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What are the best English and American novels of the 20th century?

Le Salon Littéraire du Peuple pour le Peuple

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Edited: Jul 31, 2016, 8:20am Top

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Feb 23, 2013, 5:33pm Top


Ulysses by Joyce
At Swim Two Birds, by Flann O'Brien
Molloy, Beckett
alternate, something by John Cowper Powys


Atomik Azteks by Sesshu Foster
The Recognitions William Gaddis
Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller

Feb 23, 2013, 5:55pm Top

UK: To the lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The waves by Virginia Woolf--all her novels, in fact.

US: The making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.

Feb 23, 2013, 6:20pm Top

Just back from reading about The Making Americans...definitely heads my next book order

Feb 23, 2013, 8:06pm Top

UK: Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus -- Ulysses is a masterwork of the 20th c, but Joyce is Irish, not British.

US: Toni Morrison's Beloved, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz

Feb 23, 2013, 8:07pm Top

I've been meaning to read The Making of Americans for a long time -- must pull it off the shelf.

Feb 23, 2013, 8:12pm Top

UK: Woolf's To the Lighthouse, Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus.

Rick -- you cheated -- all your choices are Irish, not British, except for Powys. Though I heartily endorse Ulysses.

US: Toni Morrison's Beloved, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz.

Feb 23, 2013, 8:24pm Top

I need to know how close to stay to a traditional definition of "novel" (so can we include novel length poetry and such) and how broadly to define American (Do émigrés count?) and British (do we get to include folks who now live there or who were educated there?).

There could be an argument for 3 Faulkners on the American side. You are getting some great suggesting above.

Feb 23, 2013, 8:24pm Top

And Powys was originally American, too!

Edited: Jul 31, 2016, 8:20am Top

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Feb 23, 2013, 9:42pm Top

Mercan: Light in August, Postman Always Rings Twice, and Death Comes to the Archbishop

British: A Bend in the River, Heart of Darkness and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Ask me tomorrow and you will get 6 others, but they will always include a Faulkner.

Feb 24, 2013, 2:21am Top

Golding, Joyce, Conrad

Steinbeck, Melville, Bellow

Feb 24, 2013, 6:49am Top

Heart of Darkness is to me the best 20th century novel not written in the 20th century, so I agree.

I came here to say add Light in August and subtract Miller.

UK i took to mean English native outside US.

Melville is the best US 20th century author even if he wrote in the 19th.

JaneJones, we have serious disagreements in taste: Rushdie, a former favorite is out because I found that he took so much from Gunther Grass as to be plagiaristic (is that a word?). Beloved it OUT. The Wizard of Oz is OUT. So there!

Angel Carter from a brief investigation comes second behind Stein as a book I knew nothing about and should read.

Vote of support for A Bend in the River, a vote against Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man based on the belief that it is his least best novel.

Vote against Postman, for there are too many better 'crime/noir' books. Against Death Comes to the Archbishop as Catholic tragedies are such media circuses these days.

Feb 24, 2013, 6:50am Top

Powys originally US?

Edited: Jul 31, 2016, 8:20am Top

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Feb 24, 2013, 7:45am Top

In case i see this before Mac, my answer would be that it depends on whether you want a representative example or the absolute best. But that can't apply to Joyce, who went from conventional to groundbreaking to astonishing/astonishingly difficult in three books.

But for Melville, if Mac doesn't say Moby Dick I'll eat my hat and drive to Belgium and eat one of his.

Edited: Feb 24, 2013, 9:58am Top

Sorry, looked him up. He was British but lived in the US for many years; I knew I had dropped by some haunts.

Rick doesn't like some of my choices so I will replace them. How about Pynchon's V for Willa Cather and maybe some nice Djuna Barnes for the Cain. On the Brit's side we have to keep Portrair because it is the only novel he wrote. But if I have to surrender Conrad (1899 - damn!), I want Rushdie. The one thing a British novelist shouldn't be in the 20th century is born in Britain.

Feb 24, 2013, 10:02am Top

I like this: 'The one thing a British novelist shouldn't be in the 20th century is born in Britain.' But I don't like Rushdie, because I loved him so much, his second and third book (Shame, not often written of these days), that when I noted his something-like-plagiarism I was crushed.

I don't like V at all. Back to Cather. But I think Pynchon will make the top 25 regardless. Replace Rushdie wit R.K. Narayan?

