck dumb by The Road. I can't wait to read more of his novels.

  10. Alex, like my wife, I would have picked The Road, one of my favorite novels ever. As for St. Louis, well, Mythcon this year in Dallas is about a ten-hour drive, or a very short flight. Give it some thought; I guarantee you’d have a great time. I don’t know whether any of these events will ever come to St. Louis itself. Maybe. Eventually. :)

    FishWife, I agree: Great Expectations would be my pickin’s of the Dickens. Ditto, Middlemarch. And ditto, Alex, for Lolita instead of Pale Fire, a book I simply could not finish.

    And why isn’t E.M. Forster on this list?!

  11. i have to say, i firmly beleive the film version of The Road is better than the book.

  12. Well, I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t possibly believe this is true. The Road is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read, and so much of it is internal, I don’t see how it would translate to the screen as anything more than mere plot. So, you’ve read the book and seen the film? Why do you feel the film is superior?

  13. firstly, the film sticks EXACTLY to the book. the only thing that is changed is that the Mother is shown a little bit more, in dreams and flashbacks. secondly, the music adds a whole new dimension to the story, the guys who scored it are some of my favorite artists and the score here is brilliant. thirdly, Viggo Mortensen perfectly portrays the man. absolutely perfectly.The book is good, but I honestly think film is how this story was meant to be told.

  14. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree — though I would still like to see the film. For one thing, the music. That seems all wrong. One of the most important elements of the novel is the extreme, pervasive silence that returns to the world in the wake of whatever vague calamity has overtaken it. Second, the absense of the mother is a critical element to the novel. You dilute that if she appears too often in flash back. Thanks for your thoughts on it, but I stand by the assumption that the novel will prove the better of the two — at least, to my tastes.

  15. hmm...those are interesting points. I did see the movie before i read the book, so perhaps I'm slightly biased, but it seemed to me that the film just sort of...fleshed out the story a little bit more. I do see your point on how that could dilute the strength of the story though, which is something I hadn't thought of. I'll read the book again with this in mind and perhaps I'll see it differently.

  16. I just read it again myself a few months ago (the second reading), so it’s pretty fresh in my mind. Do read it again and report back! :)