Ninety-Nine More Novels

Last week, I was asked to produce my own list of Ninety Nine Novels that I might recommend to others. The criteria were that the books must have been published in the past 38 years and be available to read in English. It’s an odd request, but didn’t sound odd to me. Allow me to contextualise.

In the early 1980s, Anthony Burgess was commissioned to write a book of book recommendations. He was well placed to do it, as a prominent international author himself, as well as a prolific reviewer of fiction since the 1960s. Lore tells us that he wrote the book in a mere three weeks. By contrast it has taken me three days just to produce my own list which takes us from where Burgess left off – that resonant year 1984 – to the present.

Ninety-nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 - A Personal Choice -  Burgess, Anthony - Libri -
A Personal Choice.

Burgess’s list covered 45 years, whereas mine covers a little less, of necessity. I can’t predict the future of the next seven years of publishing. Also, where Burgess appended excellent mini-essays on each text, I have spared you the tedium of my pontifications, though I am happy to elaborate briefly on my choices if there are any queries.

Burgess’s book, a compendium of these mini-essays, is therefore a deft and succinct potted history of Anglophone literature’s greatest hits from the war and post-war period of the 20th century, as he saw it. Ninety Nine Novels is a fascinating list in itself, and I don’t intend to comment on or critique it at all.

It’s certainly open to critique and has inspired much comment over the years. You should read it. Alternatively, you should consult the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s website, where they are celebrating this book with a series of podcasts. If you’re REALLY stuck for time, Adam Roberts has an excellent summary of the book’s merits (and faults) here.

What were Burgess’s criteria? That they be a) novels, b) published between 1939 and 1983, and c) concerned with what he called ‘human character’. It is, as he wrote in the introduction to Ninety Nine Novels, “the Godlike task of the novelist to create human beings whom we accept as living creatures filled with complexities and armed with free will.” I have ignored his proscription against ‘comic strips’, which he himself in agreement with the critic Leslie Fiedler, felt was already an outdated exclusion in the Eighties.

Finally, he argues that novels should “leave in the reader’s mind a sort of philosophical residue.” Whether he intended that to be as didactic as it sounds is unclear, but it has been the guiding principle in selecting these books. They are therefore novels which I have read, which feature superbly drawn characters, and which have haunted my thoughts afterwards.

Hence, they’re subject to the whims and prejudices of someone of my age, gender, class and race, raised in the place I grew up and educated in the way I was, and circumscribed by which books were available for me to encounter. There’s probably a lot of Irish fiction here. I’m Irish. There’s probably quite a lot of science fiction too. Well, I study it for a living. If there’s an especial density of texts from the late 90s, that’s probably because I was having to read umpteen novels a week as the Books Correspondent for Dublin’s Sunday Independent at the time.

You will likely disagree, and have your own list. And so you should. There are many astonishing books missing from this list, I agree. There are some choices you might find baffling. I can only reiterate how Burgess concluded his introduction to Ninety Nine Novels: “If you disagree violently with some of my choices I shall be pleased. We arrive at values only through dialectic.”

1984 – Neuromancer – William Gibson

The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Empire of the Sun – JG Ballard

1985 – Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Perfume – Patrick Suskind

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood

1986 – Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis

The Light Fantastic – Terry Pratchett

1987 – Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – Douglas Adams

The Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe

Beloved – Toni Morrison

1988 – Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel – Milorad Pavić

1989 – Ripley Bogle – Robert McLiam Wilson

London Fields – Martin Amis

Billy Bathgate – E.L. Doctorow

And the Ass Saw the Angel – Nick Cave

1990 – Amongst Women – John McGahern

Vineland – Thomas Pynchon

Use of Weapons – Iain M. Banks

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

1991 – American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

The Famished Road – Ben Okri

Maus – Art Spiegelman

1992 – Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

Red Mars – Kim Stanley Robinson

Fatherland – Robert Harris

1993 – The Shipping News – Annie Proulx

A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

Dead Lagoon – Michael Dibdin

1995 – Independence Day – Richard Ford

1996 – Fight Club – Chuck Pahlaniuk

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

The Tailor of Panama – John Le Carre

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

1997 – The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Mason & Dixon – Thomas Pynchon

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Quarantine – Jim Crace

Underworld – Don DeLillo

1998 – My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

The Catastrophist – Ronan Bennett

1999 – Q – Luther Blissett

Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem

2000 – Atomised – Michel Houellebecq

White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

Perdido Street Station – China Mieville

2001 – The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

The Constant Gardener – John Le Carre

The Other Wind – Ursula K. Le Guin

2002 – Any Human Heart – William Boyd

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

2003 – Millennium People – JG Ballard

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

2004 – River of Gods – Ian McDonald

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

2005 – Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson

2006 – The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Book of Dave – Will Self

