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Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time list

How works were selected | What does 'great' mean anyway? | Is genre writing good lit? | The biases

The Greatest Literature of All Time is necessarily an amalgam of a lot of opinions. The list reflects as much as possible the consensus of the world's readers, writers, critics and scholars.

But it is not a popularity poll. The intent was also to consider minority assessments that may highlight great works not widely known across all categories of readers, writers, critics and scholars.

The list was also meant to remain open to revision—as times and tastes change—without abandoning the enduring judgments of the ages. (That's partly why the list has 999 entries, rather than the round number of a thousand: it is always incomplete. There's always room for one more.)

This may sound like an impossible task, even a self-contradictory one. But read on to see how the work was done to judge for yourself whether it has been accomplished.

How works were selected

In the first place, the compiler of The Greatest Literature of All Time has personally read just over half the works on the completed list. I wish I could have read them all. I'm working on it. There are obviously too many books on this list for one person to read in a few years. Moreover, to get the number of works on this "short list" down to a thousand, one has to consider several thousand works on a "long list" of contenders. This is more than could be read in a normal lifetime. And please don't begrudge me the time to read all the additional books and stories that have caught my fancy—all the worthy and not-so-worthy works that anyone who loves books ends up reading, regardless of whether they are potential candidates for any list.

To come up with an initial list of works to consider, I consulted literally hundreds of sources: critical studies, bibliographies, reference books, companions to literature, literary histories, handbooks, catalogues, literary prize lists, school reading lists, university curricula and the like. I noted what others consider the most important works from different parts of the world and from different time periods. I even contacted experts directly to get recommendations.

This long process resulted in my first Greatest Literature list. I tentatively published it online in 1999. (Actually it had first appeared earlier as a timeline on tractor-fed printer paper, plastered across an office wall where I worked at an editorial job in the mid-1990s. But that's another story.)

I didn't stop there. After posting that first list, I set to work compiling a database of thirty-four other attempts to create "greatest" lists (since then, expanded to more than fifty lists). Some of these lists focused on modern works, some on classic works, some on novels, others on stories, plays or poetry. They ranged in length from ten to more than a thousand items each. They listed "top", "best", "favourite" or "must-read-before-you-die" literary works of various types and from various cultures. Some of the lists were themselves compiled from the votes of many readers or reviewers. Some were the more idiosyncratic product of individual writers and critics. And some were not really lists at all but titles I extracted from published anthologies that purported to pull together the best of complete fields between their covers, as well as from the readling lists of prominent educational institutions.

With this database, a complicated algorithm was devised, assigning values to works based on their placement on the lists, as well as on the credibility and breadth of the lists themselves. This yielded a ranked list of 2,436 works (expanded eventually to nearly five thousand titles).

In case you're curious, the top twenty entries in that first calculated list were:

  1. Don Quixote
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  3. Lolita
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four
  5. Madame Bovary
  6. In Search of Lost Time
  7. Gulliver's Travels
  8. Anna Karenina
  9. Middlemarch
  10. Ulysses
  11. War and Peace
  12. Moby Dick
  13. Hamlet
  14. The Brothers Karamazov
  15. The Great Gatsby
  16. Tristram Shandy
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude
  18. The Portrait of a Lady
  19. Frankenstein
  20. Pride and Prejudice

While few would disagree with any of these particular titles appearing on a list of greatest literary works, this ranking may yet give pause.

You may notice that almost all these top-twenty works (Hamlet being the only exception) are novels, the chief literary form of the modern era. Three quarters of the titles are from the past two centuries. Also, almost all are from Europe and the United States. It's also noteworthy that none of the great works of genre fiction—staples of modern popular fiction—have made the top twenty (with the possible exceptions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is sometimes classed with science fiction, and Frankenstein, sometimes considered an early horror or science fiction work).

More diverse items do appear further down the ranked list. But these general trends—we can call them biases—held to some degree through the top thousand entries. Despite efforts to add a wide range of contributing lists to the mix, for a long time the consensus seemed always to settle on the more narrow modern Western canon of mainstream literature.

You may also be perplexed by the relative rankings in some cases. I mean, Lolita is a great and provoicative novel, but the highest-ranked work of the twentieth century? Even higher ranked than any of the earlier works of Dickens, the Brontës or Homer, none of which made the top twenty? All these examples landed in the top thousand, but still the ranked listing makes you think about the failings of seeking only consensus on such matters.

However, this consensus list, as it may be called, was never meant to replace the titles on my original research list. Rather, amalgamating the two held out the promise of getting the best of both approaches.

So, over several years I modified my originally posted greatest literature list, adding and cutting titles, based on the consensus list, as well as on the views of respected readers, writers, critics and scholars, whom I continued to consult. They weren't always easy decisions, especially when the consensus and research opinions differed widely. It was tough to judge, for example, whether a work low in the consensus rankings but championed in one corner of experts really is one of the unjustly neglected greatest works or just a few critics' darling with limited publicappeal. Or to judge whether a widely popular book is worthy despite the disdain of the experts. But I persevered as best I could.

The results—new versions of The Greatest Literature of All Time list—continued to appear, containing all the works that at the time were widely accepted as being among the greatest, but also the many just-as-great works that may be less known across the broad spectrum but are treasured by respected sources and beloved by readers in parts of the world. Revisions continued to be made based on new research and changing consensus, with as many as twenty titles changing each year.

By about 2015 the list settled into something close to the list you see now. I am confident it is the most complete and accurate summary of great literature to be found today.

