Influential novels of each decade
December 21, 2006 8:55 AM   Subscribe

What were some of the most influential novels of each decade of the 20th century?

My New Year's resolution is to read five novels from each decade of the 1900's, and I'm having trouble compiling a list. I use the term influential in a broad sense. Popular, controversial, cult-hit - anything that had impact.

My only criteria are that they have to be fiction, and an English translation has to be available if they were originally written in another language.
posted by n-clue to Media & Arts (59 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Grapes of Wrath (1939)
The Great Gatsby (1925)
posted by dead_ at 9:09 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Catch 22 (1961)
posted by doctor_negative at 9:15 AM on December 21, 2006

The Jungle, 1906, by Upton Sinclair. (Increased awareness of slaughterhouse, food packing conditions, immigrant labor, etc., forcing lots of new regulation in the US).
posted by whatzit at 9:15 AM on December 21, 2006

Any list of this kind is obviously going to be subjective, but you might want to check out the winners of the Nobel in Literature and the winners of the Pulitzer for fiction (previously the Pulitzer for the novel) for some ideas of where to start.
posted by cosmic osmo at 9:18 AM on December 21, 2006

I've personally never been able to get past page 50 or so, but there's no denying that James Joyce' Ulysses (1922) is one of the most influential novels of that decade.
posted by hazelshade at 9:20 AM on December 21, 2006

My two penneth, off the top of my head:

On The Road ('57), The Master and Margarita ('66), Tarka the Otter ('27), Lady Chatterley's Lover ('28 or '60), Stranger in a Strange Land ('61), The Magus ('65).

I suspect things will tail off in the last quarter of the century - I'll be interested to see what you get for those decades.
posted by Leon at 9:21 AM on December 21, 2006

Here's the Bestseller lists from the 1900's. If what you're looking for is popular, thats the place to go.

This is a vague question because by "influential" do you mean influential at the time or are you looking for stuff that was ignored at the time but grew in popularity/cult-status over the next decades?
posted by vacapinta at 9:22 AM on December 21, 2006

Oh, and I think Heart of Darkness ('02 in book form) just scrapes in.
posted by Leon at 9:23 AM on December 21, 2006

Here are some good choices, most other than Burroughs are probably mostly consensus picks. I filled up the 50s, though there may definitely be some argument about books I left off that decade.

James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925
Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, 1927
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, 1929

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!, 1936

Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano, 1947
Orwell, 1984, 1949

JD Salinger, Catcher in the Rye, 1951
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
Nabokov, Lolita 1955
Kerouac, On the Road, 1957
Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 1959
posted by mikel at 9:24 AM on December 21, 2006

Some picks -

Ulysses - James Joyce (1922?)
Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller (1934)
1984 - George Orwell (1949)
Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan (1953)
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Money - Martin Amis (1980s)
Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh (1993)
White Teeth - Zadie Smith (2000)
posted by fire&wings at 9:25 AM on December 21, 2006

A few, off the top of my head:

1920s -
Mrs. Dalloway (and other Woolf books)
Ulysses, by James Joyce (Don't read this alone! Portrait of the Artist is a better Joyce book to start with)
A Farewell to Arms, by Earnest Hemingway

1930s -
As I Lay Dying (and other Faulkner books)
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston

Animal Farm; 1984, by George Orwell

The Adventures of Augie March (and other Bellow books)
On the Road, by Jack Keroauc
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Slaughterhouse-five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Gravity's Rainbow, Pyncheon

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

Underworld, by Don DeLillo
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:26 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926)

Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930)

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957)
posted by kirkaracha at 9:27 AM on December 21, 2006

A personal list based on some favorites.

