Larry McCaffery’s Greatest Literary Hits of the 20th Century

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McCaffery at San Diego State University.

In 1999, literary critic Larry McCaffery made an unusual list of the 100 most important (English-language) books of the 20th century. It was in response to Modern Library’s similar list — possibly the most distributed top 100 list of English literature — which was boring, generic, predictable, and sometimes bizarre in a really bad way.* McCaffery’s list, in turn, is worth investigating due to the preference for more obscure writers — there’s a lot more transgressive fiction; much more from the experimental and post-modernists of the ’60s and ’70s; and many of these books have been out of print for decades.

In other words, McCaffery’s is a list of exploration and discoveries. Sometimes good, sometimes not — his choices are at least always interesting, and far more-so in comparison to the boring, typical top 100s of nothing but Steinbecks, Fitzgeralds and Hemingways.

I’ll never finish this list.

(N.B. Words on those I’ve finished will probably in progress for a while. Sorry.)


  1. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962)
  2. James’ Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)
    • x / 10
    • I can’t comment, unfortunately — I was 16 when I read Ulysses, and far too caught up in creating the air of intelligence that absolutely nothing stuck. Everything I remember about it comes from others’ analyses.
  3. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
    • 10 / 10
    • Pynchon’s a lovely writer. A combination of high- and low-brow culture (like all of his books), Gravity’s Rainbow is a convoluted mess of political philosophy, war, engineering, science, dick and fart jokes, lewd songs, metaphysics, sexual deviancy, and cetera. His style takes getting used to; I recall finding both V. (1963) and the Crying of Lot 49 (1965) good warm-ups to his writing (and good stories).
  4. Robert Coover’s the Public Burning (1977)
  5. William Faulkner’s the Sound and the Fury (1929)
    • 9 / 10
  6. Samuel Beckett’s Trilogy (1953 – 1957):
    1. Molloy (1953)
    2. Malone Dies (1956)
    3. The Unnamable (1957)
  7. Gertrude Stein’s the Making of Americans (1925)
  8. William S. Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy (1962 – 1967):
    1. The Soft Machine (1962)
    2. Nova Express (1964)
    3. The Ticket that Exploded (1967)
  9. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)
    • 9 / 10
  10. James Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake (1941)
  11. Raymond Federman’s Take It or Leave It (1975)
    • 6 / 10
    • An admirable writer who published quite a few underappreciated gems, Federman’s style — that I’ve experienced, at least — is not one that fits me. His experimental recounting, complete with cut-up text and pages literally restructured, of an 82nd Airborne Division goof-off was too dated by self-importance, sexism, and jokes that, to me, fell flat. Take It or Leave It was stylistically fascinating, but told a boring story with boring themes about boring characters.
  12. Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1986)
    • 8 / 10
  13. Stephen Wright’s Going Native (1994)
    • 7 / 10
  14. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1949)
    • 8 / 10
  15. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)
  16. William H. Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (1968)
    • 8 / 10
    • The opening story, ‘the Pedersen Kid,’ is by itself one of the greatest stories / novellas I’ve ever read — perfect. It alone elevates this collection to worth reading. Not all the stories that follow work, however, like ‘Order of Insects’ being nothing but abstruse symbolism and word-vomit to any misunderstanding eyes. ‘The Pedersen Kid,’ though, reads like the best of Cormac McCarthy or William Faulkner, down to the spare style. What a grueling, dark, sadistic and beautiful story.
  17. William Gaddis’ JR (1975)
  18. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952)
    • 8 / 10
  19. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997)
  20. Ernest Hemingway’s the Sun Also Rises (1926)
    • 7 / 10
  21. James Joyce’s a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
    • 8 / 10
  22. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s the Great Gatsby (1925)
    • 8 / 10
  23. Henry James’ the Ambassadors (1903)
  24. D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921)
  25. Donald Barthelme’s 60 Stories (1981)
  26. William T. Vollmann’s the Rifles (1993)
  27. William Gaddis’ the Recognitions (1955)
  28. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899)
    • 8 / 10
  29. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961)
    • 10 / 10
  30. George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-Four (1949)
    • 8 / 10
  31. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
    • 7 / 10
  32. William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936)
