The OF Blog: 100 20th century Fictions : A Starter List

Friday, July 04, 2008

100 20th century Fictions : A Starter List

Since I had a bit more spare time this afternoon than I thought, I began writing down the names of books on my shelves that I thought would make for a good starter list of 20th century fiction (I purposely left out non-fiction). I decided that I would list only one novel or series by any single author, so if you are questioning why I chose X instead of Y from author Z's works, it is a matter of books that might serve as a good port of entry for those unfamiliar with that writer's style. There are of course many gaps here. I am well-aware of the gender imbalance and that is an unfortunate byproduct of past buying habits; I am open to suggestions. Doubtless, some will question why there is a paucity of SF works here compared to other genres. Again, past personal preference and one is free to add to this list. As the title states, this is a starter list for excellent 20th century literature (I might do one later for pre-20th century and one for the past decade, but don't hold your breath on that). Feel free to comment on the books you've read, the ones that ought to be added, ones you disliked, and ones you want to know more about. Feel free to pass this along to others, with bolded, italicized, underlined, struckthrough, or whatever else marking system you prefer to indicate books read, books to read, books to avoid, etc. One final thing: This list is not in any sort of order rather than the one in which I wrote these down as I scanned my shelves.

1. M. John Harrison, Viriconium
2. Steve Erickson, Arc d'X
3. Naguib Mahfouz, Children of the Alley
4. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes
5. Julio Cortázar, Rayuela/Hopscotch
6. Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel
7. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
8. John Crowley, Little, Big
9. Stepan Chapman, The Troika
10. Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles

11. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
12. José Saramago, Blindness
13. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
14. John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers
15. Kashuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
16. Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun (series)
17. James Joyce, Ulysses
18. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
19. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow
20. T.S. Eliot, "The Wastland" (poem)

21. Saul Bellow, The Victim
22. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
23. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
24. Samuel Delany, Dhalgren
25. Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
26. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland
27. Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again
28. Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun
29. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front
30. Pat Barker, Regeneration trilogy (series)

31. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-5
32. Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
33. Günter Grass, The Tin Drum
34. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
35. Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
36. F. Scott FitzGerald, Tender is the Night
37. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
38. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
39. Franz Kafka, The Trial
40. Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman

41. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
42. D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
43. Richard Wright, Native Son
44. Albert Camus, The Stranger
45. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
46. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
47. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
48. Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
49. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (series)
50. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

51. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
52. Allen Ginsberg, "Howl" (poem)
53. James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
54. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
55. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
56. William Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
57. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
58. Joseph Heller, Catch-22
59. Frank Herbert, Dune
60. Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song

61. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
62. George Orwell, 1984
63. Bertold Brecht, The Threepenny Opera (play)
64. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
65. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
66. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
67. Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children
68. William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner
69. Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps
70. Ernesto Sabato, On Heroes and Tombs

71. Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
72. Alexandr Soltzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
73. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits
74. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
75. Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina
76. Danilo Kiš, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
77. Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars
78. Edward Whittemore, Jerusalem Quartet (series)
79. Patricia McKillip, The Riddle-Master trilogy (series)
80. Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

81. Ben Okri, The Famished Road
82. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
83. John Kennedy Toole, The Confederacy of Dunces
84. Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives (published in Spanish in 1998)
85. Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (1983 original edition in Spanish)
86. José María Arguedas, Deep Rivers
87. Toni Morrison, Beloved
88. Jack Vance, The Dying Earth (series)
89. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris
90. O. Henry, The Complete Short Stories of O. Henry

91. Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain
92. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
93. Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs
94. Roberto Arlt, The Hunchback (short stories)
95. Octavia Butler, Lilith's Brood (series)
96. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
97. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
98. J.G. Ballard, The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
99. Flannery O'Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find (short stories)
100. Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (series)


Gabe said...

