Premium

The BBC's 100 Novels That Shaped Our World is a short-sighted list that will please nobody 

Modish and pointless: The BBC's 100 Novels That Shaped Our World
Modish and pointless: The BBC's 100 Novels That Shaped Our World

So many lists of “the 100 novels everybody should read” have been compiled over the years that they could fill a volume fatter than Anna Karenina.

Nevertheless the BBC has, somewhat unimaginatively, produced another one – the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World – to kick off the “year-long celebration of literature” that will dominate its arts programming across TV and radio in 2020.

Last time the corporation attempted such an exercise was “The Big Read” in 2003, when the 100 top novels were voted for by the public. The public can be capricious, however – the admirable children’s author Jacqueline Wilson was over-represented by having four books in the Top 100, Jeffrey Archer was over-represented by appearing at all – and this time we’re being told what’s good for us.

The Novels That Shaped Our World have been chosen by a panel made up of what you might call the great and the good (including Mariella Frostrup and Stig Abell, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement). These books, we are told, shaped their worlds, which is a fundamentally flawed concept.

Unlike The Big Read, this list (which will be discussed in a new series on BBC Two from this Saturday) is confined to English-language novels and allows only one entry per author.

They are divided into 10 sections with modish titles such as "Identity". At first glance, though, it seems like an admirable list. The judges have not shunned the books that always appear on these rolls of honour, so up pop Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rebecca, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Lord of the Rings.

The panel behind the list: Stig Abell, Mariella Frostrup, Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal, Alexander McCall Smith and Syima Aslam,  Credit: BBC

Yet such lists are pretty pointless if they don’t usher readers in the direction of less familiar books, and a lot of authors are represented by lesser-known works: Dickens by his last, weird masterpiece Our Mutual Friend; John Buchan by Mr Standfast instead of the ubiquitous The Thirty-Nine Steps and Salman Rushdie by The Moor’s Last Sigh instead of Midnight’s Children.

Unlike The Big Read, this 100 gives ample representation to authors of colour, and I have enjoyed reading up on those books I had never heard of: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing are already winging their way to my Kindle.

I’m very happy to see such underrated favourites as Patrick Hamilton and RK Narayan appear. Graphic novels are, rightly, eligible. And there is nothing off-puttingly earnest about the list: Bridget Jones, Adrian Mole, Cold Comfort Farm and Jilly Cooper’s Riders (although I would have picked her Rivals) have all found room.

Dame Jilly Cooper appears on the list Credit: Stephen Shepherd

But the scope of this list is narrow and, for all its apparent diversity and inclusivity, is far from representative of the full range of what great fiction can offer. This wouldn’t matter much if the six judges had simply been asked to submit a list of their favourite novels or even what they believe to be the best. But the exercise has been invested with more significance than that.

These are the “Novels That Shaped Our World”, the focus of a year-long festival described as “a multi-platform collaboration between the BBC, libraries and reading groups”.

Jonty Claypole, the director of BBC Arts, has said: “We asked our prestigious panel to create a list of world-changing novels that would be provocative, spark debate and inspire curiosity. It took months of enthusiastic debate and they have not disappointed.” Debate implies criteria for inclusion, and presumably the criteria must be that the book changed the world in some way. In which case, some of the inclusions and omissions start to look rather strange.

One notes that almost half the authors on the list are alive, which might suggest we are living in a golden age for the novel; but, then again, it could equally suggest that the judges have short memories.

This latter view is supported by the fact that only seven of the 100 novels on the list were published before 1900. The point of this exercise is allegedly to celebrate 300 years of the English-language novel, beginning with the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719; and, yet, there is no seat at the table for Crusoe, nor for Tristram Shandy, Roderick Random, Tom Jones or the protagonists of other important 18th century works.

In fact the pioneers of the novel’s first century are completely ignored; there is nothing earlier than Pride and Prejudice (1813). The Victorians fare little better: no Vanity Fair, no The Way of All Flesh, no Trollope, Hardy or Mrs Gaskell.

The more one looks at the list, the more it seems to favour the ersatz: not the giants, but those who stood on their shoulders. Rushdie owes a huge (and acknowledged) debt to the 18th-century picaresque novelists. Buchan is marvellous but he did little that Robert Louis Stevenson had not done before, and better.