    • 10/ 10
  33. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975)
    • 9 / 10
  34. John Steinbeck’s the Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  35. Rikki Ducornet’s the Four Elements Tetralogy (1984 – 1993):
    1. The Stain (1984)
    2. Entering Fire (1986)
    3. The Fountains of Neptune (1992)
    4. The Jade Cabinet (1993)
  36. William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy (1984 – 1988):
    1. Neuromancer (1984)
      • 9 / 10
    2. Count Zero (1986)
      • 8 / 10
    3. Mna Lisa Overdrive (1988)
      • 8 / 10
  37. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934)
  38. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)
    • 6 / 10
    • The original scroll edition, published in 2007 for the book’s 50th anniversary, I recall being much more fascinating and with a much stronger beat to its writing. The ‘regular’ edition, which transformed the single-paragraph, prose-poetry style that was intended into something marketable is both bland and dated. Note: To enjoy Kerouac, one must read him early, and read him while the idealism and naivete are strong. His style wears out  with age, with its upbeat front hiding a cynical and unhappy and phony personality.
  39. Joseph McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge (1974)
  40. J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973)
    • 4 / 10
    • Crash would have  made a great short story. If it was 30 pages about our sexualization of and obsession with technology, with cars, with easy-living and consumerism –it would have been golden.  Unfortunately, those 30 pages extended to 250+ without ever extending the story or message along with it. Crash was tiring.
  41. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981)
  42. John Barth’s the Sot-Weed Factor (1960)
    • 9 / 10
  43. Paul Metcalf’s Genoa: A Telling of Wonders (1965)
    • 9 / 10
  44. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)
    • 7 / 10
  45. E.M. Forster’s a Passage to India (1924)
  46. Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1972)
  47. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
    • 9 / 10
  48. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West (1985)
    • 10 / 10
  49. John Hawkes’ the Cannibal (1949)
    • 6 / 10
  50. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940)
    • 9 / 10
    • A depressing and powerful companion to the work of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin of the same era, Richard Wright’s Native Son was a bitter, angry, and frustrating novel. The impoverished urban environment, it posits, pushes minorities like Bigger Thomas into crime — as do misguided attempts from parental whites to ‘fix’ their lives. Bigger Thomas’ story is an extreme: The discrimination he faces pushes him to murder his white lover in a freak accident. It also pushes him to increasing extremes, mutilating her body and murdering others to fix his accident. It received a lot of flak from writers like Baldwin, who didn’t like the simplified environmental villain and lack of free will, but they’re still hotly debated today (and neuroscience is even giving more credence towards these ideas).
  51. Nathaniel West’s the Day of the Locust (1939)
    • 7 / 10
  52. Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1937)
    • 8 / 10
  53. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980)
    • 10 / 10
    • Housekeeping is such a beautiful, lonely novel. I spent three very long days completely lost inside of the head of Ruthie and her family. A beautifully-told novel that reads like poetry about dealing with loss. The characters are real (and real quirky); and, thankfully, the themes of faith are not overblown in religious dogma — a problem I have with all of Robinson’s later novels and essays. Housekeeping is perfect.
  54. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
    • 7 / 10
  55. Don DeLillo’s Libra (1986)
    • 8 / 10
  56. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952)
    • 8 / 10
  57. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home (1985)
  58. John Dog Passos’ USA Trilogy (1930 – 1936)
    1. The 42nd Parallel (1930)
    2. 1919 (1932)
    3. The Big Money (1936)
  59. Doris Lessing’s the Golden Notebook (1962)
  60. J.D. Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye (1951)
    • 5 / 10
  61. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929)
    • 6 / 10
  62. Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981)
    • 8 / 10
  63. James Joyce’s Dubliners (1915)
    • 8 / 10
  64. Jean Toomer’s Cane (1925)
  65. Edith Wharton’s the House of Mirth (1905)
    • 8 / 10
  66. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980 / rev. 1998)
    • 10 / 10
    • It took me about 10 attempts to get past the first pages of Riddley Walker. The writing is lost in an evolved (or broken, depending on your view) form of English thousands of years after an apocalypse. Riddley Walker is a story of mythology after the bombs dropped, how years of passing down history and living around the ruins of cities and modern-day features shaped more simplistic cultures and their own stories and histories. Probably my favorite novel.
