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The 21st century’s 12 greatest novels (so far)

14 out of 20.

The BBC Culture section asked several book critics to list the best novels that were published since the first day of this century. It has been 15 years since, and look at the books at the top of a list of over 150 novels.

The Top 12:

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007)
  2. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003)
  3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)
  4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004)
  5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
  7. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)
  8. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
  9. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
  10. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  11. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
  12. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

The Runners-up:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
  2. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)
  3. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
  4. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)
  5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
  6. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  7. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004)
  8. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2003)

Among the novels that I’ve read, ten from the Top 12 and four from The Runners-up, I cannot find one that I would rather not see. Sure, I’d like to reorder them but I love them all. In fact, I’ve rated all these ten + four novels with either four or five stars. Three of the novels are on my reading lists (Ben Fountain, W.G. Sebald, Shirley Hazzard), and there’s only one that I’m only slightly familiar with. That would be Elena Ferrante. I say slightly familiar because before this list came out, I listened to the recent episode of a podcast that I’m subscribed to, and yes, My Brilliant Friend was the topic.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith truly deserve to be on the Top 12. It amazes me that each of them has an extra novel in the runners-up list. Just wow! However, I feel that other writers could have taken their spots, mostly for the sake of diversity. Besides, there are so many books published every year, what more in the last 15 years?

This list is a great one, but it also seems a little too populist. That’s only because I’ve read 70% of these novels. It makes me feel that the list didn’t make room for discoveries. This may not be the main point of the list, but it matters to readers to have something to look forward to, to have something to discover. Aren’t literary lists, at their core, recommendations by themselves?

So what if I take out the books I haven’t read yet and replace them with the ones I have read? First, let’s separate the unread ones from the list. These are the following:

  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2012)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
  • Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (2001)
  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011)
  • NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
  • The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (2003)

What novels will I replace them with? I am tempted to add short story collections but BBC Culture is specific about the form (The 21st century’s greatest novels). Also, it would be tougher to compile a list of the greats if we had everything to choose from. Anyway, here are my replacement novels:

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2005)
  • Death at Intervals by José Saramago (2005)
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2005)
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
  • Tinkers by Paul Harding (2008)

Coincidentally, I’ve chosen novels from years that are not represented, namely 2005 and 2008. And why isn’t there a single novel here published in 2014? I wish I could say something about it, but I’m a sucker at reading recently published books. Anyway, how will I reorder them? What’s my version going to look like? Here it is:

My Top 12:

  1. The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003) – up by 1. My snobbery is kicking in, but this is definitely the best novel of the last 15 years. It has great prose, unforgettable characters, overarching themes, social relevance, literary techniques, drama, everything. So why aren’t people reading it? Sigh.
  2. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004) – up by 2. This may not be The Great American Novel but it’s the kind of novel that one would want to come home to. It’s worth waiting two decades for Robinson to finish this.
  3. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001) – up by 6. It’s just amazing how a four-letter word could change the lives of people and how a single lie could stretch a lifetime. McEwan also gives us an insight on the process of writing, which is, at its center, a human activity.
  4. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2005) – new entry. The biggest snub. Did they forget that Cloud Atlas totally rocked 2005?
  5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (2007) – down by 4. A rather big slip for the greatest book. It’s still great, but I feel iffy about it being on the top spot with all the competition going on.
  6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009) – down by 3. I’m just glad that I gave this book another chance. The pronouns just go haywire, and so will your wits after finishing it.
  7. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001) – down by 2. This feels like The Great Modern American Novel and one has to give credit to Franzen, despite his irascible temper, for creating this funny and sprawling drama on a modern family’s relationships.
  8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011) – new entry. The readability of this book is a trick because at the end, one is not sure if he or she has read it right.
  9. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005) – new entry. Another snub. Ishiguro’s heydays may be the early 90s, but this book, considering its emotional appeal, poses big moral and existential questions.
  10. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004) – up by 10. The best millenial translation, so far. It didn’t deserve to be a runner-up. It’s a shoo-in for a Top 12 spot with its daring storytelling. This book is an evidence that postmodernism is not yet dead.
  11. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010) – down by 4. This gets better with every visit. Perhaps that’s the point of it. A book about time taking its toll on the characters? It’s a classic theme done with sheer bravado and inventiveness.
  12. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2005) – new entry. This might come as a surprise. It might also feel like it is only targeting a very narrow slice of the reading populace. Sure, the characters might look too poor for the Western reader, but aren’t loneliness and alienation things that affect everyone?

