At Women's Wear Daily we were nuts for lists. Who was in, who was out? You were "in" one year and definitely "out" the next. People complained, confusion reigned, but everyone read the lists. Best-dressed lists, best-seller lists, best-movie lists (American Film Institute put out a dandy one earlier this year). The best athletes of all time.
Magazines regularly do "winners" and "losers." Susskind once did a TV special, "Who's Hot/Who's Not." I know. I was on the show, with Joyce Haber and Rex Reed and God knows who else. Liz Smith? It was shot in L.A., I recall that.
Now it's Harvard's turn.
Or rather the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard's Radcliffe College. They've decided to list the 100 best novels (in English, no Tolstoy, no Proust, no Cervantes) of this century. And they haven't left the daunting task up to a lot of Cliffies. No sirree, bub. They've recruited some heavy hitters to make the choices: the Modern Library editorial board, made up of Dan Boorstin, Gore Vidal, Shelby Foote, Vartan Gregorian, Bill Styron, Chris Cerf, A.S. Byatt, Edmund Morris, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Richardson. And unless A.S. Byatt is a woman, not a dame in the bunch. You can expect some squawks on that!
In any event, The New York Times scooped everyone by publishing the full list a week ago Monday, jumping the gun by four days on the official release. No matter. The minute the list came out there were bound to be repercussions. If there's one damned thing we all are sure we know about, it's a good book.
As I turned my pages of the Times in feverish anticipation (would one of my own elegant yarns possibly sneak in, at a modest 78 or 86? even 99? No, alas. No. 78 was Kipling's "Kim," 86 was "Ragtime," 99 was "The Ginger Man.").
Having disposed of that, I slowed down and began to assess the 100 titles more objectively. At the very top, "Ulysses," by James Joyce. Now who could argue with that? Not everyone reads "Ulysses" anymore, but still. Joyce was almost blind, yet he had not one, but two books in the top five! There at three was "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." I still thrill to the terrible description of Hell, required reading for all Catholic teenage boys with their lustful imaginings. Also from Joyce, at 77, a book I guarantee nobody reads, "Finnegan's Wake."
Coming in second to "Ulysses," my own fave, considered "the great American novel" against which all others contend, Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Poor Fitz, who strove so hard and ended so badly, also had another on the list, at 28, "Tender is the Night," a moving but badly organized story. Hemingway first appears at 45 with "The Sun Also Rises," and returns at No. 74 with "A Farewell to Arms," the retreat from Capporetto and all that.
Evelyn Waugh pops up with "A Handful of Dust" at 34 and returns with "Scoop" at 75 and "Brideshead Revisited" in 80th place. There's too much Faulkner for my tastes with "The Sound & the Fury" at six and others later on.
It was during a third perusal of the list that I began scouting for pals. My pals. Good for Joe Heller, at No. 7 with "Catch-22." And Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with "Slaughterhouse-Five" at 18. Kurt and Heller both live in the Hamptons and we have the odd glass. And Norman Mailer with "The Naked & the Dead" at 51. A respectful tip of the hat to Norman. And a posthumous huzzah! to Jim Jones for "From Here to Eternity" in 62nd place. No Capote, I regret to say. Nor Irwin Shaw. Good old Irwin, how we all miss him.
And since I once interviewed his son, the very fine actor Matt Salinger, and because I used to be a teen-ager myself, how delighted I was to encounter J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" at 64.
And what pleasure it was to go down the list and reacquaint oneself with well-loved, but perhaps half-forgotten titles:
"Under the Volcano." "The Grapes of Wrath." "Darkness at Noon." "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." "Lord Jim." "Deliverance." "Appointment in Samarra," by John O'Hara, whom I once encountered in the Travellers Club in Paris. Does anyone read O'Hara anymore? They should, you know. "The Maltese Falcon," by Dashiell Hammett. Get hold of "The Continental Op," also by Hammett and not listed. "The Adventures of Augie Marsh": what a grand novel. "The Sheltering Sky," ripe and disturbing. "Ironweed," by William Kennedy. Styron's "Sophie's Choice." "The Call of the Wild," by Jack London. Does anyone write boys' books like that anymore?
Few women make the list (Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Carson McCullers, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark). Is that a function of an all-male committee? Or is it that few women write great novels?