  67. William Eastlake’s the Checkerboard Trilogy (1956 – 1963):
    1. Go in Beauty (1956)
      • 8 / 10
    2. The Bronc People (1958)
      • 9 / 10
    3. Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-six Horses (1963)
      • 8 / 10
  68. Stanley Elkin’s the Franchiser (1976)
    • 8 / 10
  69. Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy (1985 – 1986):
    1. City of Glass (1985)
      • 7 / 10
    2. Ghosts (1986)
      • 8 / 10
    3. The Locked Room (1986)
      • 8 / 10
  70. Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All (1986)
    • 8 / 10
  71. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1995)
    • 10 / 10
  72. Ben Marcus’ the Age of Wire and String (1996)
    • 7 / 10
  73. Harry Mathews’ Tlooth (1966)
  74. Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants (1969)
    • 8 / 10
  75. Philip K. Dick’s the Man in the High Castle (1962)
    • 7 / 10
  76. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1988)
    • 9 / 10
  77. John Fowles’ the French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)
  78. Gene Wolfe’s the Book of the New Sun Tetralogy (1980 – 1982):
    1. The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
    2. The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
    3. The Sword of the Lictor (1982)
    4. The Citadel of the Autarch (1982)
  79. Anthony Burgess’ a Clockwork Orange (1962)
    • 7 / 10
  80. William Kennedy’s Albany Trilogy (1976 – 1983):
    1. Legs (1976)
    2. Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978)
    3. Ironweed (1983)
  81. William H. Gass’ the Tunnel (1995)
  82. William H. Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck (1966)
  83. Paul Bowles’ the Sheltering Sky (1949)
    • 7 / 10
    • An enjoyable tale of middle-class malaise, cultural appropriation, and aimlessness ‘in’ a post-war America.
  84. Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat (1981)
  85. Ronald Sukenick’s UP (1968)
    • 6 / 10
    • Like Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick was a leading voice in the ’60s and ’70s postmodernist movement, but, also like Federman, he’s largely forgotten today outside of literary criticism. While his (and Federman’s) techniques in UP are clever and creative (think House of Leaves), his philosophy is largely stuck up its own ass in self-importance and uncomfortable misogyny.
  86. Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969)
    • 9 / 10
  87. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
    • 5 / 10
    • Anderson’s writing is very much of its time. Winesburg, Ohio is meant to follow the unspoken grotesqueness of small-town life — of everyone’s darker sides and secret desires — around the time of publication. Everything about it struck me as plain and dated. The writing is standard proto-modernist, which, is to say, plain; and the characters are dated — still not very real and defined largely by a lot of pesky –isms. This was Anderson’s self-conscious attempt at creating a masterpiece and being remembered. Faulkner — a close friend at the time — later adapted his ideas with far more success and originality in his stories of Yoknapatawpha.
  88. William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987)
  89. Norman Mailer’s the Naked and the Dead (1948)
  90. Robert Coover’s the Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)
    • 8 / 10
  91. Steve Katz’s Creamy and Delicious (1971)
    • 7 / 10
  92. J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
    • 8 / 10
  93. Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human (1951)
    • 8 / 10
  94. Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew (1979)
  95. Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
  96. Theodore Dreiser’s an American Tragedy (1925)
    • 7 / 10
  97. Ted Mooney’s Easy Travels to Other Planets (1981)
    • 8 / 10
  98. Steve Erickson’s Tours of the Black Clock (1989)
    • 10 / 10
  99. Kathy Acker’s in Memoriam to Identity (1990)
    • 9 / 10
  100. Samuel R. Delany’s Hogg (1996)
    • 6 / 10
    • Included somewhat half-heartedly for its shock-value — my suspicion –, it’s a hard book to consider along  objective lines. Hogg‘s a pioneer in transgressive fiction, eschewing gender and sexual norms for uncomfortable violence and gore. Hogg follows an 11-year-old boy who never says no, and passively does whatever he’s told to do. No page goes by that doesn’t seem to top the horrors of the preceding pages, making it nothing but unpleasant — but it’s completely unforgettable, and Delany’s writing enthralling.

* The accompanying list of readers’ choices is notable for being influenced by ballot-stuffing, where followers of objectivism and Scientology inflated the appearance of the popularity and lasting value of two objectively-terrible writers.

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