The Greatest Novels of the 20th Century


List the 15 greatest English-language novels published in the 20th century, and what each novel was criticized for at the time of its publication and how the initial criticism is regarded today.


Compiling a list of the “greatest” English-language novels of the 20th century is subjective, but here’s a selection based on their impact, popularity, and critical acclaim. I’ll also touch on their initial criticisms and how these are viewed today:

  1. “Ulysses” by James Joyce (1922):
    • Criticism Then: Deemed obscene and unreadably complex.
    • View Now: Its complexity is seen as groundbreaking, influencing modern narrative techniques.
  2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960):
    • Criticism Then: Simplistic and sentimental portrayal of racial issues.
    • View Now: Celebrated for its moral clarity and character depth, though some critique remains on its racial perspectives.
  3. “1984” by George Orwell (1949):
    • Criticism Then: Seen as overly pessimistic and anti-socialist.
    • View Now: Highly regarded as a prescient and profound exploration of totalitarianism and surveillance.
  4. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925):
    • Criticism Then: Viewed as a trivial chronicle of the Jazz Age.
    • View Now: Acclaimed for its exploration of the American Dream’s corruption and its stylistic brilliance.
  5. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (1955):
    • Criticism Then: Condemned for its subject matter involving pedophilia.
    • View Now: Recognized for its literary artistry while still provoking debate over its themes.
  6. “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller (1961):
    • Criticism Then: Initially considered confusing with its non-linear narrative.
    • View Now: Hailed as a brilliant satire of war and bureaucracy.
  7. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley (1932):
    • Criticism Then: Criticized for its pessimistic dystopia and perceived anti-family and anti-religion sentiments.
    • View Now: Viewed as an important cautionary tale about technological and social control.
  8. “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (1951):
    • Criticism Then: Considered controversial for its frank language and themes of teenage angst and rebellion.
    • View Now: Generally seen as an emblematic novel of teenage disaffection, though it remains divisive.
  9. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987):
    • Criticism Then: Challenged for its complex narrative style and raw depiction of the horrors of slavery.
    • View Now: Widely acclaimed for its powerful storytelling and exploration of the African American experience.
  10. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez (1967):
    • Criticism Then: Some viewed its magical realism as overly fantastical.
    • View Now: Celebrated for its rich narrative and contribution to world literature.
  11. “Animal Farm” by George Orwell (1945):
    • Criticism Then: Seen as a blunt allegory and criticized for its dark view of socialism.
    • View Now: Regarded as a sharp critique of totalitarianism, not just of socialism but of political power dynamics in general.
  12. “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding (1954):
    • Criticism Then: Initially criticized for its portrayal of children as savagely and morally corrupt.
    • View Now: Now seen as a profound exploration of human nature and societal structure.
  13. “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie (1981):
    • Criticism Then: Its blending of fantasy and history was initially disorienting for some readers.
    • View Now: Celebrated for its magical realism and deep insights into Indian culture and history.
  14. “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac (1957):
    • Criticism Then: Criticized for glorifying a hedonistic and aimless lifestyle.
    • View Now: Regarded as an iconic representation of the Beat generation, though some criticism remains.
  15. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck (1939):
    • Criticism Then: Accused of socialist leanings and exaggerating the plight of migrant workers.
    • View Now: Seen as a powerful and empathetic portrayal of the struggles during the Great Depression.

Each of these novels was groundbreaking in its own way, challenging societal norms and literary conventions of their time. The initial criticisms often stemmed from contemporary sensibilities and political climates, whereas current views tend to appreciate their artistic and thematic contributions more fully.

End ChatGPT4

PG is familiar with some, but not all, of the books listed, so he’ll be interested to see how visitors to TPV react to the list.

He was interested in reactions to how the AI described the criticisms of each book when it was first published and will be interested in opinions about the AI’s assessment of “greatest books” which, of course, is a very hazy description. He’ll also be interested in opinions about the “judgement” of the AI regarding what books to include and what books to exclude from the list.

Here’s a list of the best-selling books of the 20th Century that PG found online site that said it was sourced from The Guardian’s bestseller list (not a lot of overlap with the Greatest list):

1 Lord of the Rings. Author: J. R. R. Tolkien. Published in 1954-1955. Earned about 150 million.

2 Le petit prince (The Little Prince). Author: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Published in 1943. Earned about 140 million.

3 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Author: J. K. Rowling. Published in 1997. Earned about 120 million.

4 The Hobbit. Author: J. R. R. Tolkien. Published in 1937. Earned about 100 million.

5 And then there were none. Author: Agatha Christie. Published in 1939. Earned about 100 million.

6 The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe. Author: C. S. Lewis. Published in 1950. Earned about 85 million.

7 Vardi Wala Gunda. Autor: Ved Prakash Sharma. Published in 1992. Earned about 80 million.

8 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Author: J. K. Rowling. Published in 1998. Earned about 77 million.

9 Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Author: J. K. Rowling. Published in 1999. Earned about 65 million.

10 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Author: J. K. Rowling. Published in 2000. Earned about 65 million.

11 O Alquimista (The Alquimist). Author: Paulo Coelho. Published in 1988. Earned about 65 million.

12 The Catcher in the Rye. Author: J. D. Salinger. Published in 1951. Earned about 65 million.

13 Think and Go Rich. Author: Napoleon Hill. Published in 1937. Earned about 60 million.

14 The Bridges of Madison County. Author: Robert James Waller. Published in 1992. Earned about 60 million.

15 You can Heal your life. Author: Louise Hay. Published in 1984. Earned about 50 million.

16 Cien años de soledad. (Hundred years of solitude). Author: Gabriel García Márquez. Published in 1967. Earned about 50 million.