1900s: Wizard of Oz, Frank L. Baum (1901); Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle (1902).
1910s: Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (1912); Sons and Lovers, D.H.Lawrence (1913).
1920s: A Passage to India, E.M.Forster (1924); Ulysses, James Joyce (1922); The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (1929); Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald (1925).
1930s: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932).
1940s: Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell (1949); Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945).
1950s: Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (1955); Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957-60); Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (1954).
1960s: A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962).
1970s: Jaws, Peter Benchley (1974); Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson (1973).
1980s: Money, Martin Amis (1984); The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie (1988); Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989).
1990s: White Teeth, Zadie Smith (1999). American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997). The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992).
posted by greycap at 9:28 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone in US). Seriously.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Fight Club (another '90s novel)

V (Pynchon's best IMHO)

Invisible Man (Ellison)
posted by Mister_A at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2006

Oh, and some of my personal picks:
Lolita, by Nabokov (1955)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling (1997)
1984, by George Orwell (1949)
American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)
posted by cosmic osmo at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2006

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee (1960)
The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)
La Nausée - Jean Paul Sartre (1938)
posted by jontyjago at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2006

White Noise (1985) by Don DeLillo
posted by dead_ at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2006

A few kids' books, then I'll shut up:

Swallows and Amazons ('30, and I've no idea if it could be considered influential outside the UK), The Lord of the Rings ('55), The Wind in the Willows ('08), Peter Pan ('11), Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret ('70), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ('64)
posted by Leon at 9:29 AM on December 21, 2006

As vacapinta says, it does depend on who's being influenced, surely - in terms of influence on *other writers*, then yes, as hazelshade says, Ulysses would be number one. In terms of influence on wider/popular culture, Orwell's 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1948) would have to be up there. Athony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange would be one I'd recommend too.

As well as literary books, there's influential genre fiction, like John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.

There's also I think, a split between US and European literature; speaking for myself in the UK, I'd definitely mention Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children as having an influence both on other writers/publishers and on popular culture. In the US, writers like Roth/Bellow/DeLillo would probably be the ones you'd mention...
posted by Sifter at 9:33 AM on December 21, 2006

William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954)

Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1948). Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Academy Award-winning film. (Uh, not the crappy 2006 remake.)
posted by kirkaracha at 9:34 AM on December 21, 2006

I suspect that it's not going to go down well, but Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957) has been reported as the second most influential book in America.
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 9:35 AM on December 21, 2006

Neuromancer in '84!
posted by delmoi at 9:37 AM on December 21, 2006

Margaret Mitchell--Gone With the Wind (1936). I don't particularly like this book, but there's no denying its influence.

Raymond Chandler--The Long Goodbye (1954). There are a bunch of noirish detective novels I could name, but that's my favorite.

William Gaddis--The Recognitions (1955). I'd contend that Gaddis is the missing link in the evolution of the encyclopedic novel from Joyce to Pynchon. Gaddis is a writers' writer--not everyone reads him, but everyone who reads him rips him off.

William Gibson--Neuromancer (1984). Pretty much singlehandedly started the cyberpunk movement.

Bret Easton Ellis--American Psycho (1991). Again--love it or hate it, it's influential.
posted by Prospero at 9:38 AM on December 21, 2006

How about:

Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
Fight Club (1996)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
posted by Pastabagel at 9:38 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

You might also want to see this list of the 100 best novels since 1923, according to Time magazine.
posted by Pastabagel at 9:41 AM on December 21, 2006

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
posted by kirkaracha at 9:44 AM on December 21, 2006

For recent novels, how about 1999's Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem?
posted by Mister_A at 9:50 AM on December 21, 2006

Pygmalion. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Some from the SF genre: Cryptonomicon, The Demolished Man, 2001, The Man in the High Castle, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Forever War.
posted by Leon at 9:57 AM on December 21, 2006

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1966), if you'll permit a "nonfiction novel", as it's been termed.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:02 AM on December 21, 2006

If we're speaking of influence, I think you need something representative of the WWI poets. But we're outside your "novel" criterion there, so...
posted by Leon at 10:08 AM on December 21, 2006

Well I know this goes back to "influential to whom?" but since the baby boomer experience (United States) is widely regarded to be summarized by this song, I will point out that it mentions by title Peter Pan, Catcher in the Rye, and Stranger in a Strange Land. It also mentions authors Hemingway and Kerouac. Frankly you could probably make a good solid year of just reading/listening/watching/researching items mentioned in the song.

I only put links for things people haven't mentioned earlier in the thread. It occurs to me that this could be an expensive proposition, but that anything really influential ought to be in the public library anyways!
posted by ilsa at 10:11 AM on December 21, 2006

Saul Bellow - The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

The Naked Lunch can squeeze in for the 60s if you consider the first American publication in '62.

The 70s is pwned by Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetralogy.

Then William Gaddis - Carpenter's Gothic (1985) & A Frolic of His Own (1994)
posted by The Straightener at 10:13 AM on December 21, 2006

You may enjoy 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which is arranged chronologically.

As an aside, today I read that Fitzgerald's last royalty statement prior to his death said that The Great Gatsby had sold 7 (yes, seven) copies.
posted by dobbs at 10:17 AM on December 21, 2006

By all means, read Ulysses, and feel free to use a guide such as The New Bloomsday Book. (In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it's essential the first time around.) My main Joyce prof in college said that it's useful to see the first time reading Ulysses as a trip to an entirely new country/culture, where the locals are having a grand but rather baffling celebration, and what you need is a little help explaining the customs so that you can jump in, hang on, and have fun. (Because one of the great secrets of Ulysses is that it's fucking funny. And sad, and profound, and weird, and mind-blowing, sometimes all at once.)
posted by scody at 10:21 AM on December 21, 2006

oh, and as mentioned before: it's not required, but it certainly does help to have read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, to a lesser extent, Dubliners before tackling Ulysses, mainly because so many characters (most obviously Stephen Dedalus, but lots of minor ones, too) recur in Ulysses.
posted by scody at 10:25 AM on December 21, 2006

I was schooled using the Gifford Annotations but, yeah, you really need some set of guideposts and hopefully an expert guide (like a university professor) your first run through.

Because one of the great secrets of Ulysses is that it's fucking funny.

posted by The Straightener at 10:28 AM on December 21, 2006

How about Bright Lights, Big City? (1984) Perhaps more representative than influential.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:37 AM on December 21, 2006

Although not one of my favorites, for influence inside and outside the literary world, you might also want to include something by Stephen King. He has certainly spawned enough imitators and movies to be considered a phenomenon in his own right.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:41 AM on December 21, 2006

Influential (to me, and culturally) women include:

My Antonia – Willa Cather (1918)

The Making of Americans - Gertrude Stein (written 1906-08, published 1925)

The Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman 1933

Nightwood - Djuna Barnes (1936)

Gigi – Colette (1945)

The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys (1966) – read also Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte, 1847)

The Woman Warrior – Maxine Hong Kingston (1976)
posted by rtha at 10:43 AM on December 21, 2006

f scott fitzgerald's "great gatsby"
ernest hemingway's "the sun also rises"
zora neale hurston's "their eyes were watching god"
vladimir nabokov's "lolita"
gabriel garcia marquez's "100 years of solitude"
jd salinger's "catcher in the rye"
james baldwin's "go tell it on the mountain"
ralph ellison's "invisible man"
alice walker's "the color purple"
kate chopin's "the awakening"
henry james's "daisy miller"

and as a literary influence, more than any single one of her works, the inimitable gertrude stein.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:04 AM on December 21, 2006

Dos Passos - U.S.A., 1930-33
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:07 AM on December 21, 2006

The only one I would have suggested that hasn't already been mentioned is Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (from the nineties).
posted by AV at 11:10 AM on December 21, 2006

In addition to some already mentioned, these spring to mind.

Night (1958)

Song of Solomon (1977)

The Color Purple (1982)

Beloved (1987)

Bridget Jones Diary (1996) - seriously (influenced chick lit, for one thing, but not just that)
posted by Amizu at 11:11 AM on December 21, 2006

Also, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)
posted by Amizu at 11:13 AM on December 21, 2006

Sinclair Lewis was a popular novelist of the '20s and '30s, whose books were widely read, sometimes controversial, and occasionally made into movies. Arrowsmith, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, Main Street and It Can't Happen Here are personal favorites. Some of these books, having passed into public domain, are available in full text online: Main Street, Babbitt, It Can't Happen Here.
posted by paulsc at 11:27 AM on December 21, 2006

This book (1905) inspired this movie (1915) which revived this group.

