November 8, 2019

BBC announces refreshingly contemporary “100 Novels That Shaped Our World”


Craig Thompson, whose ‘Habibi’ is included in the BBC’s list (WikiCommons / Joshin Yamada [CC BY 2.0])

Ah, list season. Just as sure as the leaves fall from the trees and the animals of the wood begin preparing themselves for hibernation, November onwards is a busy old time for critics. Round-ups! Listicles! Best-ofs! They’re all fair game, and this year we have the added “fun” of best-of-the-decade lists to look forward to, as well! Fire up the notes app and get ready to write down a bunch of stuff you know in your heart of hearts you probably won’t ever get around to investigating, people!

Before we get properly into list season, however, the BBC has pre-empted the numerical deluge by announcing the “100 Novels That Shaped Our World.” The list, commissioned by BBC Arts to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, comprises English-language works from the last three centuries, and will be accompanied by a BBC Two series that begins on November 9th. It was selected by a panel made up of TLS editor Stig Abell, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, authors Kit de Waal, Alexander McCall Smith and Juno Dawson, and Bradford Festival Literary Director Syima Aslam.

It’s an unusual beast, doing away with the idea of “1-100” entirely, and instead categorising groups of books into ten sections—including Identity, Life, Death and Other Worlds, and Crime & Conflict. The decision to do so largely works, allowing for a number of interesting inclusions that might have been passed over in previous lists—Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener of course being the one we’re most chuffed about. Craig Thompson’s epic graphic novel Habibi, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, and Sebastian Barry’s extraordinary Days Without End are all unexpected and laudably contemporary inclusions. It does seem a little bit like cheating to put the entirety of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series in there—comprising, as it does, 41 novels and countless spin-offs—but we’ll give Sir Terry a pass because he was a genius.

Such innovation inevitably means that a number of classics have fallen by the wayside (“canon-fodder,” you might say). As the Guardian reported in their assessment, “there’s no Wuthering Heights, no Moby-Dick, no Ulysses”—a good thing, in their view. The Telegraph disagreed, however, calling it “a short-sighted list that will please nobody.”

It seems, then, that this particular round-up has done what all good lists should do: spark debate. We all know Ulysses et al are great works; so why not allow some new masterpieces in, too?



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.