Feb 24, 2013, 10:57am Top

For Britains born in Britain, the two I would endorse are Wolff and Powys. But the 20th century British novel is ad global in vision as tge 19th century was inward looking and island bound

Feb 24, 2013, 11:04am Top

Sam! calm yourself, your typing has gone off the rails! By the way, I love that your kids are getting their doses of Spanish lit that this 53 year old feller has never heard of. Meant to say that earlier and elsewhere.

Feb 24, 2013, 11:13am Top

On phone so tipyng alwaz funnie

Feb 24, 2013, 11:28am Top

I am late again...

Melville .... Typee ! ... oops there goes my hat... Just joking...Moby Dick of course, but in le Salon we like all Melville

Conrad...The Nigger of the Narcissus... just because I don't want to mention the obvious H of D or Lord Jim.

Golding : the inheritors or Pincher Martin because everybody has already read LOTF.

Joyce, if you are ready for it.

Steinbeck : The Grapes...Of Mice & Men

I said Bellow : Herzog

but I love Faulkner too : The sound & the Fury WOW , as I lay dying WOWOW

Feb 24, 2013, 11:31am Top

Rick : LOL !

Samantha, don't worry about the century : intelligent books are timeless

Edited: Feb 24, 2013, 11:37am Top

19 huh Sam ? It is the contrary, Uk lit before WO2 was open to the world and now it is closed...

Haven't you read Josipovici ?

“Reading Barnes, like reading so many of the other writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian Mc Ewan, Blake Morisson, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner”.

The fear of opening itself to the world has effectively cut the British literary community from the foreign, especially the European influences which could have kept British literature at the level where Golding and Sparks left it.

Josipovici identifies three reasons for this barrier: First, fear and distrust towards what is not British, has turned the public's opinion from an earlier healthy pragmatism into a general suspiciousness of things of the mind in Art and Literature. General philistinism is the result. Secondly, while people seem to be suspicious of intellectual pretentiousness, they love the so called “serious and profound”. Historical novels about Rwanda and Bosnia are more worthy of attention than for example a Woodehouse and Pinget. Finally High art and Fashion have married in a new spirit of commercialism. Books and the whole circus around it is nothing more than business.

Feb 24, 2013, 11:40am Top

Rushdie will probably be the only British writer remembered in a 100 years ( together with Dame Rowling )

rowling rowling rowling, keep them beasties moving. RAWHIDE !!!

Feb 24, 2013, 11:54am Top

You see, Mac, that is why today's good British writers aren't from Britain. Born in Iran or India or Southern Africa or Nigeria but with a British system education or heritage.

But if you look at Dickens or Austen or Hardy or other lesser greats of the 19th - all very Island bound, more so than the 18th. Though the British kept Melville read in the 19th, so they've got something going for them.

I haven't read Josipovici, but fell the need to use his name in a poem.

Feb 24, 2013, 11:59am Top

Rick, my children are long suffering but thanks to my foibles will enter adulthood with a grounding in narrative poetry of the world and the ability to call a falcon. They might trade it for some good snake handling, though.

Feb 24, 2013, 12:12pm Top

You make al Suzyu itchy
My top hat is gone

al Suzyu

Edited: Jul 31, 2016, 8:20am Top

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Feb 24, 2013, 2:23pm Top

Good for you Samantha !

Well done Rick

Edited: Feb 24, 2013, 9:04pm Top

I'm gonna avoid mentioning anyone who's already mentioned above, as well as people like Nabokov and Ishiguro who are plausibly not "from" England/the US.


Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess
A Passage to India by EM Forster
The Magus by John Fowles


Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Feb 25, 2013, 12:16am Top

Nice list !

Mar 4, 2013, 4:28pm Top

Another American work that deserves the short list: A Death in the Family by James Agee. His Let Us Now Praise Famous Men deserves to be on any list of top literature, though it is not a novel, but a sort of poetry and photography narrative documentary.

Mar 7, 2013, 8:43am Top

>3 LolaWalser: it is not Gertrude's fault that her book amounted to 925 pages, for what she was doing (I have investigated!) was an intense, near ceaseless drilling at the things that is remarkable for being more than a short experiment (no, I haven't read it yet, but have perused it, read about it, just read aloud half a page to my dog and instantly came to believe it is a book to read aloud, whether or not to dogs, i perhaps may yet discover), which is to say that it is one unique book and so despite its length you ought to have nominated two others...

Mar 7, 2013, 8:56am Top

Of course Gertrude is to be read aloud! Preferably to a well-lubricated and erudite dinner party with pauses to compare members of the party to people in the books, but dogs may do just as well and will most likely be less judgmental or quizical when you say Rick reminds you of subject and victim X of her prose. I'd also say audio book would be a good option - I may need to go see what audios there are for her, that would be good!

