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Zoinks, 100 best books list from NPR includes just 7 by women

Dick Meyer at NPR has decided to come up with his list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. "I am not a learned or prolific reader of novels," he writes. "My taste is probably medium-brow, male and parochial in many ways. Tough. It's my list."

Apparently, it is, because it's certainly not my list. While I wouldn't call it parochial, I would say that a lot of the books are the kind that were assigned to be read in school, which indicates a kind of incurious reader to me. Misspelling Nathanael West's name (as Nathaniel),  and including two books each by Philip Roth, John Le Carre, Richard Ford and John Updike doesn't help to convince me otherwise.

But truly astonishing is the fact that only seven books by women make the list. And number 100 —  Nicole Krauss' "A History of Love" — was published in 2005, so it doesn't even belong in a list that spans 1900-2000. Which would cut down the number of female authors to six.

Who isn't there: no Flannery O'Connor,  no A.S. Byatt, no Annie Dillard, no Margaret Mitchell, no Katherine Ann Porter, no Isak Dinesen, no Gertrude Stein, no Joyce Carol Oates, no Margaret Atwood, no Edith Wharton, no Zora Neale Hurston, no Eudora Welty, no Rebecca West, no Annie Proulx, no Nadine Gordimer, no Doris Lessing, no Simone de Beauvoir. 

There are plenty of iconic male writers missing, too: Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon, Henry James, James Baldwin, Henry Miller. And so on.

I took an informal poll among five of the bookish types at the L.A. Times office. The most books any of us had in common with this list was 41; the least was 24. But from that commonality, our percentage of reading the female writers on his list started out about the same as Meyer's and then went up -- his was 7% (or 6%, if you take out Krauss) and our ratio went from 5%-17%.

All of which goes to show that this really isn't our list. Meyer, who is editorial director of Digital Media at NPR.org, is to be commended for reading and liking 100 books (his complete list is after the jump). But really — it's time for him to get with the ladies.

— Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credits: Zora Neale Hurston —  Unknown. Margaret Atwood — Ann Johansson / For The Times

1. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
4. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
6. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
7. Angle of Repose,Wallace Stegner
8. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
9. Humboldt's Gift, Saul Bellow
10. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
11. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
12. U.S.A. Trilogy,John Dos Passos
13. The Untouchable,John Banville
14. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
15. Rabbit at Rest, John Updike
16. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
17. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
18. Beloved, Toni Morrison
19. The Remains of the Day,Kazuo Ishiguro
20. Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
21. Light in August, William Faulkner
22. My Antonia, Willa Cather
23. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
24. A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
25. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
26. Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis
27. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
28. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
29. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
30. Midnight's Children,Salman Rushdie
31. All the Pretty Horses,Cormac McCarthy
32. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
33. The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
34. Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
35. Aloft, Chang-Rae Lee
36. Appointment in Samarra,John O'Hara
37. Atonement,Ian McEwan
38. So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell
39. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
40. Lucky Jim,Kingsley Amis
41. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
42. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
43. A Soldier of the Great War,Mark Helprin
44. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
45. Animal Farm, George Orwell
46. Charlotte's Web, E.B. White
47. The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford
48. The Secret Sharer, Joseph Conrad
49. Blood Meridian,Cormac McCarthy
50. The Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West
51. Crossing to Safety,Wallace Stegner
52. Felicia's Journey, William Trevor
53. Ironweed, William Kennedy
54. Lonesome Dove,Larry McMurtry
55. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,John LeCarre
56. In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O'Brien
57. A Coffin for Dimitrios, Eric Ambler
58. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,Robert Pirsig
59. The Caine Mutiny,Herman Wouk
60. The Killer Angels,Michael Shaara
61. The Human Factor, Graham Greene
62. Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
63. Paris Trout, Pete Dexter
64. Howard's End, E.M. Forster
65. The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
66. The English Patient,Michael Ondaatje
67. Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth
68. Fabulous Small Jews, Joseph Epstein
69. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
70. Roscoe, William Kennedy
71. Charming Billy, Alice McDermott
72. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
73. Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
74. Lying Awake,Mark Salzman
75. A Confederacy of Dunces,John Kennedy Toole
76. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,Ken Kesey
77. Light Years, James Salter
78. Black Dogs,Ian McEwan
79. Spartina, John Casey
80. A Fan's Notes,Frederick Exley
81. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh
82. Blood of the Lamb,Peter De Vries
83. Empire Falls, Richard Russo
84. The Maltese Falcon,Dashiell Hammett
85. Double Indemnity, James Cain
86. The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner
87. The Ginger Man,J.P. Donleavy
88. Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
89. Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike
90. Deliverance, James Dickey
91. The Bird Artist, Howard Norman
92. Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
93. City Boy,Herman Wouk
94. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,John le Carre
95. Advise and Consent,Allen Drury
96. A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
97. Sophie's Choice, William Styron
98. Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut
99. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
100. A History of Love,Nicole Krauss

Comments () | Archives (13)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Noticed this. Started to blog about it. And the implications--why is it that the majority of women included, for example, are time-honored classics? I think it's because people (acquiring editors, reviewers, consumers) are afraid of edgy female writing; so the majority of books by women that get attention these days are fairly linear and accessible family sagas, etc.

But then I decided this is only one guy's opinion, and it wasn't worth it. What we need is a more thoroughgoing analysis of why lists turn out this way, time after time after time.