Beloved, Toni Morrison’s novel of the slave trade is here, but would it be anywhere without the exemplar of Harriet E Wilson’s autobiographical novel, Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black? There is lots of crime fiction, but no Wilkie Collins or Agatha Christie; plenty of satire, but no Gulliver’s Travels; a slew of children’s books, but no Alice in Wonderland.

At least a fifth of the titles on the list are fantasy novels of one sort or another, from Frankenstein to A Game of Thrones. But if the judges have been keen to celebrate imaginative world-building, they seem, disappointingly, less keen on ground-breaking experiments with prose style.

The public managed to find room for James Joyce’s Ulysses in their Top 100, but there’s no Joyce here; no DH Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, B S Johnson or Eimear McBride. Virginia Woolf is represented by her jeu d’esprit Orlando, rather than anything chewier; Melville by his short tale Bartleby, the Scrivener rather than Moby-Dick. The books have been heralded as “page turners”, ignoring the fact that one mark of a great book may be that it inflames or angers or upsets or challenges its readers so much that they frequently have to stop turning the pages, to have time to recover or at least think a bit.

Perhaps the judges thought that anything even as challenging as Henry James or Conrad would be off-putting to potential readers. Fair enough, but even as a middlebrow selection of books, it leaves something to be desired. I would have thought that more of the great, but now unfairly neglected generation of midcentury British women writers – Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald – could have been given a boost by inclusion.

The male, pale and presumably stale writers on both sides of the Atlantic are under-represented: no Forster, no Waugh, neither Martin Amis, no McEwan or Barnes; no Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Bellow, Updike, Roth, Tom Wolfe or Richard Ford, although Armistead Maupin’s literary comfort blanket Tales of the City gets in.

There does seem to be something of a prejudice against those writers who, as Howard Jacobson has put it, don’t bow down before “the great god Nice”; perhaps being offensive is changing the world in the wrong way.

It seems typical of this list, somehow, that the Brontës are represented solely by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall rather than the often more irritating, but also more passionate and heartfelt, Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. You will have a grand time if you work your way through every novel on this list, but you’ll be leaving huge swathes of the territory that fiction covers unbroached. Ultimately, in trying to cover all bases, this is a list that pleases no one.

The full list:

Identity

  • Beloved – Toni Morrison
  • Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
  • Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
  • Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
  • Small Island – Andrea Levy
  • The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  • The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
  • Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  • White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Love, Sex & Romance

  • Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
  • Forever – Judy Blume
  • Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  • Riders – Jilly Cooper
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Far Pavilions – MM Kaye
  • The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
  • The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
  • The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

Adventure

  • City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
  • Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
  • His Dark Materials Trilogy – Phillip Pullman
  • Ivanhoe – Walter Scott
  • Mr Standfast – John Buchan 
  • The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
  • The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins 
  • The Jack Aubrey Novels – Patrick O’Brian
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – JRR Tolkein

Life, Death & Other Worlds

  • A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
  • Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri
  • Dune – Frank Herbert
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
  • Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
  • The Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  • The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
  • The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin 
  • The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman 
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Politics, Power & Protest

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini 
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  • Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman
  • Strumpet City – James Plunkett
  • The Color Purple – Alice Walker 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
  • Unless – Carol Shields

Class & Society

  • A House for Mr Biswas – VS Naipaul
  • Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
  • Disgrace – JM Coetzee 
  • Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
  • Poor Cow – Nell Dunn
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Alan Sillitoe
  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  • The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Coming of Age

  • Emily of New Moon – LM Montgomery
  • Golden Child – Claire Adam
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell 
  • Swami and Friends – RK Narayan
  • The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien
  • The Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
  • The Outsiders – SE Hinton
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾  – Sue Townsend 
  • The Twilight Saga – Stephanie Meyer

Family & Friendship

  • A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  • Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
  • Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
  • Middlemarch – George Eliot
  • Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
  • The Shipping News – E Annie Proulx
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
  • The Witches – Roald Dahl

Conflict & Crime

  • American Tabloid – James Ellroy
  • American War – Omar El Akkad
  • Ice Candy Man – Bapsi Sidhwa
  • Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
  • Regeneration – Pat Barker
  • The Children of Men – PD James
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle 
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
  • The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
  • The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Rule Breakers

  • A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  • Bartleby, the Scrivener – Herman Melville
  • Habibi – Craig Thompson
  • How to be Both – Ali Smith
  • Orlando – Virginia Woolf
  • Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  • Psmith, Journalist – PG Wodehouse
  • The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde