Essential novels of the 20th-21st century
February 21, 2014 3:33 PM   Subscribe

I know next to nothing about 20th and 21st century literature. What are some recommendations for "essential" novels that I can start with?

I read a lot of non-fiction and "classic" literature and am pretty well versed in 19th century and earlier stuff. I want to read more modern fiction and get a grasp on more recent important works.

Where do I start? What are the essential novels of the 20th and 21st century? I'm aware that this is an incredibly broad category but I really don't know where to begin.
posted by vanitas to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
It's the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in June: Ulysses.
posted by holgate at 3:36 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Probably safe to include 100 Years of Solitude and (much as I take issue with Philip Roth) American Pastoral
posted by like_a_friend at 3:37 PM on February 21, 2014

I love love love American postwar. Catch-22. Cat's Cradle. Slaughterhouse Five. Lolita.

1984 and Brave New World are also both pretty important 20th C novels.
posted by phunniemee at 3:39 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I cam in here to recommend 100 Years of Solitude, and if you're going to read Roth (whose later work I do love), my recommendation is The Human Stain, which I think is some of his most beautiful writing, as well as being funny and sad and thoughtful and relevant.
posted by janey47 at 3:39 PM on February 21, 2014

Almost everyone knows Joseph Conrad from Heart of Darkness, but I highly recommend The Secret Agent instead.
posted by jquinby at 3:50 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not a specific list, per se, but I've found that searching for syllabuses of university courses tends to give me a decent starting point for research. If you feel like you're missing a certain aspect or cultural or thought-group representation in writers of the modern novel, throw that word in to the search. But to start, "20th century literature syllabus" brings up a ton from various universities.

In this case, for example, if you look at this page (CTRL-F for 'Required Reading' to get down to the list) there's a decent list.

Oh, and if you're really lost: Open Courses. Yale has a bunch of literature ones; I'm sure others do too.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:50 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Franz Kafka (The Castle or The Trial)
Zora Neal Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God)
Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)
posted by perhapses at 3:51 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in June: Ulysses.

110th, actually, but the point remains: Ulysses is arguably the most important novel of the 20th century, and far funnier and generally more enjoyable than its reputation leads most people to believe. If you've read Homer's Odyssey you'll understand the basic framework of the story right away. Get a good annotated version, get comfortable with the fact that you won't get it all right away, and jump in. You can also start with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to get familiar with elements of Joyce's style (plus you'll meet Stephen Dedalus, who is one of the protagonists of Ulysses, as a child/teenager) or Dubliners, which is a short story collection that contains "The Dead," one of the great works of the genre.

Other essentials:

Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Nabokov, Lolita
Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath
Beckett, Trilogy
Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Here's a list that will give you some additional ideas.
posted by scody at 3:53 PM on February 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:55 PM on February 21, 2014

Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:56 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:56 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

scody's list is indeed excellent - let me call out Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor in particular.
posted by jquinby at 3:57 PM on February 21, 2014

Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:57 PM on February 21, 2014

Nabakov, Lolita
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:59 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think my recommendations are usually what spring to mind when people think of modern literature but I still think they are incredibly important novels from pretty recent times.

- The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
- Canada - Richard Ford (literally says on the cover "One of the first great novels of the 21st Century")
- Independence Day - Richard Ford
- Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami
posted by sapien at 4:00 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
Kafka's stories collected in Kaufmann's Existentialism
posted by goethean at 4:06 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Kindred by Octavia Butler
posted by spunweb at 4:06 PM on February 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Beloved by Toni Morrison
My Ántonia by Willa Cather
posted by cairdeas at 4:09 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In no particular order...

