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Are These America’s 136 Greatest Novels? Discuss!

A new list from ‘The Atlantic’ includes some surprising picks from the past 100 years

spinner image Book covers from left: Chabon, The Great Gatsby, The Fifth Season, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, The Dispossessed, Slaughterhouse Five, Kindred, Mumbo Jumbo, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, Nightwood, The Old Drift and So Far From God
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If you decide, as The Atlantic did, to compile a list of the great American novels from the past century, you’re going to face a few challenges. One, what does “great” mean? Does it mean the most interesting, most influential, most beautifully written or some hard-to-define combination of all that?  

And how in the world do you choose the best among millions of interesting, influential and/or beautifully written American reads published from 1924 onward?  

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It was complicated, admits senior editor Gal Beckerman: “When this came up as an idea, I did not relish the idea of sitting in a room, staring at a wall and deciding [what would make the list], because I have not read enough to be able to do that with any kind of authority.” 

Instead, the editors consulted a few dozen book experts, including novelists, American literature professors and critics, and asked them each to offer their top five picks. Then, Beckerman says, “we sort of threw all of those suggestions into one big list and started adding and filling in the gaps.”  

In an introduction to the list, published March 14, the editors note, “Our goal was to single out those classics that stand the test of time, but also to make the case for the unexpected, the unfairly forgotten, and the recently published works that already feel indelible.” 

There were spirited debates, according to Beckerman: “I remember a particular fight in the office about John Updike, and which of his books would be on there, by somebody who is very much a John Updike superfan [and] was not happy with our choice [Couples, 1968].”

He says he personally pushed for Biography of X by Catherine Lacey, a wildly inventive 2023 novel focused on a woman (C.M.) who sets out to write the life story of her performance-artist wife (X) after her sudden death. Described as “a major novel, and a notably audacious one” by The New York Times, it’s included because “there’s something to the experimentation in that book and to the way it captured the fluidity that exists in the moment when it comes to the way we think about our identities. I thought this is really a book that I can imagine people turning to again and again.” 

The final group of 136 books includes what are arguably already modern classics, such as A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010), Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015). 

Here are more highlights from the list, categorized (by me): 

1. The hard-to-dispute inclusions

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White (1952)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Some authors’ books were no-brainers, Beckerman notes: “There were certain books where it would have been almost crazy not to have them on the list. Can you have a list of the last 100 years of American novels that doesn’t have The Great Gatsby on it or that doesn’t have The Catcher in the Rye? Or Catch-22 or On the Road?”

Nope, so those are all on there, too. 

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2. The more obscure and surprising

East Goes West by Younghill Kang (1937)

No-No Boy by John Okada (1957)

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg (1993)

Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes (1995)

I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine (2001)

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“My hope is that people have a moment of discovery, of encountering books that they really haven’t heard of,” Beckerman says, pointing to Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford (1972), which was recommended by novelist Katie Kitamura. “I’d never heard of the book or the author before, but as soon as I started reading it, it was just the most original thing I’ve ever read. It’s sort of a surrealist story of this couple sailing on a boat and their marriage dissolving, but also reality is dissolving.” 

3. The modern classics

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (2019)

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (2021)

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (2021)

Biography of X by Catherine Lacey (2023)

Can you tell if a story is a classic — or “great” — when it’s only spent a few years or less in the world? The recent releases were the toughest books to evaluate, Beckerman says, “because we had to extend outside of ourselves in our own time and subjectivities to be able to say ... which of these books feel like they will actually be read in 15 years, 20 years, and stand the test of time.” They fall in the category, as the editors put it, of “recently published works that already feel indelible.” 

4. The omitted

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Wait, what? The book we all had to read in middle school? Its omission (the only one that surprised me) is not an oversight, Beckerman says, explaining that the editors’ debate over this iconic novel centered on “whether its literary merit has stood up. It was a book that had a great moral lesson, that was turned into a great movie … but whether it was really a book that was going to last in the same way [as some of the others]. People will debate that — and we want people to debate it. I will be happy for somebody to take up the Mockingbird fight. Tell us how wrong we are.”

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