What Makes A Novel Great?
The author and literary historian John Sutherland asks the question, and answers it himself with ‘How To Be Well Read’, a guide to 500 novels he considers to be great.
What defines greatness? A book that is a world first? A game changer? A source of controversy? A novel of immense popularity? Of critical acclaim? There are many definitions at work, and Mr Sutherland is careful to include examples of all.
Having explored various literary puzzles across the years, such as whether Heathcliff was a murderer and if Jane Eyre could ever be happy, he has turned his very well-read mind to an astonishingly wide range of international fiction and offers justifications for their inclusion into the pantheon of greatness, outlining their plots and explaining their appeal.
Certainly all the obvious choices for inclusion are here – it would have been wrong not to include them – but there are plenty of surprise choices too. ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ was only half-finished when its author died at thirty nine, but is extremely worthy of inclusion, and sits nicely here beside Charles Webb’s ‘The Graduate’ – the book is better than the film, although that’s good too.
We’re familiar with many of the choices through their other incarnations, usually as films, and it’s those we recall first, but Mr Sutherland reminds us that the source material can be very different. Studios toned down sex and violence, and sometimes the originals have unpleasant racial issues. These mainly occur in the American volumes involving slavery (the Kindle edition I read seemed heavily weighted towards US readers and I wonder if they published a different edition there).
Inevitably, the author’s preferences can be discerned on aggregate – he has a weakness for decades-long family sagas and tales of tangled multi-generational relationships that I don’t share – but one would expect his tastes to be different. Some choices are daunting, like ‘Don Quixote’, but he’s not suggesting they have to be read.
The chosen novels reflect his relationship to books at different times of his life, which inevitably skews them to a more mature readership, at the expense of more recent contenders for greatness. There’s no point in singling out those missing authors individually because Mr Sutherland has played fair and made his personal selection, but there are a number of more recent novels which are surely worthy of inclusion.
He also tends to pick the most difficult book in an author’s oeuvre rather than the most popular choice. But is ‘challenging’ always better than ‘readable’?
I would argue that the inclusion of potboilers like ‘Gone With The Wind’ and Jackie Collins’ ‘Hollywood Wives’ is stretching the definition of ‘great’. There are also a number of novels deemed unreadable by most of the world which Mr Sutherland seeks to rescue from obscurity, but even his skills can’t make them sound sufferable.
Still, he always has a succinct point to make. He tackles Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ by looking at the way in which critics have treated it since, with one complaining that Africa is merely the backdrop for the tale of a ‘neurotic European’. A reasonable riposte to that would be that it’s written by a white European making a point, and that a novel about the rape of the Congo by Belgium would be a completely different book.
There’s enough meat on each of these little carcasses to chew over for days. ‘How To Be Well Read’ would make a fascinating choice for any book club, although you’d be arguing for a long time to come.