Albert Camus - The Outsider
Anything by James Joyce
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O Connor
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad followed by Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
To the Lighthouse/Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Handmaid's Tale/Cats Eye by Margaret Atwood
1984, Animal Farm and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The End of the Affair by Graham Green
The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger
Shame by Salman Rushdie
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Play it as it Lays/Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Anne Frank - The diary of a Young Girl
Lord of the Flies - William Golding
Lolita/Pnin - both by Nabokov
Wise Children by Angela Carter
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men/infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Anagrams/Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Ballad of the Sad Cafe/The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Gilead/Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
American Pastoral - Philip Roth
Sister Carrie - Theodor Drieser
Manhattan Transfer - John Dos Passos
posted by everydayanewday at 4:16 PM on February 21, 2014 [13 favorites]

The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood
Blindness, Jose saccramaco (spelling is wrong...)
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montegomery
Sunshine sketches of a little town, Stephen Leacock
The apprenticeship of duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler
Beautiful Losers, Leonard cohen (and his poems)
In the skin of a lion, Michael Ondaatji
Fugitive pieces, Anne Michaels
No Great mischief, Alistair McLeod
Fifth business (Robertson Davies)
Volkswagen blues, Jaques Poulin
Diviners, Margaret Laurence
Life of pi, yank Martel
A complicated kindness, Miriam toews
Lullabies for little criminals, heather o'neill

I work in a public library and these are my go-to books off the top of my head for great modern novels. My apologies for the misspellings!
posted by saucysault at 4:17 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
posted by Pudhoho at 4:17 PM on February 21, 2014

Proust--A la recherche du temps perdu.
posted by yoink at 4:21 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Might as well read Hemingway, Moveable Feast and the one with Lady Brett Ashley. Avoid Old Man and the Sea.
posted by vrakatar at 4:22 PM on February 21, 2014

apart from the canonical lists you will find,

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - Mitchell
Gravity's Rainbow - Pynchon (at least the 3/5 of it I got through)
Rosy Crucifixion - Miller
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Murakami
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Dick
Breakfast of Champions - Vonnegut
Sometimes a Great Notion - Kesey
Doblin - Berlin Alexanderplatz
The Setting Sun - Dazai
The Ruined Map - Abe
White Noise- Delillo
Dharma Bums - Kerouac
Look Homeward, Angel - Wolfe
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:25 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Underworld, Don Delillo
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
White Tiger, Aravind Adiga
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth
Tenth of December, George Saunders (short stories, must-reads)
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien
posted by lois1950 at 4:28 PM on February 21, 2014

Some useful lists: Harold Bloom's Western Canon (scroll down for the more recent works), Time's 100 best English-language novels since 1923, and the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels.

I don't agree with all the choices, but I think if you're looking for a decent survey of major works, those are a fine start.

Also, I recently came across this article of "modern classics." Worth a look.
posted by xenization at 4:30 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Sunlight Dialogues is a 900 page sweet poundcake
posted by vrakatar at 4:33 PM on February 21, 2014

Wow! Fabulous lists! I'd add "Under the Volcano."
posted by fivesavagepalms at 4:35 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anything by John Updike.
posted by merejane at 4:37 PM on February 21, 2014

The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald

The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, Fitzgerald

These two are a pair that go together naturally. The Love of the Last Tycoon is an unfinished novel that would have been Fitzgerald's greatest work had he not died before the novel was finished.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick

Dune, Frank Herbert

Also, two collections of short stories....

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

Anything Truman Capote, there are a few collections. Or, Breakfast at Tiffany's ( Capote's best friend was Harper Lee, who he grew up with, and the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird is Capote.)
posted by jbenben at 4:42 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro will break your heart. Pair it with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or 1984 for a 20th-21st dystopian duo.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:43 PM on February 21, 2014

I see nobody's mentioned Edith Wharton, so I will. My personal favorite is The House of Mirth. Other major works are Ethan Frome, The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence (for which she won a Pulitzer).

She was a truly masterful writer.
posted by zorseshoes at 4:45 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

For quite recent, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

I see people mentioned Lolita but I'll throw in Pale Fire as well.
posted by mlle valentine at 4:47 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, A Confederacy of Dunces, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, and The Name of the Rose.
posted by mlle valentine at 4:52 PM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds, The Third Policeman
Italo Svevo, La coscienza di Zeno, aka The Confessions of Zeno or Zeno's Conscience
Georges Perec, La vie mode d'emploi aka Life: A User's Manual

Thank you, scody; I really have to stop lying to myself about birthdays.
posted by holgate at 5:32 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

So many great recommendations here. Ted Gioia maintains a running list of entries in what he calls The New Canon. They're all great recommendations from after 1985, many of which I haven't seen named here yet.
posted by zeusianfog at 5:53 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Immoralist by Andre Gide
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Anything by Thomas Mann
Anything by J.D. Salinger
posted by Blitz at 5:56 PM on February 21, 2014

Omensetter's Luck by William Gass
2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Something by William T. Vollmann. Argall, The Rifles, The Royal Family? Short discussion on the blue on where to start with Vollmann.

