Along with some 200,000 people, I’ve been following with interest Observer associate editor Robert McCrum’s attempt, on the Guardian Books blog, to draw up a list of the 100 best English-language novels ever written. An easy task? Or an impossible one?
The editor is encountering hot debate over his choices. He writes:
Each week since we started the project last year, I’ve found that there’s always a steady percentage of my readers who a) viscerally hate it… b) despise it… or c) misunderstand it. …
More interestingly… there are those who debate, in a serious way, the choices I’ve made, challenging my criteria, and offering alternative readings.
I don’t envy him the task! So goes the saying: You can please some of the people all of the time. You can please all of the people some of the time. But you can never please all of the people all of the time.
Quite simply, one reader’s literary delight is another reader’s literary hell. A book that may be placed in pride of place on the bookshelf, to be treasured forever, may find its way in another household into the charity shop donations box. An author – any author – all authors! – reads with joy five-star reviews of their book and with sadness and some bemusement one-star reviews of the same book.
Can we ever, then, form a generally accepted list of the very best fiction ever written? Or does such a list invariably end up instigating battles between book lovers, with cries abounding of ‘literary snob’ and ‘genre-fiction unsophisticate’. Robert McCrum writes: ‘The truth is that if you compile a list like this for a publication like this, you discover a society of book lovers in the middle of a nervous breakdown.’
‘Breakdown’ is a word with negative connotations. Certainly, arguments based on a lack of respect for others’ reading preferences are negative. But in general, what a wonderful state of affairs that people are passionate enough about books to fight for their favourites!
Ultimately, a ‘best books’ list is only ever its writer’s opinion; albeit a well-read and educated one. Who is to say what is better? Who is to say what is best? Reading tastes are entirely individual.
Personally, I would love to see a survey of readers on a massive scale whose results form a ‘100 favourite novels’ list. I suspect that list would differ significantly from a best books list, and that readers would more likely try out a book they haven’t read.
What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts.