The Top 100 Novels...or Marketing Ploys?

Next semester, if you decide to take a class featuring some of the finest novels written in the 20th century, you may find yourself selecting from a whole new breed of pricey paperbacks. Random House has just started publishing quality paperback versions of selections from its list of the 100 best novels written since the turn of the century, a list that has provoked widespread criticism, debate and, among the more media-savvy, a halfhearted shrug of the shoulders at the lengths to which some publishers will go to drum up a little business.

It's clear that Harry Evans, Random House's former top dog, doesn't go away quietly. Before the powerful editor abandoned his perch at one the largest book publishers in the country, he pulled off one of the savviest promotional stunts of his career--an idea even more inspired than his Primary Colors campaign. And to avoid direct criticism, he even had some of the most venerable names in modern literature and literary theory do his work for him.

All that Harry did was ask the board of the Modern Library, an association that oversees the publication of many renowned works of 20th century literature in attractive, hardcover volumes, to choose, from an unlimited field of candidates, the 100 best novels written in English since 1900. No big deal--especially since the board is made up of respectable thinkers and writers including Daniel J. Boorstin, A.S. Byatt, Shelby Foote, Edmund Morris, William Styron and Gore Vidal.

Immediately following the list's release, a good deal of hoopla broke out--which is, without a doubt, exactly what Random House was hoping for. Everyone from professors to journalists to people on the street had their complaints, as well as the occasional accolade. Some of the most common gripes: Two works by James Joyce in the top five? Is Ulysses really the greatest novel ever written, and has anyone ever read the whole thing? And why such a proliferation of white males? Only eight women make the list, with Edith Wharton lucky enough to score twice, for The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. And Toni Morrison...shut out?

This sort of nitpicking, I'm sure, pleases Evans immensely. Now that titles like The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington are suddenly floating around the airwaves, making their way into circles of conversation and, no doubt, appearing in paperback at The Coop, Random House stands to profit. Indeed, the company plans to reissue 10 more novels from the list in the coming year. But is this dose of unabashed consumerism enough to make us want to sneer at the entire project? Not really. The truth is, Americans aren't exactly eating up literary fiction these days. If it takes a bit of corporate motivation to put these books back on our personal shelves, then so be it.

It is important, however, that we recognize when we are being targeted by an advertising campaign, and few have been looking at the Modern Library's list in this light. Random House has been successfully keeping up the illusion that the 100 best list is a real news story by encouraging groups to respond with their own revised lists. The Radcliffe Publishing course, full of young professionals about to enter the field, took on that particular task. The Radcliffe group did a laudable job, even managing to sneak Winnie the Pooh in between Heart of Darkness and Their Eyes Were Watching God. But they should be aware that in creating their own list, they are contributing to the success of the very project that they are trying to debunk.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the "people's choice" list on the Modern Library's Web site. Random House has been allowing those who pass by its Web site to cast their own votes for the 100 best, and the results are quite bizarre. Though John Q. Internet has kept The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury in the top 50, he's also added Starship Troopers and several works by Stephen King. Four works in the top ten are by Ayn Rand. Number one, Atlas Shrugged, has received many more votes than the first non-Rand entry, Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. Clearly, this suggests not that Ayn Rand is at the forefront of America's literary tastes, but rather that a lot of Objectivists have been surfing the net.

Ultimately, Random House wins no matter what, because it can spin any reaction it gets in order to keep the novels in the spotlight and on the shelves. The company even offers certain deprecating comments on its Web site as evidence of all the controversy it has sparked. Though the New York Times says that "the streets will be littered with lists like this when the millennium comes, and when the millennium goes they will be swept into piles and forgotten," others put a more positive angle on the spats sparked by the list. Alain de Botton says, quite poetically, that "in disagreeing with the judges' choices, we define our own identities as readers. Perhaps the best lists should annoy us most." If this is true, Random House has certainly succeeded.

And it has succeeded financially too. In August, when the list first appeared, Ulysses, Brave New World, Lolita and The Great Gatsby were all among the top 10 paperback bestsellers on Amazon.com, and the new paperbacks, with their admittedly attractive covers and layout, should bring in a handsome profit. Thought I expected the list to increase the popularity of the books for a short while, I find it remarkable that the public is quite so impressionable to a media stunt. As for myself, at least I know that only I can choose the books that I like, and that Harry Evans and the Modern Library board can't tell me what to read.

On second thought, I've been meaning to pick up Ulysses for a long time now, anyway. Really, it's just a coincidence.

Erwin R. Rosinberg '00 is an English concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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