Guardian Live: Kate Mosse and Robert McCrum on the 100 Greatest Novels (Wednesday 18th February 2015)


From print to digital, Facebook to Twitter, we are living in a “golden age of reading” says Robert McCrum, associate editor of The Observer. In front of a live audience at The Guardian Media Group in Kings Cross, London, best-selling author Kate Mosse interviewed the arts correspondent on his (rather often painstaking) journey of putting together a weekly column (Mondays) in The Guardian which lists (in his opinion) the 100 greatest novels ever written in the English Language. The list, which begun in September 2013, works chronologically, beginning with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).

For Robert, a list is a “road map” which does (in this case) take into consideration some personal choices. Therefore on this premise the list, rather than including the most obvious and popular choices instead considers the novels which the journalist encountered through childhood, university and then later on in adult life. The only rule upon choosing the best novels was that “they had to be works written in English” so could include writers from English speaking countries such as America, Australia, Canada, South Africa and of course England. The novel, says Robert, “inspires empathy and is our invention.” He adds, “The best novels are those which come from a dark place contrasted with those which seek to entertain.” This point was highlighted with reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress which Bunyan famously wrote whilst in prison. Then there was the light humoured literary battles (“like a boxing match,” suggests Kate) between Samuel Richardson (Clarissa written in 1748 and no.4 on list) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones written in 1749, no.5) with Fielding’s earlier novel, Shamela (1741) a mocking response to Richardson’s Pamela (1740) a case in point. Therefore, we are, says Robert, “prisoners of our own reading as well as liberated by it.”


Robert McCrum with the writer

Rather interestingly though perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the listed authors (Joseph Conrad, Henry James, George Eliot, Jane Austen and D.H. Lawrence) are also included in the original canon of greatest authors of literature as prescribed by the late literary critic and academic FR Leavis (see The Great Tradition published in 1948). Kate Mosse makes a point of the need to “break away from the Leavis canon” and move towards one which embodies the many different cultures, races and genders to be found in today’s modern globalized world. In so doing, we are reaching a broader spectrum of readers suggests the author, a point with which this writer prescribes to.


Kate Mosse with the writer

Considering Kate’s point about the need to widen the canon, it would be interesting to know, for instance, if, which any, post-colonial authors Robert and other literary critics consider as great and thereby worthy of inclusion in a canon. Two such writers who come to mind are the late Nigerian and Man Booker International Prize winning author, Chinua Achebe, (widely known as the father of Modern African Literature for Things Fall Apart published in 1958) who wrote the critical essay An image of Africa (1975) in response to the Joseph Conrad classic Heart of Darkness (1899, no.32) and Dominican author, Jean Rhys, who in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) responds to the Charlotte Bronte classic Jane Eyre (1847, no.12) by giving a voice to the “mad woman in the attic.”

While suggesting it rather difficult to pin-point the best author and novel of all time Robert says he has always found Jane Austen (Emma, 1816, no.7) novels “addictive reading, like a drug.” For authors who, contentiously, did not make the list such as Agatha Christie (despite being the most read author around the world) it was, for Robert, just a matter of personal choice. Kate pointed out that books which win prizes generally have a longer shelf life. With that in mind, Robert revealed to the audience, made up of Guardian Members and their guests, that the list (at the time of writing on no.74 with Lord of the flies (1954) by William Golding) will end this summer (around September 2015) with Disgrace (2000) by 2 time Booker Prize and Nobel Prize (for Literature) winning author, J.M. Coetzee. When asked by a Guardian Member why end there, Robert responds, “It’s a good place to stop as we have yet to find our next Ulysses.”

© Copyright 2015, Darell J Philip