Predict Which 21st Century Novels Will Enter the Literary Canon? And Which Overrated Ones Won’t?


Last year, we fea­tured a 1936 poll where read­ers pre­dict­ed what writ­ers would make it into the lit­er­ary canon of the year 2000. But what results would the same inquiry yield today? What 21st-cen­tu­ry nov­els (ear­ly in the game, I know, but still) will remain wide­ly read over half a cen­tu­ry from now? How much more pre­science have we evolved com­pared to that of our equiv­a­lents almost 80 years ago? How many mod­ern Sin­clair Lewis­es and Willa Cathers would we pick — ver­sus how many mod­ern James Truslow Adamses and James Branch Cabells?

Writ­ing for Arts.Mic, Claire Luchette gives one pos­si­ble set of answers to this ques­tion with her list of “11 Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Books Our Kids Will Be Taught in School,” which runs as fol­lows:

  1. White Teeth (Zadie Smith, 2000)
  2. Life of Pi (Yann Mar­tel, 2001)
  3. Mid­dle­sex (Jef­frey Eugenides, 2002)
  4. The Kite Run­ner (Khaled Hos­sei­ni, 2003)
  5. The Name­sake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2003)
  6. Gilead by Mar­i­lynne Robin­son (2004)
  7. The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Díaz, 2008)
  8. A Vis­it From the Goon Squad (Jen­nifer Egan, 2010)
  9. Free­dom (Jonathan Franzen, 2010)
  10. Dear Life (Alice Munro, 2012)
  11. Tenth of Decem­ber (George Saun­ders, 2013)

The future already looks bright for sev­er­al of Luchet­te’s picks. Junot Diaz’s “habit-form­ing­ly col­or­ful and bright” (not to men­tion Pulitzer-win­ning) The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao recent­ly topped BBC Cul­ture’s crit­ics poll for the best nov­el of the 21st cen­tu­ry so far. Oth­ers face longer odds. As high a point in the zeit­geist as Yann Martel’s Life of Pi reached — and no less an opin­ion leader than Barack Oba­ma called it “an ele­gant proof of God” — I per­son­al­ly tend to agree with the assess­ment of James Wood, who likens its cen­tral rev­e­la­tion to “an edi­to­r­i­al meet­ing of Social Text.

And so we hand it over to you, Open Cul­ture read­ers. What does the future’s canon look like from where you stand? In the com­ments, name the books you think will remain wide­ly read (or grow more so) at the end of the cen­tu­ry, or indeed, the ones wide­ly read now that will have, by that point, col­lect­ed the bet­ter part of a cen­tu­ry’s dust. Bonus points for telling us why.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read­ers Pre­dict in 1936 Which Nov­el­ists Would Still Be Wide­ly Read in the Year 2000

The 10 Great­est Books Ever, Accord­ing to 125 Top Authors (Down­load Them for Free)

The 25 Best Non-Fic­tion Books Ever: Read­ers’ Picks

The Books You Think Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read: Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Moby-Dick & Beyond (Many Free Online)

600 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (17)
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  • Jorge López says:

    Most of the writ­ers in Luchet­te’s selec­tion are not going to last, at least from the per­spec­tive of world lit­er­a­ture. Jonathan Franzen and Jef­frey Eugenides have very lit­tle foot­print out­side of eng­lish speak­ing coun­tries. I think it’s telling that Patrick Modi­ano, the lat­est Nobel Prize win­ner, was ful­ly trans­lat­ed into span­ish when he won, and min­i­mal­ly in eng­lish. The rest of the world is read­ing a heck of a lot more fic­tion which chal­lenges the form and a lot less fic­tion that deals with mid­dle class con­cerns.

  • Howard Solomon says:

    No men­tion of J.K. Rowl­ing? Add her name to the list of fel­low immor­tals like Baum, Tolkien, Lewis, Twain, and on and on–a list I don’t think any of the men­tioned authors will ever make. Sor­ry.

  • Jill Porco says:

    Kitchen House by Kath­leen Gris­som will make the list because it con­tains an impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion about com­pli­cat­ed lay­ers of racism in the U.S. It goes beyond black and white to include bi-racial peo­ple. It shows how hard it is to cross the col­or line in social relations–be it per­son­al or eco­nom­ic, and the like.

  • renee says:

    Dude. Cloud Atlas. Because it’s a work of genius.

    (Also, even Zadie Smith does­n’t like White Teeth all that much any more. The first third of it is great, though, just like Moby Dick.)