2007 – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

2008 – Bad Day in Blackrock – Kevin Power

Bog Child – Siobhan Dowd

2009 – 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

2010 – Room – Emma Donohue

Suicide – Édouard Levé

2011 – 11/22/63 – Stephen King

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

2012 – Capital – John Lanchester

2013 – Journalists – Sergei Aman

City of Bohane – Kevin Barry

2014 – Annihilation – Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

2015 – Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2016 – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan

Central Station – Lavie Tidhar

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

2084: The End of the World – Boualem Sansai

2018 – Circe – Madeleine Miller

Milkman – Anna Burns

The Black Prince – Adam Roberts

2019 – This is How You Lose the Time War – Amal El-Mohtar

2020 – The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again – M. John Harrison

Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell

2021 – Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro

9 Replies to “Ninety-Nine More Novels”

  1. An excellent and provocative list. I’d want to add the Outline trilogy by Rachel Cusk.

    1. It is hard to argue against that, I appreciate. My first, belated, encounter with Rachel Cusk was her essay collection, which I read hoping to experience some nostalgia for the West Midlands. That’s not quite what I encountered. It was something much, much more resonant. I did have ‘Outline’ on my longlist. It definitely does something I’ve not really encountered in the novel form before. I guess ultimately I left it out because there was such an uneasy intimacy, but also a sense of distance, embedded in the form. I expect I didn’t fully grasp her achievement.

  2. an interesting list, though much as I love David Mitchell you’ve not included what I consider his finest The thousand autumn’s of Jacob De zoet, and the three great masterpieces of the late 1990s, Disgrace, American Pastoral and the Poisonwood Bible surely would be on my list. I do like your inclusion of culturally important books such as Bridget Jones diary, and pleased to find another advocate of will self’s the book of Dave.

  3. I feel very seen, as they say! All of those got cut very late in the process. And De Zoet too. I guess I felt I’d already fanboyed a lot over Mitchell, and Utopia Avenue was still fresh in the mind as I only read it last month.
    Disgrace was one of the very last I reluctantly removed. It is an astonishing novel. In one of the roads not traveled, I nearly did my PhD on Burgess under Coetzee at Cape Town. Perhaps that still rankled?
    With Roth also, I have no real excuse for omission. The Human Stain was another I considered long and hard. Kingsolver’s novel is clearly brilliant too, though it didn’t resonate with me quite the way it clearly does for so many others.
    I felt all of those might well come up in comments, and I am glad you have mentioned them!

  4. glad they were in consideration, you’re more well read than I am, still to read bone clocks and utopia avenue and consider myself a fan!

  5. I do have a few reservations about Utopia Avenue and will likely review it here at some point. But it is just such a wonderful evocation of the era, and it was fresh in the mind. Bone Clocks was astonishing, as Mitchell often is.

  6. I see a lot of traffic coming from Metafilter. Hi Everybody! I’ve seen your debate on the list, and there’s a lot of great suggestions being made.
    I’m not inclined to offer a defence as such. This is my list and your mileage will likely vary. That’s the point – to provoke exactly the sort of excellent discussion you guys are having.
    I did want to say one thing, in relation to the number of women and POC on the list. I wanted to be as honest as possible. I didn’t want to posture. I pretty much expected this critique and I offer no defence.
    (It’s also fair comment that there’s too much Stephenson and Mitchell. Burgess didn’t replicate authors quite as much as I did, but he read a lot more than me.)
    I read a lot of SF in particular, and SF until relatively recently was and to an extent still is pretty white and male. Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Lagoon’ was one of the last books I reluctantly cut, but this list does represent my choices for Burgess’s criteria, and in that sense reflects me.
    So yeh, you might find my reading preferences a bit basic, genre-heavy, and tending to veer between middlebrow, and very highbrow.
    I hope you all might find at least one book in there that you haven’t read and might think to pick up. Likewise, I daresay that if I ever replicate this, any future list will likely demonstrate a higher proportion of women and POC authors.

  7. Personally, I would advocate for Pynchon’s Against the Day. I reread it last year, and in spite of some fairly obvious issues, I still have the nagging suspicion that it might be not just my favorite Pynchon novel but my favorite novel, period.

    1. You are not the only one to so advocate, Geo. I hear you. I went with the Pynchons I’ve reread most that were published during the relevant time period. But I’m saving a reread of Against the Day for when I have time to luxuriate in 900 pages of ‘what if everything from the 19th century which was debunked later turned out to be true?’

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: