Comparing The Modern Library Board's List of the Top 100 Novels 1900 - 1999 to the Readers' List gives me some reasons for hope. Looking at the top 10, for example:
1. Ulysses, James Joyce
2. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
6. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
7. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
8. Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler
9. Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
1. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
2. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
3. Battlefield Earth, L. Ron Hubbard
4. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
5. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
6. 1984, George Orwell
7. Anthem, Ayn Rand
8. We The Living, Ayn Rand
9. Mission Earth, L. Ron Hubbard
10. Fear, L. Ron Hubbard
This 1990's poll continues to generate discussion about the most popular books vs. best literature of the 20th century. The Modern Library's talking points are just the beginning. For example:
Is it possible to compare books as different as Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and Brave New World? Are there any features that unite these three books? More widely, are there any literary features that unite the best books as a whole?
My interest here is less intellectual or academic. What I see is the state of literary art in 1999, not just from writer's and publishers' perspectives, but from the reader's perspective. What moved readers sufficiently that they were willing to take time to vote, and write, and talk about it? Aside from the fact that we are wired to be social creatures, inclined to exchange ideas, count and make lists, what is it that makes these novels in particular list-worthy?
These measures of popular appeal and perceived importance can be a source of information. Of course, they also can be a time sink amounting to nothing more than another set of questionably useful information. Still, writers appreciate the hunt, the mystery, pulling back the layers of the story, even when it's their own.
So what can we learn from the Lists? If the Modern Library's Top 100 Novel List provides any lessons that are useful to the novelist, these might include the following:
Screenwriters tend to write novels that appeal to everyday readers more than to cultural leaders.
It's true. Ayn Rand (a.k.a. Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum), Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter, holds four places in the Readers' Top Ten List for her novels, Atlas Shrugged (1), The Fountainhead (2), Anthem (7) and We The Living (8). Ayn Rand was a screenwriter?! Yes. Her first literary success was the sale of her screenplay, Red Pawn, to Universal in 1932. Rand's aforementioned publications are novels, not screenplays; yet her initial success as a screenwriter suggests her creative instincts began in the language of showing rather than telling her stories.
By the way, the fact that L. Ron Hubbard comes second after Rand with three novels in the top ten almost made me toss this post-in-progress. But that's another entry.
Everyday readers buy more novels than the cultural elite buy novels.
There are more readers than cultural leaders and scholar-readers, hence more demand and larger market. Unless you are writing scholarly theses, which is good too, focusing your energies on the significantly larger market of novel readers increases the odds that your agent will succeed in closing a deal with a publisher who, after all, is very much in a numbers game. If he/she can't sell it to at least 5,000 readers, it's D.O.A.
The top-twenty most popular novels in both lists, Board's and Readers', are dense with screen adaptations.
What, if anything, does this tell us? Consider all channels as you develop your concept. Popular sentiment has the printed book on the mat and down for the count. That may or may not be true; only time will tell. What is clear is that the story, the tale, the CONTENT is king. Demand for story/content is greater than ever before. So it makes sense to adapt your material to your reader's/viewer's/listener's preferences.
On another front, a glance at Publishers Marketplace offers even more to confuse the muse...
> Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Books Editor Geeta Sharman-Jensen Takes Buyout
Is the book review market so deflated that early retirement, unemployment or part-time teaching at the community college look like reasonable career choices?
> Teen Sues Amazon for Deleted Kindle Homework Notes
What can the U.S. justice system possibly make of this 'dog ate my homework' story? Intellectual property and privacy issues notwithstanding, I'm following this case for what it reveals about the game changing ramifications of epublishing, wireless downloading, and even cloud-based computing for writers, publishers, and service providers.
> Supermarkets Responsible for One in Five UK Book Sales
That's bad news, right? No, that's good news; supermarkets are one of the sectors least damaged by the economic downturn. Rising paperback sales there suggest a market opportunity for novels - procedurals, romances, mysteries, conspiracies, religion - novellas, and self-help.
What's your view on the physics of successful publication? What is the role of technology ... of publicity and exposure ... of representation ... of literary merit ... of perception as a genre master ... what differentiates the published from the unpublished ... is it any different in its end result than the old model?