What does 'greatest' even mean?
Updated: September 13, 2022
The term "great" and its derivatives are applied quite liberally in discussion of our list of The Greatest Literature of All Time. What do we and our sources that helped us in selecting titles for the list 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 above 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.
As the chief compiler of this list, I don't always agree with others about what's great. 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, in my opinion. Note that I am not opposed to political content. Personally, I welcome it. But in these examples from Rand and Orwell I don't think it's enough to overcome other shortcomings.
Nonetheless, all these and other works are included on the Greatest list, despite my personal misgivings, because large numbers of other people—readers, writers, critics—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, have 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 such—whatever criterion of greatness has been applied by a significant portion of humanity.
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, historical fiction, and so on.
Yet it could be argued that supposed genre writers, like Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, Daphne Du Maurier and Stephen King, have had as great impacts on modern writing and modern life as any authors with higher "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.
We don't know what surprises future evaluations of literature have in store for us. 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."
In short, 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.
A weakness of the list, as written about elsewhere, may be that it still emphasizes Western literature available in English. Extensive efforts have been made to consider the greatest creative literature from all parts of the world, from all cultures and in many original 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 that 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 our 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. Just as, in recent years, a couple of graphic novels—comics to so me of us—have been put into contention for our lists.
The Greatest Literature of All Time is an ongoing project. Sources continue to be consulted. New and new kinds of works are read, read about and discussed. Over time, humanity changes its tastes—even its tastes as to what constitutes great literature.
— Eric McMillan