17 Lolita. Author: Vladimir Nabokov. Published in 1955. Earned about 50 million.

18 The Common Sense Book of Babe and Child Care. Author: Dr Benjamin Spock. Published in 1946. Earned about 50 million.

19 Anne of Green Gables. Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery. Published in 1908. Earned about 50 million.

20 Il Nome Della Rosa (The name of the Rose). Author: Umberto Eco. Published in 1980. Earned about 50 million.

11 thoughts on “The Greatest Novels of the 20th Century”

  1. Methinks Eliza needed just a little bit more familiarity with non-American English-language criticism of non-American English-language novels.

    Specific example: In the UK, criticism of Brave New World only marginally touched on “anti-family and anti-religion sentiments,” instead spending most of its ire — which was much more along the lines of “praising with faint damns,” once one got away from the established broadsheets — on the drug use (with unfavorable comparisons to Coleridge) and general orientation toward pleasure.

    Similarly, the main UK criticism of Animal Farm was that it was disloyal to an ally, regardless of its take on socialism or government power or orthodoxy. By 1949, however, UK-based criticism of 1984† was quite mild, except in the most pro-Stalin (and proto-National Front) publications.

    We’ll leave arguments over “egregious omissions” and “you included that piece of garbage?” for another time, except to note the absence of over half of the Nobel laureates in literature who wrote novels in English that were published during the twentieth century and raise an eyebrow.

    † The author’s title as submitted was 1948. Fred Warburg — the publisher — liked the book well enough, but thought the title a bit too on the nose given various labor and government unrests.

  2. I’ll bet more on the second list but condensing all the Rowling titles into one series entry. Make room for some SF, say FOUNDATION, DUNE, TAU ZERO, and THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. All of which will be current decades after Kerouac is a footnote in some obscure paper.

    Also, like her or not, ATLAS SHRUGGED belongs on both lists along with Tolkien and Orwell.

    • Not totally, no.

      But there should be a substantial overlap if you’re tallying up over a century.
      Over a year or decade, no, there is no reason to expect much is any overlap but in the long run, one should expect significant works to speak to multiple generations.

      TWILIGHT and 50 SHADES are perfect examples of “here today, gone tomorrow” big sellers. Going back a bit, Michener and Jakes’ books sold massively but don’t stand out as anything but enjoyable reads. Neither style nor theme or “message” made much of an enduring impact on the world.

      On the flip side, Tolkien made a massive impact on culture, literature, and publishing, as did Rowling, and both continue to do so across two generations or more. DUNE’s messages on how ecology molds societies and changes how humans live and think are at least as relevant today as three generations back. The people buying them and following in their literary footsteps are proof enough, methinks.

      1984 made an impact on political thought and so did ATLAS SHRUGGED, with both selling massively despite neither being targetted at the masses. Whatever the literati might think, their message resonates across the ages by asking the fundamental question of what kind of society you want to live in.

      Different folks have different metrics for greatness, but I favor endurance long term relevance; a novel that resonates across generations (and sales are a good indicator of such) has more value to me than the literati’s flavor of the week, or year. (Think of the “great award winners” of the 20th and what percentage are still relevant to the mainstream. Or even academia?)

      BTW, the ‘bot missed one of the most significant titles of the 20th: ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. As long as war is with humanity, Remarque’s narrative will be relevant, and that just might be forever.


      • Felix, All Quiet on the Western Front is a very interesting (however flawed) work, but it’s outside the scope of the query. The query called for “English-language novels,” and Im Westen nichts Neues war auf deutsch (and “better” than the translated version). Opening it up to translations would lead to interesting hallucinations on (all titles as published in English translation) One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Zhivago, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being — among many, many others.

        And hallucinations they would truly be.

          • Which was my inelegantly put point while waiting to get a hole in my arm: That the “rules” established in the query are usually treated as just, well, mild suggestions. (Any comparison to a four-year-old will wait for another time.)

  3. I was just looking up Ben Hur which was unsurpassed from circa 1880-on for best-selling until… (wait for it…) Gone with the Wind. And where is that on the Best-Seller list, eh?

  4. The prompt asked for the greatest books of the 20th Century which is rife with value judgments, as PG intended. He wanted to see how the AI handled fuzzy parameters in rankings.

    The AI said it’s decisions were based on the books’ “impact, popularity, and critical acclaim.”

    I suspect the popularity element was based in part on best-seller rankings, reports/estimates on the number of books sold, etc., although I’m not certain when best-seller rankings first appeared in newspaper and magazines, indicating a degree of popularity and public awareness of best-selling books which would have increased sales.

    Critical acclaim would likely have sent the AI via newspaper and magazine reviews.

    Impact was intended to be a fuzzier metric. Estimated sales numbers would have been one element to consider. Meaningful sales numbers continuing for a long period of time might have been another impact element.

    I’m not certain how many academic papers ChatGPT4 has in its info-slurry, but mention in a significant number of those publications might also be regarded as metric for impact as well.

    Impact is ambiguous enough so that well-read human beings would likely have problems agreeing on an impact ranking of books.

    Books have been impactful for a very long time, however. Abraham Lincoln supposedly remarked to Harriet Beecher Stowe when he was introduced to her in 1862, that she was “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” referring to her authorship of the best-selling “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and The Civil War.

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