Wednesday, July 20, 2016

List: Erica Jong's Top 100 20th Century Novels by Women

In response to the publication of the Modern Library’s list of Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, Erica Jong wrote an article for The Nation in which she discussed the relatively few number of books written by women that made it to the Modern Library’s list.

She also included a list of the Top 100 20th Century Novels by Women, compiled from votes cast by those “250 or so distinguished women writers and critics” and “about thirty male novelists, critics and poets” who Jong solicited directly and participants in “the rather lively writers’ forum” on Jong’s website. The results, while not scientific, would provide for some good reading. The list is in order of the number of votes received.

Those I have read are in red. Those on my TBR shelf are in blue. As always, if anyone has undertaken to read all the books on this list, I am happy to post a link to your progress reports. Just leave a comment with the link address.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer

The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (reviewed here)

Fanny by Erica Jong

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Her First American by Lore Segal

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (reviewed here)

Anya by Susan Fromberg Shaeffer

Trust by Cynthia Ozick

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion (reviewed here)

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Company She Keeps by Mary McCarthy

The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (reviewed here)

Mr. Fortune's Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter

Progress of Stories by Laura Riding

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Booker winner)

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Possession by A.S. Byatt

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (reviewed here)

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (reviewed here)

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard (reviewed here)

Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Civil Wars by Rosellen Brown

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

Novel on Yellow Paper by Stevie Smith

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein

The Children of Men by P.D. James

Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

Collected Stories by Katherine Mansfield

Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis

The Beet Queen by Louise Erdrich

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (tried, gave up)

The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O'Brien

Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble

The Waterfall by Margaret Drabble

The Locusts Have No King by Dawn Powell

The Women's Room by Marilyn French

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai

The Drowning Season by Alice Hoffman

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer


Updated on June 27, 2019.


If you would like to be listed here, please leave a comment with your links to any progress reports or reviews and I will add them here.


  1. I suspect that the “250 or so distinguished women writers and critics” were all American as the list is predominantly so. There are a few British writers and a token Canadian but it's terribly skewed to American writers. I'm sure they wrote a number of the top books of 20th century, but surely there are more international voices that could be represented.

  2. I recant: there are more British novelists that I realized on this list. and actually TWO Canadians. But, still . . .

  3. I almost stopped reading at "Gone with the Wind." Really? How was "top novels" defined? That said, what's your take, since you've read so many of them?

  4. Debbie: There's no question that the results are haphazard! Jong says in her article that she opened the discussion to anyone on her website, and the people she solicited directly were only those she had correct email addresses for. I appreciate her candor!

    JG: Jong explained that respondents were frank because the responses were anonymous. "They apologized for liking certain books that they deemed to be important in their own lives – Gone With the Wind and Interview With the Vampire are two examples – but that they suspected Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom might pooh-pooh."

    I understand. Gone with the Wind may not be high art, but I read it first in high school and again in college and I can't think of a book that did more to inspire my love of reading back then. And it did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

    My experience with the books on the list has been mixed. I loved Fear of Flying, Play It as It Lays, and Cold Comfort Farm, which I read because they were on this list. But I could have happily skipped The Bell Jar, Song of Solomon, and The Blue Flower.

    Mostly I like the list for introducing me to authors new to me, even though I read different book by them, not the books listed. My favorite new-to-me authors are Mary McCarthy, Barbara Pym, and Fay Weldon.

  5. I've never heard of this list and a lot of those on the list are unknown to me. Hmmm, American-heavy? I guess it is what it is. I did start Fear of Flying but DNF it at the time. I'll eventually read some Jong ... and maybe move on to her list :)

  6. Thanks, Gilion! A list without snobbery (because it's anonymous) is an excellent idea and certainly removes the "shoulds" from what people might like or dislike. Your point is well taken - books serve different purposes, and one of the benefits of lists is to broaden our reading horizons. How nice that we can read and judge for ourselves.


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