Robert McCrum's hundred best novels
By WILLIAM REES
There is something rather curious about the “hundred best” list (see Michael Caines's posts "Not the hundred best novels?" and "The hundred most influential books since the war?"); after all, putting the vote to the public or, worse, a cadre of self-elected experts almost never results in anything that will meaningfully diverge from an all-too-well-known canon. And yet we are compelled, time and again, to draw up endless variations of the same list, and to read them. Even those of us who have not contributed to an “official” list have probably drawn up hazier versions in our imaginations, perhaps as we stare at that familiar patch of ceiling above our beds.
Last week, with this question firmly in mind, I made a rare trip to Piccadilly Circus to attend an event at Waterstones promoting Robert McCrum’s The 100 Best Novels in English. The book’s cover tells us that it is affiliated with The Observer – but as the lack of the words “edited by” in front of McCrum’s name implies, it was compiled not by committee but by a single person. For two years, McCrum wrote about one book each week for the Observer, and the entries have now been compiled in an elegant hardback. Nice work if you can get it.
McCrum was an amiable host. At one point he told us of the hefty manuscript that he rejected when it landed on his desk at Faber. Its title was Infinite Jest. Later, he spoke about the obscurity in which Herman Melville lived after the publication of Moby-Dick, and posed the tantalizing question: who are the Melvilles of today? He went on to tell us “the problem with the contemporary novel” (not enough passion, apparently).
The evening had an informal tone, and McCrum was keen to hear the small audience’s views on what should make the cut. Our suggestions were every bit as predictable as his; and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it does suggest that we are all now quite used to this. Of course, McCrum’s choices are only part of the interest; it’s the way he speaks about those choices that really counts, and he did so with tenderness and flair. But browsing McCrum’s list, it looks oddly like one that has been compiled by committee, and there is little in there that is likely to surprise. One might expect an industry man like McCrum to have chosen a few lesser-known works – works whose inclusion might have challenged our idea of “best”. But, then, we don’t read these lists to be surprised, do we?
Which raises once again our opening question. What makes us endlessly reaffirm the value of Swift, Sterne and Steinbeck? Why are we so drawn to these lists? Maybe it’s that, in the face of an endless list of potentially life-changing works of art, these lists feed the fantasy of mastery. Who hasn’t been appalled, on visiting a library, to be confronted not only by all the fantastic things one hasn’t read, but also by the realization that one will never read the vast majority of them?
In answer to this anxiety, the “hundred best” list offers a soothing balm. It does this by way of a clever ruse, making mastery at once difficult enough to be worthwhile and easy enough to be achievable. And for those who find a hundred books a little daunting for a single lifetime, a growing list of books like McCrum’s offers a compelling and entertaining shortcut.