Gerties' pages are for the most part easy and entertaining reading, but also stuff that sticks with you for a long time to come. 925 pages of Gerties goes down pretty easily. Maybe we should do a gertie audio book at the Salon when the Tetralogy is done. That would be something new. Maybe there's even a free one somewhere.

Mar 7, 2013, 9:33am Top

This may not be true, but I think I read once that she killed at least nine people with her bare hands for calling her Gertie.

Mar 7, 2013, 9:36am Top

Luckily, her bare hands don't have a lot of strength left in them.

Edited: Mar 11, 2013, 6:36pm Top

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Cane by Jean Toomer
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee, a fellow Tennessean
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I will go out on a limb here and put Bailey's Cafe by Gloria Naylor on the list. Also her book Mama Day.

More than three books I know, but those of you who know me, also know that it takes an act by the powers of darkness for me to commit to anything resembling a list. This is not a list by the way.

Edited: Mar 11, 2013, 6:03pm Top

Urania, you anti-Steinian! Lovely not-list. I have to put Song of the Lark on the list, never read it, even though I've read the other two of the Trilogy. Cather is consistently great - My Mortal Enemy is not much read but another I'd =put on the list.

You mean I should actually read Gloria Naylor?! I just look at the mass-market covers and know they aren't written for me.

Pulled out HD's Palimpset to start reading the other day. Funky stuff, deeply intellectualized, but may be worth resurrecting for lists of this sort. Makes crying of lot 49 seem a lot less avante and a little more guarded.

Mar 11, 2013, 6:13pm Top

I am reading the Crying of Lot 49 right now and didn't know there was another one about Lot 29. :)

Mar 11, 2013, 6:16pm Top

You cannot buy it outside of San Narcisso. There's a reason for that.

Mar 11, 2013, 6:36pm Top

Sorry that should be Lot 49 - my typo. A_musing, all of Naylor's works are linked. Her early novels are middlebrow B-list texts. Her later work becomes increasingly complex and poetic in my opinion. And I do like Gertrude Stein. I should have included her on the not-list.

Mar 11, 2013, 8:55pm Top

Toni Morrison's Beloved, Beloved, Beloved -- and if you don't believe me, go read Dan Chaikin's review on the book's front page (and give it a thumbs up) or on his thread on Club Read.

Mar 11, 2013, 9:00pm Top

39> Mary -- I'd be happy to include Hurston on my list, but Morrison stands on her shoulders and looks inward and outward.

Edited: Jul 31, 2016, 8:20am Top

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Edited: Mar 12, 2013, 8:43pm Top

Definitely that sad, stoic male fantasy, Stoner

Mar 15, 2013, 12:23pm Top

From the first volume of O. Manning's Balkan trilogy:

Harriet is talking to Clarence, a colleague of her husband who is complaining about 'modern' writers.
Harriet says:
'What about Virginia Woolf?'
'I think ORLANDO is the worst book of the century.'
Clarence wriggled in weary exasperation. 'It's all RIGHT--but all her writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It's just like menstruation.'

Mar 15, 2013, 2:57pm Top

That is exactly it. Everything women do is like menstruation, Clarence, you beautiful genius.

Mar 15, 2013, 3:36pm Top

I remember reading a Sheri Tepper book (actually it was Gibbon's Decline and Fall which I really recommend, though Tepper has some weird attitudes outside of this novel that I dislike, sort of like Card and other sci-fi people) where she had a horrible male misogynistic character in the book who had a reaction to his mother very much like that, I remember the "sticky" descriptor staying with me.

Sometimes other overt misogyny (from characters, or from actual people) really reminds me of that idea that all things female are just inherently icky, with diffuse being a subset of icky (as opposed to all things male which are clean, clear, focused and laser-like). This was a great example.

Mar 15, 2013, 3:51pm Top

The punch line is Harriet's response:

Startled by the originality of Clarence's criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect.

(If only I could menstruate once, just to, you know, get the book going...)

Mar 15, 2013, 4:36pm Top

Haven't they ever heard of snips and snails and puppy-dog tails? Men have a proud history of filth.

Mar 15, 2013, 4:46pm Top

The difference, in this kind of weird view, is that male filth is purely an exterior issue that can be washed off. Female filth is inherent, comes from the inside.

Mar 15, 2013, 8:09pm Top

Hey, I kinda liked Orlando!


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