  • Step says:

    “The Road” (2006) and “No Coun­try for Old Men” (2005) by Cor­mac McCarthy are the two best 21st cen­tu­ry books I’ve read. I’m sur­prised that at least the first one isn’t list­ed.
    I’ve only read 2 out of the list­ed 11: White Teeth is a remark­able work, but The Kite Run­ner does­n’t deserve at all to be there. This makes me already skep­ti­cal about the oth­er choic­es.

  • Pedro Marques says:

    I would def­i­nite­ly list some­thing from the lat­est Coet­zee writ­ing — maybe Sum­mer­time or Eliz­a­beth Costel­lo. Diary of a Bad Year is also an excel­lent book. The for­mal exper­i­men­ta­tion car­ried on these works are, in my view, the most ques­tion­ing and com­pre­hen­sive look lit­er­a­ture gave on itself since those great­est writ­ers from ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

  • Don't @ me says:

    David Shields — Real­i­ty Hunger, ‘user con­tent is the new folk-art’.

    Kim Kar­dashi­an — Self­ish, a mas­ter­ful med­i­ta­tion on the con­di­tion of feminity/the Self/the Real/tech­nol­o­gy/­folk-art/the cul­tur­al log­ic of late Cap­i­tal­ism.

  • João Fiorot says:

    I real­ly beleive that George R. R. Mar­t­in’s Songs of Fire and Ice and J. K. Rolling’s Har­ry Pot­ter will be in the future of our kids. The qual­i­ty of their work is good, but I think it’s going to hap­pen because they had a dif­fer­ent approach of fan­tas­tic lit­er­a­ture world.

  • João Fiorot says:

    Also, Chuck Palah­niuk. I believe he rep­re­sents very well the mod­ern nar­ra­tive and soci­ety.

  • Juan Carlos Perez Salazar says:

    A few books from Latin Amer­i­ca: 2666 by Rober­to Bolaño, “El hom­bre que ama­ba los per­ros” (just trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as The man who loved dogs), by Leonar­do Padu­ra and El Tes­ti­go by Juan Vil­loro (I don’t think it has been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish).

  • Paul Clifford says:

    Def­i­nite­ly Cor­mac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Not so sure if Bolano will last, but I’d have “The Sav­age Detec­tives” in my per­son­al list. No Hilary Man­tel yet? David Shields is an inter­est­ing choice, par­tic­u­lar­ly since I believe it is a cen­tu­ry that will be remem­bered more for it’s non-fic­tion, if the first fif­teen years are any­thing to go by.

  • Wendy Schiffer says:

    Oscar Wao is a def­i­nite. I agree with pre­vi­ous com­menters about David Mitchel­l’s books (ghost­writ­ten and cloud atlas) and cor­mac mccarthy’s. I thought white teeth and goon squad were over­rat­ed. Would love to see
    Richard ford’s frank bas­combe books added but not sure when they were writ­ten.

  • Don Kenner says:

    Franzen? Seri­ous­ly? This may be a good argu­ment for clos­ing the canon, or at least defer­ring to future gen­er­a­tions the selec­tion.

    A low-rent, polit­i­cal, Updike wannabe.

    Roll these names across your tongue: Updike, Roth, Nabokov, Bel­low … Franzen. If the last one does­n’t stick in your throat you should prob­a­bly spend more time with real­i­ty TV and less with lit­er­a­ture.

    ‘Free­dom’ was a trav­es­ty. The fact that he’s too cool for twit­ter and gen­er­al­ly nasty to women writ­ers just seals the deal.

  • Mike F says:

    I came here to nom­i­nate Cloud Atlas, but some­one beat me to it! One of the most sur­pris­ing works of genius I have ever read. Also, I sec­ond the vote for Coet­zee made by anoth­er com­ment. The only one I agree with from the orig­i­nal list is White Teeth. And last­ly, I would like to but Bernard Mala­mud up for dis­cus­sion because I think he is one of the most under-read and under-appre­ci­at­ed authors for both casu­al read­ers and aca­d­e­mics alike!

  • Tracey Henderson says:

    ‘Glead’ for sure, my favourite and most read. Also ‘Cloud Atlas’ and the Har­ry Pot­ter books. ‘Mid­nights Chil­dren’ will also last the dis­tance.

  • Nick says:

    Noth­ing Amer­i­can.

  • Christine Mack says:

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

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