1 December 2019 Susannah

BBC’s 100 Novels that Shaped our World

The BBC Arts panel.

When I was about 15 my English teacher handed out lists of the books that we should have read if we were to consider ourselves a well-read person. I kept that list for many years, ticking off books once I’d read them, and bearing in mind what needed to be added to my reading history. Sadly, in the various moves I’ve made, that list has been lost. I’d love to go back and see if there is anything I still should read to qualify as well-read. Ever since then, I’ve loved book lists.

In 2003 the BBC did a ‘Big Read’ poll, where the British voted for their 100 favourite novels. It was a rather odd list – children’s author Jacqueline Wilson had 4 books included, and the list was rather influenced by what had recently been a popular movie. Now the BBC has produced another list – ‘100 Novels that Shaped our World’ which was selected by a panel of leading writers, curators and critics (see list below). Only fiction written in English was included, but the list is decidedly weird, with many glaring omissions. Where is Robinson Crusoe, usually considered the first English novel – surely its publication changed the world? And where oh where is Jane Austen’s Emma, a novel which set a standard of perfection all other writers have failed to match? Why the choice of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend when surely young Oliver asking for more brought far more social change than did the later novel? Agatha Christie is the world’s best-selling novelist, and yet not one of her books is on the list. Surely she shaped so much of the crime fiction and TV whodunits that came after her? No Gaskell, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, R.L. Stevenson, Thackeray, Swift, Fitzgerald, and so many other famous literary names are missing entirely from the list. Can you really leave out Nobel prize winning Faulkner and put in Bridget Jones’ Diary?

I added up what I’d read from this new list and am ashamed to report that I’ve still got two thirds of the books to go. They have been divided into categories (these are also an odd selection). The Director of BBC Arts said he hoped the list would “spark debate”. Well, he succeeded with me. I find the list seriously defective and woefully underrepresenting of the 18th century when the novel got started, and the 19th century when it reached full maturity. Over half of the authors whose books were chosen are currently alive – I wonder how many of the books on this list will still be known in fifty years’ time?

Identity
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Small Island – Andrea Levy
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Love, Sex & Romance
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
Forever – Judy Blume
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Riders – Jilly Cooper
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
The Far Pavilions – MM Kaye
The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

Adventure
City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
His Dark Materials Trilogy – Phillip Pullman
Ivanhoe – Walter Scott
Mr Standfast – John Buchan
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Jack Aubrey Novels – Patrick O’Brian
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – JRR Tolkein

Life, Death & Other Worlds
A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri
Dune – Frank Herbert
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
The Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
• The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman
The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Politics, Power & Protest
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman
Strumpet City – James Plunkett
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Unless – Carol Shields

Class & Society
A House for Mr Biswas – VS Naipaul
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Disgrace – JM Coetzee
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
Poor Cow – Nell Dunn
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Alan Sillitoe
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Coming of Age
Emily of New Moon – LM Montgomery
Golden Child – Claire Adam
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell
Swami and Friends – RK Narayan
The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien
• The Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
The Outsiders – SE Hinton
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ – Sue Townsend
The Twilight Saga – Stephanie Meyer

Family & Friendship
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
Middlemarch – George Eliot
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
The Shipping News – E Annie Proulx
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
The Witches – Roald Dahl

Conflict & Crime
American Tabloid – James Ellroy
American War – Omar El Akkad
Ice Candy Man – Bapsi Sidhwa
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
Regeneration – Pat Barker
The Children of Men – PD James
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Rule Breakers
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
Bartleby, the Scrivener – Herman Melville
Habibi – Craig Thompson
How to be Both – Ali Smith
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
Psmith, Journalist – PG Wodehouse
The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde

How many of these books have you read? Is it more than my total of about one-third? Let me know in the comments. comment.

The BBC panel consisted of Radio 4 Front Row presenter and Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, authors Juno Dawson, Kit de Waal and Alexander McCall Smith, and Bradford Festival Literary Director Syima Aslam.

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Comments (17)

  1. Margi

    Jilly Cooper and no Elizabeth Gaskell?! Give me strength. Oddly I have read all in the category of Family and Friendship and can forgive (almost) all for this selection.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I made a similar exclamation in many places with that list! While I admit to a guilty enjoyment of Jilly Cooper’s bonking novels, her books have surely not changed the world in any way???

