Is there such a thing as a Great Novel?

Time magazine recently released a list of the 100 best novels since 1923. Thanks to Blogenheimer for the link. Blogenheimer also includes a link to this Morning News article that included dissenting opinions, including one by someone who contended that 1984 was not as good a novel as Harry Potter.

Most of the quotes from the Morning News are easily laughed at. Yet what isn’t obvious, to me, at least, is why Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, which was a good first novel in my opinion, certainly not a Great Novel, was on there while other novelists like Michael Chabon and Joyce Carol Oates did not appear at all. I’m sure there are many, “why this and not that?” arguments that can be made, because best-of lists are dubious things, created more to stoke sales and promote controversy than for any value themselves.

I had a recent email exchange with the author of Mental Multivitamin in which we discussed whether there is a difference between great and good novels, and whether its snobbery to say so. I attended a talk once by film director Peter Greenaway. He marked a distinction between art for enjoyment, and art for pleasure. The former was simple; the latter complex. Are these distinctions false, and merely subject to individual taste, as the critic of 1984 contends?

My own conclusion is that there is a difference, but it’s hardly black and white. There’s lots of gray middle ground. And I don’t think it’s snobbery to make a distinction, but I know it will be called so.

What think you, readers? Is there a difference between great and merely good novels, and is it snobbery to say so? Does the Time list have any worth?

5 Responses to “Is there such a thing as a Great Novel?”

  1. Elle Says:

    A similar survey conducted by the BBC in 2003 (best book of the 20th century or something similar) was won by Lord of the Rings. A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in second place. Do you see where this is going? To be sure, that survey was made with answers from the general public and not critics, but critics surely are somehow representative of society at large: whatever is fashionable at the moment will be in the list, even though it is not as good as something which was written 30 years ago. For the same reason, a survey on the best song of the last 20 years will certainly contain a disproportionate amount of songs from the last two or three years. I don’t think it has much to do with the difference between great and good - only with what’s in people’s maind at the moment…

  2. Kelly Says:

    Yes, there definitely is a difference. Determining the difference, however, is the problem. For me a couple of things are important: 1) Does the novel nag at me to read it again?; 2) Does the novel change when I read it the second or third time; 3) Do I continue to think about this novel long after I’ve read it?

    The “Time” list certainly had some problems, but I’d say 60% of the novels listed (or at least another novel by its author) are worthy of being called great. In my experience, that’s not bad for a top 100 list.

    (Vanity Fair recently put “Old School,” an enjoyable movie to be sure, on its top 50 film list. I mean, give me a break.)

  3. girldetective Says:

    Elle, you make a good point, and it would be interesting to see comparisons of best of lists, and which recent hits fall off after a few years.

    One of the best “Best Of” lists I know is the Centenary Top 100 films list compiled by Time Out in 1995. They did a poll of directors and other film professionals, as well as one of readers I find two things noteworthy. One is the dearth of recent movies. Another is the similarity between the professional and the reader lists.

    Kelly, I’d have trouble with your criterion #2: I rarely read a book more than once anymore. With so many books I haven’t read yet, it’s hard to carve time to re-visit one I’ve already read.

  4. duff. Says:

    i think it’s subjective and no two minds will ever come to complete agreement.

    yes i think there are Great Novels. but, bien sur, only the ones i think are great, not the ones other people lather on about. :)

    for example, i DO think ‘white teeth’ was a Great Novel while you do not. i do not, however, feel that way about her current effort - ‘on beauty.’

    i don’t think it’s snobbery, and i’m not sure what he thinks is the difference between ‘enjoyment’ and ‘pleasure’ - i’d consider those synonyms.

    like kelly i do reread, but some books were sooooo good that i can’t even bear to reread them. enigmatic, yes i am.

  5. Becca Says:

    Maybe lists of Great Books have a bad rep because of all the controversy over The Canon.

    But I don’t think it’s snobbery at all to try to single out what you think is the best of something. Let’s not give critical thinking a bad rep!

    To me, what distinguishes “good” from “great” is how much the work makes me think — engages me beyond mere enjoyment. Sometimes this means great works are more complex or difficult, but not always; there are certainly books that are relatively easy to read that could be called great. Although those are often easy on the surface, but gain in complexity when you think more deeply about the plot, characters, etc. I guess the point is that there is more there to ruminate on. Some books are like snacks; you eat it, it tastes good, it’s gone. Other books are 12-course meals.

    Of course, sometimes a cheeseburger is just the ticket.