Ummmm.... I'm not sure I get what your point is here, other than creating a new meme of 100 books. What is this list supposed to represent? 100 great novels? 100 must-read books of the 20th Century? I mean, I've read a lot of these and I'm sure I could do the meme. I'm afraid I just don't get it, though.

Either way, lots of great books on here. A whole lot that I'm scowling at too.

Liviu said...

Much better list than any other seen. I would have put some other novels for several authors (Nabokov - Pale Fire or Sebastian Knight, Remarque Arc Triumph or Time to Love, Time to Die, Soltzhenitsyn - Gulag Archipelago, Mann - Dr Faustus are just some I consider much more representative of the author), and I've read 78 of the 100 authors, though not necessarily the books here.

I would add Tanizaki - say Makioka Sisters, or 7 Japanese Tales, Mishima - the final tetralogy, Durell - Alexandria Quartet, Kawabata - Master Go, Zweig - Chess Story, Celine - Journey to the end of Night, Henri Troyat - Tolstoy (biography but reads like a novel), Malraux - Human Adventure, Mauriac - Vipers'Tangle or Therese, Mika Waltari - The Egyptian or the Roman, R. Graves I Claudius, Mary Renault - Last of the Wine, D. Dunnett - House of Nicolo, C. McCullough - Masters of Rome, Anna Akhmatova - Requiem (poem), Joseph Brodsky - On Grief and Reason or Less than One (essays - essential in understanding how the Russian spirit survived the terrible communist oppression from 1917-1980's), Primo Levi - Periodic Table and then the Auschwitz books - though those are not for the faintest of heart, but those and the Gulag Archipelago should be required reading anywhere in the Western tradition at least, J. Fowles - The Magus, Colette - Collected Stories, Alfred Doblin - Berlin Alexanderplatz, Elias Canneti - Auto da Fe, Joseph Roth - Radetzki March, Evelyn Waugh - Men at Arms, Anthony Powell - Dance to the Music of Time.

Ar least these are some of the books I see from scanning my non-sff part of the library that I think complement those on the original list and provide some of the most notable books/authors of the 20th century that I've read

Larry said...


It was merely a reaction to other such lists that I felt left out quite a bit, nothing more than that. Curious about the ones that have left you scowling, though, as well as ones that could have been improvements over the existing ones.


Thanks for the suggestions. I almost put Graves on that list, but I can't recall why I didn't at the time. Haven't read Durell yet and I forgot about Zweig until I was reading another list elsewhere.

Hopefully, I'll get more books being mentioned here, as that really is what interests me. Defining "the greatest" is passé, but discovering "potentially great" is much more appealing.

Dark Wolf said...

Why you didn't put Zafon on your list? :)
Just kidding ;)

I personally haven't read much of your list, but still. I like Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Arturo Perez-Reverte from my latest reads and "Catcher in the Rye" always brings me fond memories.

Gabe said...

Oh, no... the scowls come from my reading intriguing titles I haven't encountered before... like number 3, for instance. I've read the Cairo Trilogy, but Children of the Alley sounds interesting (even if it is allegory).

There are some titles on here that I don't care for, and others where I'd certainly chose different books. (For instance, I'd take Absalom, Absalom! over The Sound and the Fury any day, and I've always preferred both The Flounder and The Dog Years over The Tin Drum... and I'd definitely choose a collection of Hemingway's stories, even though I love your choice). But really, you've got me thinking that maybe it'd be interesting to put together a sort of "canon" of genre/non-genre works that any fantasist or fantasist reviewer ought to be familiar with. Hmmm...

Larry said...


I didn't put those first couple on there, because all I've read of their works came after 2000. I almost put Salinger's book on there, but I decided that I liked Bukowski's a bit better.


Some of those choices were difficult, since I was limiting myself to a single author. I chose that one Faulkner book because it often is cited by García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes as being influences on their own styles. Hemingway was tough, but I felt his first novel captured the Lost Generation quite well.