  2. Peter Danzer

    No, I read far less and I believe I have not missed much. Considering that most of my reading is of world literature — but not necessarily of English origin — I find such one-sided lists quite unrepresentative.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Like you, I felt I haven’t missed much by not having read most of that strange list.

  3. Heather

    I found that I had read approximately 20 on the list but cannot understand why half of those ever made the BBC’s 100 Novels that Changed the World!

    There are so many fantasy novels amongst the list. The only two of merit, in my considered opinion, is J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Oh, and J.K. Rowling did get many children into reading. The others are like a ‘mob of sheep’. Or perhaps I’ve missed the point. There were many authors I have never heard but so many great authors missing.

    I agree with the comments above, I feel I haven’t missed very much by not having read most of that very ordinary list.

  4. Susannah Fullerton

    The list is so full of gaps, it’s hard to know where to start with complaints! I agree with the 3 authors you mention, but the list has far too much fantasy and I really question how much most fantasy novels have changed the world.

  5. I would have thought that Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon was much more influential than Regeneration by Pat Barker wonderful tho the latter is.
    The Title Conflict and Crime strikes me as a cop out,.
    I’m afraid this is just another marketing exercise .

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I think that Marketing exercise is a good way of describing it! A seriously weird list.

      • Anne Williams

        Dear Susannah
        You are way ahead of me, I counted only 14. Many others I had only seen the film made, which I find is never quite the same as the book, if you read it after seeing the movie.
        I agree there are a number of classics missing. Power of One, The Good Earth, Anna Karenina.
        Also I’m ashamed to say I had never heard of some of the listed books or authors.
        It looks more like a popular listing amongst British folk with no literary experts asked.
        Apologies for my late comments, I must have missed your previous missive.
        Anne

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Isn’t it a weird list – as you say, no literary experts asked!
          Happy reading for 2020.

  6. Miland

    I regret that I’ve only read about half a sozen of these – the version of V for Vendetta I read was the graphic novel, though that may well have been the original.
    On the other hand, I’ve read a few that are not on the list, so I won’t feel too bad.

    But this list seems like designing a school syllabus based on people’s private hobbies. Surely a much better list would be one compiled by experts on literature, the sort who teach in universities, or get on to the Queen’s Honours list.

    Speaking of which, would you (Susannah) like to compile a bucket list of titles for us? Then at least my deploring my own illiteracy will be based on solid ground, a bit like the patient who said ‘O thank you Dr, I feel so much better now I know what it is.’

    HNY 2020! 🙂

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it is a very strange list. I will give some thought to making a list of my own, but it is very hard to decide on which books have shaped the world. I know which ones have shaped MY world, but that’s very personal and hardly representative.
      Happy New Year.

  7. Dear Susannah,
    I have read about one fifth of these books, but am a bit horrified by the list. Where are the real classics and fancy ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ being amongst them. There are no French authors there. I think this is a ‘popular’ list relating often to films not a reader’s list.
    Thanks very much for the info.
    Kind Regards
    GwynBurns

  8. I’ve read about 1/3 too. If you add those I’ve seen and not read, maybe about 40!!

    It is an odd list for readers, but it’s probably not so much of an odd list in terms of the “shaped the world” criterion? Still, it’s very narrow, partly I suppose because of the “written in English” limitation. No Aussies there, I think, which says something about us! In terms of changing the world, where’s Portnoy’s complaint or Lady Chatterley’s lover? Books which challenged the censors!!

    And where, for heaven’s sake is The handmaid’s tale? Surely that had a bigger impact that Oryx and Crake.

    Still, we can always disagree with lists like this. The good thing about them is that they encourage conversation.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, at least it makes us think about what we’d put on our own lists. I agree about Lady Chatterley – surely it had a huge effect?? Some seriously odd choices, but I guess if we came up with our own lists, we’d also be fielding queries.

  9. Anne Richmond

    I agree Susannah, this may be list of what is popular in the Uk at the moment, but it is not a list of novels that shaped our world in 2020. It seems to show a serious lack of understanding the past and the evolution of thinking.

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