Definitive 20th Century Literature is Depressing

1984 ‘is definitive book of the 20th century’
Sarah Crown
Saturday June 2, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Paranoia, propaganda and a state of perpetual war are the defining characteristics of the last century, according to the results of a national survey announced at the Hay festival today.Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s dystopic vision of a totalitarian future in which the population is constantly monitored and manipulated, came top of the survey to find the book that best defines the 20th century. The public voted online at Guardian Unlimited Books, choosing from a list of 50 era-defining books selected by a panel that included UCL professor of English John Mullan, Jo Henry and Alastair Giles from the Book Marketing Society, and Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller. Orwell’s novel came top by an authoritative margin, garnering 22% of the vote.

Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948, at the midpoint of the century, but its ongoing relevance is demonstrated by the extent to which its concepts and terminology – Big Brother, Newspeak, Double Think – have seeped into our language. Even the name of its author has been appropriated as an adjective, Orwellian, which is regularly used today in debates over privacy and state intervention.

The results come out in the week when the eighth series of the popular reality TV series Big Brother, which takes its name from Orwell’s novel on the grounds that the occupants of the house are under constant observation, was launched.

The 10 books which the public felt best defined the 20th century, in order of publication, were:

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Those bolded in the list are, of course, the ones I’ve read. If this is the definitive list of 20th century literature, for the most part it is one depressing era, don’t you think?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. cjwriter
    Aug 29, 2007 @ 20:57:44

    I think it’s hard to create any kind of “definitive” list, because really everybody looks at literature differently. For me, a defining novel is something that has an impact on the culture, so if you follow that it’s hard to understand why Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children isn’t there, let alone The Satanic Verses, one of the most divisive novels of our time.

    I’d probably agree with most of them, though, but it’s missing three big ones: The Lord of the Rings, Atlas Shrugged and To Kill A Mockingbird. How any public list could not have LOTR is very strange.

    nylusmilk: your observation proves that that’s why books you felt should be in the list aren’t there – because everybody looks at literature differently, even the list maker! 🙂 i think they chose books that were parallel to the events that happened in the 20th century. but that said, how can they not include george orwell’s animal farm too, among the ones you’ve pointed out?

    i think what they need to do is make the list longer!


  2. abbydonkrafts
    Aug 31, 2007 @ 22:30:58

    I agree with your response. The list needs to be longer. 10 books to cover 100 years isn’t enough.

    nylusmilk: hehe, maybe you can start one yourself. 🙂 but interesting to note what’s in and what’s not in the list; there could be some good reasons for that.


  3. Kimiko
    Aug 31, 2007 @ 23:14:12

    In my experience, Literature (capital L) is usually depressing. I bet 20th century genre fiction would be much more fun.

    nylusmilk: the more miserable the better literature it is eh? 😉 nope 20th century isn’t any more fun either is it, as reflected in the list?

    i guess every genre in literature has its fun ones as long as we know which ones to choose. unfortunately, the ones chosen for literature class are mostly not of the ‘fun’ kind, if you get what i’m saying. 🙂


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