6 Things You Could Do to Get on America’s Top 100 Favorite Novels List

This fall, PBS is running a program called “The Great American Read.” Earlier this year, they asked 7,000 readers to name their favorite works of fiction. The alphabetical list of 100 (not ranked) was then culled by a panel of “literary professionals.” All of the books had to be published in English (although not necessarily written in English), a series counted as one book, and there could be no more than one book per author. In September, PBS will begin broadcasting the series with Meredith Viera as host, interviewing writers, celebrities and such. In late October, after all the online ballots are counted, America’s favorite novel will be revealed—a veritable book reality TV show! How apropos.

If your favorite is not selected, don’t be surprised. Literary legends like Roth, Updike, Wharton, Faulkner, Bellow, and O’Connor were apparently voted off the island. Nobel Prize winners and bestsellers alike. Not even Franzen, whose 2001 novel The Corrections sold about 3 million copies, made it to the first rose ceremony. Might I add, these are authors so big, you need only mention their first names. If they can’t make the cut, who can?

In the age of “The Bachelorette” and “Big Brother” (the TV show, not the book, silly!), what exactly does a writer have to do to win America’s heart? If you want to pen “America’s Favorite Novel”—based on the PBS list—here’s what you need to do:

  1. Write for children or teens. Many of the books on the list are stories we loved (or were forced to read) when we were kids. Some of them are classics still required in schools today. (BTW, my own kids hate these.) But the things we read as children are powerful. We’re at an impressionable age. Whether we know it at the time or not, the stories from our youth shape us as human beings and stick with us. You’ll see. When you read the partial list below, you’ll go, “Oh, I loved that book,” and you’ll get a warm, fuzzy feeling.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Call of the Wild

Harry Potter series

The Chronicles of Narnia

Lord of the Rings

To Kill A Mockingbird

A Separate Peace

The Great Gatsby

Great Expectations

Anne of Green Gables

The Giver

Flowers in the Attic

Charlotte’s Web

The Outsiders

  1. Write genre fiction. If you write traditional realism, you might be out of luck. Many of the books on the list fall in a genre category—science fiction, thriller, mystery, fantasy, adventure or historical. Seems like we’ve always loved stories that scare, thrill, surprise, or take us away to another place or time…real or imagined.

Ready Player One

Gone Girl

Lonesome Dove

The Help

The Clan of the Cave Bear

The Stand

And Then There Were None

The Hunt for Red October

A Song of Ice and Fire (the series that became “Game of Thrones”)

  1. Write in English. Out of the top 100 books, 67 were written in the Unites States, 19 in Britain. No big surprise here; Americans prefer novels written in the mother tongue. Translations of books written in other countries (mainly European) made it on the list, but not many. (Hmmm, maybe they were stopped at the border?) On the upside, about half of the authors listed are women and/or writers of color. Translations include:

War and Peace (Russia)

Crime and Punishment (Russia)

The Count of Monte Christo (France)

The Little Prince (France)

Don Quixote (Spain) BTW, this oldest novel on the list, first published in 1605.

  1. Don’t write like the Victorians. Or anybody writing before 1899. For the most part, readers chose more recent titles. Out of 100, 23 were published in the 21st century (in less than the last 20 years) and 60 were from the 20th century. That leaves 17 titles to represent the previous 3,000 years of world literature. Apparently, Americans lack long-term memory. Duh!
  1. Write a cinematic story. A great many of the titles on the list were made into a film or TV series. In fact, there are very few that didn’t wind up in Hollywood. We Americans like to read, but we love our movies! Here are a just a few that jumped from page to screen:

Jurassic Park

Gone with the Wind

The Color Purple

The Godfather

The Hunger Games

The Martian

The Handmaid’s Tale

  1. Write for story not style. Americans like “functional prose to stylistic elegance,” said Adam Kirsch in his Wall Street Journal article about the list, The Way We Read Now. In his piece, subtitled “A new survey of America’s favorite novels shows that storytelling moves us far more than literary quality,” Kirsch said, “When Americans read, we mostly read for story, not for style. We want to know what happens next, and not be slowed down by writing that calls attention to itself.”

In my humble opinion, I think good writing can have both. And books that have both style and story can be popular. In fact, any book that distracts a reader with its style is probably not doing its job. Of course, there are poorly written books on the list. Critics often point to The Notebook, Fifty Shades of Grey, The DaVinci Code, Twilight, and other books you might find on airport newsstands as examples. They are surely represented in the Top 100. But so are literary giants, like Rebecca, Beloved, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Gilead…and who is more literary than Marilynne Robinson?

The bottom line is this: If you want to write America’s favorite book, tell a good story. Storytelling wins out every time. But never stop striving to make your writing the best it can be. And if that means beautiful, literary fiction, then so be it! Then, if by some twist of fate or Russian-voting-hacker-scandal your novel isn’t chosen by the fickle American public, you can still feel good about yourself in the morning.

To vote for your favorite now go here. Polls close midnight October 18. Let’s show the world that we love story and style!

4 comments

  1. Personally, I can’t read a poorly written novel no matter how “engaging” the plot. It’s like hearing wrong notes in a musical score. I find myself mentally editing the book! Occupational hazard? Maybe. A good story and unforgettable characters are key. Using language that engages the senses serves to enhance this duo. Overy literary and experimental novels have their place–may even win awards–but may not capture the general public’s attention. So read widely. Underline favorite passages. Think about what makes a novel work for you. Why did you keep on turning the pages? How did the author do it? Then set to employing some of these techniques in the story only you can tell.

  2. Gone Girl? As Lucy would say, bleah! At least Gilead made the cut. Thanks for serving up some context around a confounding subject. The range of quality (yes, subjectively speaking) represented on this list is pretty comical but ultimately reminds me that we each must write the book(s) we have within us.

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