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Creating the Greatest Literature of All Time list

How works were selected | The big shift | What's so 'great' about these books? | Is genre writing any good? | The biases

The Greatest Literature of All Time is 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 new great works are discovered and as times and tastes change—without abandoning the enduring judgments of the ages. That's partly why the list has 999 entries, rather than a rounder number: it is perpetually incomplete. Always room for one more. 

How works were selected

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 the list down under a thousand, one has to assess thousands of works—more than could be read in a normal lifetime.

And please don't begrudge me the time to read 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 hundreds of sources: critical studies, bibliographies, reference books, companions to literature, literary histories, handbooks, catalogues, literary prize lists, college 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 in the mid-nineties as a timeline on tractor-fed printer paper, plastered across an office wall where I worked at an editorial job. But that's another story.)

After posting that first list, I set to work compiling a database of thirty-four other attempts to create "greatest" lists. this has since been expanded to more than a hundred 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 extracted from published anthologies that purported to pull together the best of complete fields between their covers, as well as comparative reading 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 (later extended to more than five thousand titles).

In case you're curious, the top twenty entries in that first calculated list of 1999 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 have noticed almost all these top-twenty works (Hamlet being the only exception) were novels, the chief literary form of the modern era. Three quarters of the titles were from the past two centuries. Also, almost all were written in Europe and the United States and mostly in English. It's also noteworthy that none of the great works of genre fiction, staples of modern popular fiction, made the top twenty (with the possible exceptions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, sometimes classed as science fiction, and Frankenstein, often considered an early horror or science fiction work).

More diverse items did 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 provocative novel, but the highest-ranked work of the twentieth century? Higher than any of the earlier works of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontës or Homer? 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 is really one of the unjustly neglected greatest works or just a few critics' darling with limited public appeal. Or to judge whether a widely popular book is worthy despite the disdain of the experts. But I persevered as best I could.

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.

The big shift

By about 2015 the list settled into something that seemed relatively stable. Minor tweaking of the list based on new evidence was ongoing, with an average of four or five titles changing on the Greatest Literature list annually over the next few years. It seemed to be a complete and accurate summary of great literature that would endure.

But then we were struck by the biggest change yet. A shift away from the musty old idea of the male and white-dominated "Western Canon" as the backbone of the world's great literature was becoming evident.

The rethinking had been happening ever since the latter half of the twentieth century, and since the first formulation of the Greatest Literature list we had always made an effort to bring diverse writers and their deserving works onto the Greatest Literature list. But now, in the world at large, came a clamouring for more works by women and from different cultures.

Neglected works from outside the modern and classical Anglo-American-European nexis were being recognized. New and recent writing from around the world was becoming prominent in the public literary conversation. Minority and culturally diverse authors were being heralded as never before in the modern era.

Over 2020–2022, this contibuted to the largest redaction of the Greatest Literature list since it began. Other changes included the normal ongoing tweaks to the entire list, the addition of more recent works in the twenty-first century, and the dropping of some works whose lustre has faded, mainly from the over-represented twentieth century. In total up to fifteen percent of the list has changed. That's a change of 150 titles.

Now, to be sure, "dead white guys" are still well represented on the list. In fact, they pfrobably still make up the majority of authors. Most of the the formerly greatest works of literature are still among the currently greatest works of literature—as confirmed in our surveys of readers, writers, critics and scholars.

Also let's be clear, the large number of diverse authors added to the list are there not out of any idealogical motivations but because they deserve to be there—judged as great by those same readers, writers, critics and scholars.

All this could change in different directions, we know. Revision of the list, based on new evidence, continues. We do not know what kind of new writers may gain prominence in years to come, nor how evaluations of past authors may evolve in the future. But we can be sure there will be changes.

As always, if you are citing the list for your own research purposes, be sure to note the date on which the page is retrieved.

What's so 'great' about these books?

The terms "great" and "greatest" are applied quite liberally in disucssion of our list. What do we and our sources mean by this?

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.

Even taking into account all the differing ideals of greatness, the Greatest Literature list is not necessarily a list of the most deserving 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 been 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' excellent qualities did not lead them to become famous.

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

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Is genre writing any good?

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. This exemplifies the same divide that occurs in other fields between high or fine art on one hand and popular art on the other hand.

In literature these disagreements occur for the most part 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.")

But popular works should not be excluded merely because they are considered genre writing as opposed to true "literary" works.

Time will tell whether they, like all the other great titles on the list, will survive. And the Greatest Literature lists of the future will reflect that judgment.

The biases

A weakness of the list, as implied above, may be that it still emphasizes Western literature available in English. Great effort has been made to consider the greatest creative literature from all parts of the world and in many languages, but evidence of a natural bias likely remains. With continued work this 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 was produced in the last century than in any other era. It also true that contemporary literature often speaks to us more directly than older works and thus seems "better" to those of us living now. And at least some of 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 admitted: novels are cited much more frequently than any other kinds of works, including 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 could 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. Over time, humanity changes its tastes—even its tastes as to what constitutes our greatest literature of all time.

— Eric McMillan