However, tweaking of the list is continual, based on new evidence. On average four or five titles change on the main Greatest Literature list annually—although 2021 has seen a larger than usual number of changes as new and old works by diverse authors have become more prominent in the public literary conversation, a trend we can expect to continue. So, if you are citing the list for your own research purposes, be sure to note the date on which the page is retrieved.

What does 'great' mean anyway?

I've been inclusive in my decision-making, on the grounds it is better to err on the side of including the odd work that may not ultimately deserve greatness thrust upon it than on the side of excluding any that do.

The term "greatest" is applied quite liberally.

Works may be considered great in the traditional sense of having stood the test of time, remaining monuments of intellectual and artistic achievement. This is "Greatest", with a capital G.

Or they may be called great in the more colloquial sense of "What a great read!"

The G-word may be used in many other ways. A writer's work may be great in the impact it has in its time. Great in its influence on other authors. Great in popularity. Great in the insights it gives us into a certain place, time or culture. Great in its use of language. Great in its artistic innovation or technical virtuosity.

No one of these definitions is used as the sole criterion for this list of the "greatest" literature. And none of these definitions are outside the scope of the list. Any or all of the ways people talk of books being great are taken into account for each title.

I don't always agree with them. In some cases, critics and scholars have praised as masterpieces works I dislike. For example, James Joyce's Ulysses is often hailed as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I have read it five times (yeah, really) and have come to the conclusion it is a brilliantly innovative, torturous waste of time. Except for the raunchy final section, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, which I do adore. Yes I said yes I do yes.

A book that often places near the top of readers' favourite lists is Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. In my opinion, this is a dreadfully written novel of cardboard characters and unbelievable narrative, popular mainly due to its rousing message of individualism and its support by followers of Rand's ultra-capitalist philosophy. However, this book too remains on the list and I await the passage of time to see if the rest of the world's opinion catches up to mine, at which point the book could be taken off the list. Or not.

Similar remarks may be made about George Orwell's Animal Farm, whose critical and popular support may be due more to its political allegory than to its literary qualities.

Note that I am not opposed to political content. Personally, I welcome it. But in these latter two examples I don't think it's enough to overcome other shortcomings.

Nonetheless, all these and other works are included, despite my personal misgivings, because large numbers of others think they're great.

This is not necessarily a list of the "best" or highest quality of literary works. I'm sure many works that are technically superior to the works we know well have never become known outside small circles, perhaps never even published. Or they may have been published and forgotten because they didn't speak to people in a particular way at a particular time; their timing was off. Their authors simply had bad luck. Whatever the reason, some works' good qualities did not lead them to become known.

So, this is not a list of works chosen as the best ever. It's a list of works that have become recognized as the greatest ever—whatever criterion of greatness has been applied by a significant portion of humanity.

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Is genre writing good lit?

Included on the Greatest Literature list are some works scholars and critics turn up their noses at but a good portion of the public have embraced.

For the most part, these disagreements occur over twentieth-century (or later) works that may be considered genre writing: science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror, and so on.

It could be argued that supposed genre writers, like Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King, have had as great an impact on modern writing and modern life as any authors with greater "literary" credentials. The justification for including their best—recognizing their greatness, if you will—is that they offer tremendous rewards to their readers. They may be as meaningful to readers today as the gripping stories of Beowulf, Song of Roland and King Arthur's knights were to people of the Middle Ages, or as the thrilling tales of Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson were in the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, such works may eventually turn out to be more like the once wildly popular writing of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace, John Creasey or Mary Roberts Rinehart and eventually fade into obscurity. (A favourite moment in the movie Star Trek: The Voyage Home is when Captain Kirk notes swearing was common in the twentieth century: "You'll find it in all the literature of the era. Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins." To which Spock nods, "Ah, the giants.") Time will tell. And, when it does, the Greatest list of the day will reflect it.

The biases

A weakness of the list is that it still emphasizes Western literature available in English. Great effort has been mde to consider the greatest creative literature from all parts of the world and in many languages, but evidence of the natural bias likely remains. With continued work this bias may be further overcome.

The biggest bias evident in the list though is that twentieth-century writing accounts for more entries than all other periods put together. Partly this is because, indeed, more literature has been produced in the past century than in any other era. It also, no doubt, due to the fact that contemporary literature often speaks to us more directly than older works and thus seems "better" to those of us living now. And partly this preponderance of modern lit can be attributed to simple ignorance of older works. This imbalance is expected to be redressed somewhat as we gain longer perspective on recent works.

Another modern bias should be addressed. Novels are cited much more frequently than any other kinds of works, such as short stories, poetry or drama. This reflects the fact that novels constitute the most popular literary form.

This wasn't always the case. At one time the writing that any literate person would know was poetry. Even earlier, stories told orally or acted out were the chief entertainment. But for the past century at least, the novel has been far and away the most popular literary form. This is not to excuse the list's neglect of any great poems, stories or plays. The problem is simply that we in the modern world are not as familiar with them as we are with novels.

Drama is an unusual case as a "literary" form because plays are generally not written to be read. In the days before movies and television, people were more familiar with drama live on stage than in print. Even today the quality of a play as a play depends on much more than its literary values. In general, dramas selected for this list are those that offer the greatest rewards as literature—that is, as read on the page. The success of a theatrical performance—like the success of a movie or television drama based on a written script—is only partially relevant to our literary purposes here.

In future, the list could even include an exceptional film or TV screenplay if a great one should be published and read as literature.

The Greatest Literature of All Time is an ongoing project. Sources continue to be consulted. New works are read, read about and discussed. As hinted before, humanity over time changes its tastes—even its tastes as to what constitutes our greatest literature of all time.

— Eric McMillan