Telegraph.co.uk has reported the results of Play.com’s poll to select The Greatest Novel of All Time. These things are always good for a laugh and a cry — many thanks to SF Awards Watch for posting the link.
With Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at the top, Tolkien’s triology second and the first book in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series third, Play.com’s list appeals to my tastes far more strongly than most. But I was surprised to see some other bestselling authors make the list with novels that weren’t what I believed to be their most highly-respected works.
J.K. Rowling got on the board with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — not the Hugo-winning Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Stephen King is represented by It – not what I’d have guessed is his most popular book, and not my favorite (which is either The Stand or Salem’s Lot).
Popular lists tend to be dominated by the favorites of a determined minority of voters. For example, you can still visit Scifi.com’s poll of the 2003 Hugo nominees and see where Plokta outpolled Emerald City in the Best Fanzine category, 10,186 to 643. (Never mind that the eventual 2003 winner was Mimosa.)
There are lists of Greatest Novels all over the internet, but the pair posted by Random House’s Modern Library readily illustrate that every list seems to be the product of an agenda, especially in the internet age.
The Modern Library’s first list, composed by a board, follows canonical lines. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are numbers one and three. The rest of the list is dominated by the books English professors were assigning me as required reading when I was in college.
“The Readers’ List,” on the other hand, is the result of a 1998 poll of the general public in which 217,520 votes were cast. Two novels by Ayn Rand head the list, two more of the top 10 are by L. Ron Hubbard, and elsewhere appear probably every novel written by Charles de Lint (certainly not a “Who?” but come on now…)
Popularly selected lists of “the greatest” are always a trainwreck. I’ve never forgotten the summer of 1975 when “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas was chosen the Greatest Song in the History of Rock’n’Roll by the listeners of CKLW – relegating to second place the more plausible candidate, “Hey, Jude” by The Beatles.