Donald Barthelme's Syllabus
posted by Lorin at 6:14 PM on February 21, 2014

Things Fall Apart - Achebe
Midnight's Children - Rushdie
Beloved - Morrison
100 Years of Solitude - Marquez
Wild Swans - Chang
The Remains of the Day - Ishiguro
Norwegian Wood - Murakami

Love this thread, such great lists!
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:18 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it counts as beginner, but I do think David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a pretty essential late 20th century novel.
posted by Snuffman at 6:52 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

While I have not yet read Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, his East of Eden is the only book that caused me to shed tears upon completion. Epic in scope, perfect conclusion.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:18 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some of these are already mentioned, so consider this additional votes for:
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The Robber Bride - Margaret Atwood
Less than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis
The Rules of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis
Bright Lights, Big City - Jay McInerney
Story of My Life - Jay McInerney
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
The Virgin Suicides - Jeffrey Eugenides
Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie
posted by SisterHavana at 8:28 PM on February 21, 2014

Seconding The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford is a stunning masterpiece which often gets overlooked for some unknown reason
posted by coleboptera at 9:32 PM on February 21, 2014

Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
posted by hortense at 9:43 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's a list with some women writers (and some men, too)... I don't want to start a fight, but the reason the 'canon' is problematic and man-heavy is because we continue to perpetuate it--that's to say, make your own 'canon'! Sure, The Great Gatsby is important, but only because people keep saying it is, and Virginia Woolf is a much more interesting writer than James Joyce (though of course Ulysses is certainly awesome)....

Djuna Barnes - Nightwood
Virginia Woolf - The Waves
William Gaddis - The Recognitions
Gertrude Stein - Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Renata Adler - Speedboat (recently back in print!)
James Baldwin - Giovanni's Room
Kathy Acker - Blood and Guts in High School
Jeanette Winterson - Orange is Not the Only Fruit
Clarice Lispector - Hour of the Star
Tillie Olsen - Tell Me a Riddle
Jean Rhys - Wide Sargasso Sea
Doris Lessing - The Golden Notebook
Angela Carter - The Bloody Chamber
Ishmael Reed - Mumbo Jumbo
Amiri Baraka - The System of Dante's Hell
Anne Carson - Autobiography of Red
Nella Larson - Passing/Quicksand
Anne Beattie - The Burning House
JM Coetzee - Disgrace or Waiting for the Barbarians

Some great French stuff:
Proust - The Search
Robbe-Grillet - Jealousy
Cocteau - The Holy Terrors
Nathalie Saurraute - The Planetarium
Marguerite Duras - The Lover
Jean Genet - Our Lady of the Flowers
posted by drobot at 9:56 PM on February 21, 2014 [10 favorites]

Robert Musil - The Man without Qualities
Patricia Highsmith - The Talented Mr. Ripley

(It has been remarked that calling Highsmith a writer of 'crime fiction' is like calling Picasso a draftsman.)

Virginia Woolf - Orlando
posted by bertran at 10:13 PM on February 21, 2014

Oh, also:

E.M. Forster - Howard's End

I think of it as a classic, but it was written in 1910.
posted by bertran at 10:27 PM on February 21, 2014

Song of the Lark by Willa Cather.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:10 AM on February 22, 2014

Most of what I would have added is already on this list, but I really enjoyed The Quiet American by Graham Greene.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:14 AM on February 22, 2014

For the 21st century, I'd recommend Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, which does a pretty great job of making art out of several current socio-economic shit sandwiches.
posted by COBRA! at 9:12 AM on February 22, 2014

Henry James - The Turn of the Screw.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:26 PM on February 22, 2014

Borges ain't a novelist, but he's still a key to 20th/21st lit.
posted by agog at 9:48 PM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

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