I hope you're not responsible for that headline: "...100 best books list from NPR..."

If you go to the article on the NPR website, it is clearly labeled Commentary, and Dick Meyer clearly states that this is HIS list, and he just wanted to "see other readers play with it and comment." It is no way intended to be an official list representing NPR.

Meyer states "My criteria were essentially how much the book hit me, moved me, made me see — and how it stuck with me." In other words, HIS list is all about HIM!

Instead of simply accepting his "It's my list" remark, you have to snarkily snap "Apparently, it is, because it's certainly not my list."

I'm afraid your article comes off like you're complaining that someone else's favorite color is green, when your favorite color is blue.

K, thanks for your comment. In fact, as a commentary published on the NPR site, it is "from NPR," as the headline states. Mr. Meyer is employed by NPR and wrote this for them, not for a personal blog.

As much as he says this is "his list," he has circulated is a list of "best" books, not "favorites." He's staking out a claim for what is good and what is not -- and in response, it is more than fair to note what is left out of that critical assessment.

Well, it's fine if you find it important to get cranky because I didn't have a proper ratio of women on my list to suit you; many peope who left comments had the same complaint. But if you're going to blog about the piece, at least report the basics accurately. I say quite clearly it's a list of "English-language novels written after 1900" -- not 20th century novels. So your effort to ex-communicate Nicole Krauss from the list is just cheesy.

And, yes, you can make the contorted argument that any such list is de facto a list of the "best." But I do make quite clear these are just the novels I happen to like most. Intent matters, too.

I enourage you to publish your list. I have found they are fun, amusing and helpful to readers looking for their next few reads.

Either way Dick, you need to get out more. The middle of the road can only take you so far.

I think it's great that he's liked every book he's ever read.

You didn't get my point at all. Your headline is implying that this is an official NPR list of 100 best books, when it's really just the personal list of one employee. The whole reason for that "Commentary" label on his article is to emphasize fact that that what is said is strictly the opinion of the writer.

And yes, he can have a list of what he thinks are the best books, without it necessarily being exactly the same as a list of his favorite books. He clearly gives what he is using as his criteria: "how much the book hit me, moved me, made me see — and how it stuck with me."

What he's trying to do with this list is spur people into thinking about what books do the same for them.

He actually did get you thinking about that, but unfortunately you approached it in a negative way - you felt the need to lash out at him simply because his list didn't match yours. Instead, it would be much more beneficial to use this to inspire you to publish your own list of best books, which would inspire even more people to think about this for themselves. (And it might prompt them to read some books appearing on your list that they might have missed, possilby including some of those by those female authors.)

it would be just as interesting (if you're tracking the motives of the "acquiring editors, reviewers, consumers") to count how many men are quoted on the book jacket vs. the number of women. this will probably give you a good idea of what constitutes a gender bias.

Another indication that even NPR is going in the conversative direction...just compare the content from 5 or 10 years ago and it's clearly evident.

tha list waz two long fer mee too read but eye imagine thars sum really gud buks on that list
thanks et must have taked awhile two due it.

Why is Mr. Meyer accusing you of not reporting the basics accurately? He may clearly state that his list is drawn from "English-language novels written after 1900." However, the title of his commentary is "100 Years, 100 Novels, One List." Why wouldn't one infer that his list would be limited to books written in the 20th century?

Is there really such a quota? Why must one have as many female authors as to appease what apparently is a bar set by an informal poll of "bookish types" at the self-important, so-far-left-it's-almost-right L.A. Times? It's laughable. I'm amazed the pollster could find enough participants between flag burnings and "Impeach Bush" rallies to even assemble a respectable census base in the aforementioned office.

Had this list contained 30 female authors, would Mr. Meyer's personal opinion have been substantiated then? Would it have lived up to NPR's implied promise of a usual liberal slant? This piece is deplorable tripe.

As for the list itself, also conspicuously absent are such modern masterpieces as "Catch 22," "Ulysses," "The Sound and the Fury," "1984," and "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." Of course all penned by men, some of which containing "parochial" and obvious pro-Christian themes, which to Ms. Kellogg seems equally unfit for such a list. Kudos there Mr. Meyer.

Personally I thought this was an insightful collection with many titles that don't typically appear in such rankings of 20th Century novels. Also, as mentioned by Mr. Meyer, his list did indeed turn me on to few new gems that I have yet to read -- regrettably, all from male authors, therefore to be enjoyed shamefully in the most secluded of closets.

Some advice though Dick, next time around maybe toss in a Harry Potter book. Not only would it be written by a female, but its overtones of witchcraft are sure to ruffle the feathers of narrow-minded types -- and maybe even win approval with "bookish types" at the L.A. Times.

Three brief comments:

I agree with those who say this is 'not an NPR list', just Meyers'. Let's recognize this is "one man's opinion" as Meyers does.

Second, come one... what great female writers are left off the list and should bump off what guys? How about it, Ms. Kellog, could you propose a list of the top female writers and we compare to the NPR (aka Meyers) list and see what guys get whacked? For my money Amy Tam can displace at least five guys on the list.

Lastly, it's too bad the list was limited to books originally in English. The greater ommission from a "great books" list is to omit works that began in other languages and which most of us can know only through translation. If you want to benefit people's "next read" this expansion would allow 'The Master & Margurita' by Mikhail Bulgokov, translated by Mira Ginsberg. That's the greatest book of the 20th century.


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