Forgive me if these links or my comment/answer offends anyone.
posted by Totally Zanzibarin' Ya at 12:42 PM on December 21, 2006

'Influential in their own time' is also worth pursuing, because it will include novelists who aren't read as much today: Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage is cited by lots of literature overviews in the pre-WW2 period.
posted by holgate at 12:45 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Can you explain how exactly you wanted the answers to this question to differ from the answers to a question "What are your favorite books of the twentieth century" (which would presumably be deleted)? If you can clarify, I'll be glad to help. Otherwise, this seems like an exercise in futility.
posted by languagehat at 1:17 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't know about influential but here are five of my favorites from each decade:


The Ambassadors, Henry James
McTeague, Frank Norris (1899, close enough)
Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann
Hunger, Knut Hamsun (published in Norwegian in 1890, but the translations started appearing at the turn-of-the-century.)


Demian, Hermann Hesse
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann


Zeno’s Conscience, Italo Svevo
Ulysses, James Joyce
The Trial, Franz Kafa
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Billy Budd, Herman Melville (not published until 1924 and Melville as literary god is really a 20th-century development)


Epitaph for a Spy, Eric Ambler
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara
The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil


The Cannibal, John Hawkes
The Stranger, Albert Camus
Dirty Snow, Georges Simenon
Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh


The Conformist, Alberto Moravia
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, the Unnameable, Samuel Beckett


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Philip Roth
A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul
Herzog, Saul Bellow
Morte d’Urban, J.F. Powers
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys


The Blood Oranges, John Hawkes
Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow
Correction, Thomas Bernhard
JR, William Gaddis
Edith’s Diary, Patricia Highsmith


Perfume, Patrick Suskind
You Bright and Risen Angels, William T. Vollmann
People Who Knock on the Door, Patricia Highsmith
Carpenter’s Gothic, William Gaddis
Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark


The Funnies, J. Robert Lennon
The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq
Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
A Frolic of His Own, William Gaddis
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
posted by otio at 1:18 PM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. These are some solid suggestions. Basically, I'm going to look at which ones appear the most often and use that as a starting point. I realize 'influential' is an extremely open-ended term, and while the question runs the danger of becoming "what's your favorite book", I was hoping to get an idea of what books had an impact in each respective decade, and I think I got that, though not as much for the later decades.
posted by n-clue at 2:23 PM on December 21, 2006

Ayn Rand was not the 2nd most popular author in America, btw.

For influential novels in the 20th century, I'm pretty shocked that nobody's mentioned Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It's one of the most accalaimed novels of the century, let alone the decades of its release.
posted by sixacross at 2:41 PM on December 21, 2006

1989 - Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan

Chinese-American immigrant family, mixing of cultures. Great book.

and I wholeheartedly second Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man; we're reading it in school, and it's brilliant. Just brilliant.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 3:56 PM on December 21, 2006

I'll emphatically second the following:

The Jungle (1906)
Peter Pan (1911)
Ulysses (1922)
The Trial (1925)
The Great Gatsby (1925)
The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Animal Farm (1948)
Nineteen Eighty Four (1949)
Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Invisible Man (1952)
Lolita (1955)
On the Road (1957)
Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret (1970)
Woman Warrior (1976)
The Color Purple (1982)
Neuromancer (1984)
The Satanic Verses (1988)
posted by hippugeek at 6:06 PM on December 21, 2006

For the 70s:
Fear of Flying - Erica Jong (1973)

For the 80s:
Less Than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis

For the 90s:
Generation X - Douglas Coupland (1991) This book pretty much gave a name to a generation. Can't get much more influential than that!
posted by SisterHavana at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2006

Lots of good nominees, otio. (But somebody ought to tell Philip Roth that that bitch Muriel Spark has been intercepting his royalty checks all these years.)
posted by rob511 at 8:51 PM on December 21, 2006

Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
posted by RussHy at 8:57 PM on December 21, 2006

Ayn Rand was not the 2nd most popular author in America, btw.
If that's directed at me, I didn't suggest that she was. Further, your link makes the ridiculous leap of logic, which you seem to have followed, that 'second most influential book' = 'second favourite author'.
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 12:41 AM on December 22, 2006

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, 1981
posted by exceptinsects at 1:12 PM on December 22, 2006

the stranger and the plague, both by albert camus. i'm surprised nobody mentioned them yet.
posted by brandz at 5:20 PM on December 22, 2006

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