If I had gone with non-fiction as well, I could have had a few mindfucks on there. Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That I consider to be much more powerful than any of his fiction, much as I enjoyed those. Wiesel's Night, of course. And if I had extended this into the 21st century, Roberto Bolaño's 2666 would have served as a suitable metaphor for the 20th century at its worst (I'm eager to hear what people will say in November when the English translation comes out).

As for a canon-type list, I'd love to see something like that. I know part of the spirit for this came from reading VanderMeer's 64 Favorite Fictions a couple of years ago - he chose an interesting mix of authors whose techniques he lauded, irrespective of genre classifications. Since I read all sorts, I thought something keeping with the spirit of his list would be suitable.

Gabriele C. said...

As I said on Westeros, I've read 29 from that list, and 13 from Liviu's additional list. :)

Daniel Ausema said...

Why Tender is the Night? I found that inane--yet one more (unending) story of upper-class Americans, driftless in Europe. Maybe I just caught it at a time when it wasn't jiving with me.

In general, great list--I've probably read 35-40 of them, with another almost as many that are authors I've read but you chose a specific book I haven't. I might suggest adding Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...or does that qualify as memoir rather than fiction? (Of course you already have poetry...)

If I was picking a favorite Calvino book, it'd be If on a winter's night a traveler, but Invisible Cities was my intro to him and serves well as that--and is amazingly good in its own right.q

Larry said...

I felt that Tender is the Night was a more complete story than most of FitzGerald's other works, so I went with that. Calvino's Invisible Cities I felt would be a better primer for those unfamiliar with him than If on a winter's night a traveler would have been. But at least it's just a matter of choosing between two excellent books by an author, no? :D

Enrique said...

I'm appalled as to why Salinger's Catcher in the Rye isn't up on this list.
And actually, I'm very surprised that Things Fall Apart was on there.
I didn't think that was a book worth recognition when I was reading it.
I see a bunch of these that are on my list of books to read next, and I think that I will be using this afterwards to add.
Plus plus.

Larry said...

It was between Salinger and Bukowski and I thought Bukowski's book was slightly stronger in places. As for the Achebe, I just liked it and thought it was a powerful book. Glad that others on the list are more appealing to you :D

Liviu said...

Many years ago when I was still living under the nasty communist regime in Romania and books were my major escape from the insanity of daily life, I had a book about all the Nobel laureates in literature, works, biography, critical appraisal - Canetti was there so it was at least 1981 latest, and there was only one author with just one page name/year prize, no bibliography or biography, easy guess who - and being somewhat lucky with an aunt senior librarian in a relatively major city - I had access to quite a few books outside of my parents 1200+ volume library, and then one book leads to another, so this is how I discovered many of the authors on the list or that I mentioned.

So that is another idea - if you want to read the cream of 20th century literature you could do worse by starting with a Nobel list and then going to similar authors since after all there is a political element in the Nobel too

Larry said...

Good points, Liviu. While I know I have a few Nobel, Booker, Pulitzer, Hugo, Nebula, etc. award winners here, it might make for an interesting years-long project to read at least a sampling of each of those award winners' oevre and then comment on those. I'll have to keep this in mind for months from now...

Dark Wolf said...

Liviu reminded me how hard it was to obtain books in the Communism regim. The good books were sold "under the hand", it means that they didn't even hit the counter or the shelves of the bookstores and they were sold. I was lucky to have a good person at the local library and she gave acces to the back of the library for hidden "treasures". And Larry's list makes me want to catch up things :)

Larry said...

It's strange, but due to having grown up in a small town with an inadequate library, I took to buying books rather than borrowing them. Leads to a nice collection, but also less space for everything else.

Dark Wolf said...

I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good library at home too, thanks to my mother (even though when she divorced my father, he took a great number of good titles, damn). And after 1989 I build around my mother's library and I have a nice collection now. And I hope to grow my collection still :)

Lewis said...

Good list. I like seeing a lot of the books on here that many academics just snub their nose at.

Ian Rutherford said...

number 74 ...

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