My Runners-up:

  1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) – no movement.
  2. Tinkers by Paul Harding (2008) – new entry.
  3. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004) – up by 1.
  4. Death at Intervals by José Saramago (2005) – new entry.
  5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – down by 5.
  6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000) – down by 12.
  7. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) – down by 2.
  8. White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000) – down by 9.

How about you? What do you think of BBC Culture’s list? What novels do you think should or should not be on the list? What are your greatest novels of this century so far?

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22 Comments

  1. I’ve been trying to find Sebald’s Austerlitz for quite a while at Booksale. (Like, six years?) It’s probably one of those titles I’ve yet to find before I die… Anyway, I just like the idea that he integrates photos (daw) in his writing. And that he has this Proustian tendency (daw) in writing din, as in flowing sentences, endless rumination about deep, philosophical problems, etc.

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    • I bought a copy from TBD bec I gave up on finding a copy here. I haven’t read any reviews of it yet but I tend to like ’em NBCC winners.

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    • Got mine at Book Sale in the province, December 2013….To be honest I couldn’t get far in the novel. It was too rambling for my taste. I don’t know though, maybe I’ll give it another try.

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    • Nope. There were only three translations and all of them were only runners-up. The translations I read are mostly pre-2000 so my version is a little disappointing too.

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  2. I read 5 from the whole list. I don’t think I whole-heartedly agree with that list. There are several books on there that I tried reading but stopped. And though some were good, like Oscar Wao, I wouldn’t say it’s one of the best books of the century. I do agree with Wolf Hall and I think 2666 should be up there in the top 10 list.

    What would me own list be? Hmmm…it’s hard to say. Wolf Hall and Atonement and 2666 definitely. 1Q84, maybe, and Jacob de Zoet instead of Cloud Atlas for me. The Luminaries is pretty good, I think, and maybe Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Oh, and Game of Thrones of course!..hahahaha. Just kidding :P

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  3. Monique says

    I completely agree on the inclusion of Cloud Atlas and Never Let Me Go. But I disagree on the dropping out of Middlesex.

    How I wish Jhumpa Lahiri were included in the list, and I can only conclude that her short stories are more memorable than her full-length novels.

    Why does everyone keep snubbing Cloud Atlas anyway??? I’m (butt)hurt.

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    • The Namesake was published in the 90s and I haven’t read The Lowland yet, so I didn’t have a chance to consider her. Middlesex was in a droppable spot (12th) already and I had to squeeze in six titles! It’s tougher ranking them than just lumping them together as an unordered list.

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    • Monique says

      Hmm. I would have dropped A Visit From The Goon Squad rather than Middlesex. Well, in my own imaginary list anyway. Haha. I don’t think I can make my own list just yet. :)

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    • I’ve never read ‘The Goon Squad…’ but, you’re right, I don’t think I would have dropped Middlesex.

      Why does Cloud Atlas keep getting snubbed? Well, because……hehehe I think I better keep my mouth shut with this group :-D

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    • From the original list, I only read four. From yours, I read six. Kind of sad, really, but true.
      I have both The Known World and The Inheritance of Loss in my shelf but I can’t remember picking them up. I should probably read them soon, before I box them. :)

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  4. The Known World is available on my Scribd account so I’m going to read it upon your recommendation! I don’t seem to have read enough novels that were written in the 21st century. I should rectify that.

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    • I think it’s coincidence that I managed to read nearly 3/4 of the books on BBC’s list. And yes please, read it. There used to be lots of stray copies at Book Sale.

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  5. Lament (?) heeded: The Known World up.on my TBR. :)

    And I agree on Cloud Atlas. I also agree with Monique on Goon Squad. Hihi.

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  6. Gilead by Marilynn Robinson is one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read and you nailed it when you said it’s the kind of novel that you would want to come home to. That book is like a literary duvet or something–I can go to bed with it and never wish to get up for days.

    And I swear I’ll be reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon this year. Your list makes me excited!

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