I’ve always loved lists. Greatest lists. Best-of lists. Since high school, my friend Lana and I have loved dissecting countdowns of all kinds – movies, music, you name it. We always disagree with the list, of course, whatever the list is and wherever it came from, and we never really get tired of rearranging our own countdowns of the best movies of all time, our favorite Led Zeppelin songs, the greatest bands of the 90s, and on and on.
When Modern Library released its list of the greatest English-language books of the 20th century (almost 20 years ago), even then it was immediately criticized for its almost exclusive focus on books written by white men. Nine of the 100 books were written by women. Even less were written by nonwhite men, and none were written by nonwhite women.
For those keeping track at home, yup, you read that right – that means a certain Nobel winner whose name starts with a “T” and ends with an “oni Morrison” didn’t make the cut. Her exclusion is all the more galling when you scan the list and see books like Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson present. Say what now?
To Kill a Mockingbird is also missing. Any Doris Lessing, another Nobel recipient? Nope. How about The Color Purple? We already went over this, remember – only white women were admitted to this particular party.
Now, books are deeply personal, and certainly no two individuals are going to come up with the same list of greatest books of the 20th century. But for such a large number of essential women writers to be passed over in favor of so obviously irrelevant novels like the one I listed above, not to mention four Joseph Conrad novels, can only feel like an intentional shutout.
And it’s particularly shameful when you consider the time period covered. If you told me that nine women were included on a list of the 100 greatest novels of the 19th century, I probably wouldn’t have batted an eye. But the 20th century was so rich a time for women writing in all disciplines, the list really felt like a missed opportunity.
So the Feminista list that I mentioned in my prior blog was a direct reaction to that list, and when I say reaction, I mean just that. When it was published, the somewhat murky group behind it stated that they were alphabetizing their list rather than ranking it from 1 to 100. They also intentionally included only one book per writer (again, as a reaction against the act of including multiple books by Conrad and others to ensure no ladies were admitted).
I was attending Wells College, a women’s college at the time when both lists were released, and I remember sitting in the computer lab (having read about 20 books on Feminista’s list) feeling…dubious. Really. While there were some giants that were clearly missing from the Modern Library list, I also felt like the obscurity of some of the other names on the Feminista list was disconcerting.
I remember thinking, this is a great idea, but are these books I’ve never heard of really going to hold up against Faulkner? Against Joyce? Against Fitzgerald? I cringe at it now, but if I’m being honest about where I was in 2001, I was afraid that this great attempt at sisterhood was just going to highlight how far behind women writers were and how much ground we still had to cover to “catch up” with the “real” greatest list. Limiting the list to one Toni Morrison and one Virginia Woolf and one Edith Wharton just seemed like an unnecessary handicap when we were already losing the ball game 472-3.
But the doubts weren’t enough to stop me from using the Feminista list as the basis of my reading for the 17 or so years that followed. I read through the Modern Library list too, actually. Not all of it – I still have plenty of dead white guys to tackle.
But since college, I have generally used both lists as guides for “what to read next” and “what to buy next” at the used book stores. I’ve found some gems on the Modern Library list, like Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica. And the Feminista books have proved my original doubts unfounded.
I have hated, with the fire of a thousand suns, two books on the list (a chat for another time, my friends). But many of them I immediately fell in love with. My heart leaped the first time I read Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr is one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read.
The God of Small Things is a book that I want to be around or near me at all times. Owls Do Cry introduced me to Janet Frame who has become one of my all-time favorite writers. And The Bone People by Keri Hulme – while I am a re-reader by nature, I am almost afraid to re-read The Bone People. I fear that the magic of that first reading will be lost, and I don’t ever want to lose it. These books hold their own against anything Joseph Conrad can bring.
I tell you all this to explain that the heart of my library has been, in some ways, in the making for the last 17 years. That Feminista list made for a very strong beginning and meant that I already had most of their listed books on hand. I am missing 11 of that original list. And hopefully not for long, because I recently discovered The Book Thing in northern Baltimore (FREE BOOKS) and my life may never be the same.
But the Feminista list is only that – a start. As I’ve been learning the last couple weeks, I have a lot more researching and learning to do here! Further up and further in.