Somerset Maugham’s list of the 10 greatest novels

The great 20th-century English novelist W. Somerset Maugham was once asked by an American magazine publisher to make a list of the ten greatest novels in the world. Maugham reluctantly agreed, recognizing that any such list was bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Eventually, he wrote a set of prefaces for the ten books, to be included in a series of abridged classics. An expanded version of the prefaces–which provide biographical sketches of the authors and Maugham’s discussion of what makes each book great–was eventually published as a book titled The Art of Fiction: An Introduction to Ten Novels and their Authors (1955).

Here’s Maugham’s list:

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Stendhal, The Red and the Black

Balzac, Le Père Goriot

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Tolstoy, War and Peace

Of these, I’ve only read Melville and Dostoevsky, but it looks like a pretty solid list. I’m currently reading Maugham’s chapter on Moby-Dick.

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7 thoughts on “Somerset Maugham’s list of the 10 greatest novels

    • Thanks. I tried reading A Tale of Two Cities earlier this year and just couldn’t get into it for some reason. I don’t know if it was just me or Dickens or the book. I do mean to give him another try at some point.

  1. Two things:

    1) I can’t recommend Madame Bovary enough. It is the nearest-to-perfect novel I have ever read.
    2) Why do only Anglophone authors get first names in your list?

  2. Interestingly, that’s just how they appear in the book’s talbe of contents. I wonder if Maugham and/or the publisher just thought that Stendahl, Dostoevsky, etc. would be instantly recognizable to readers while “Fielding” or “Austen” might not? (“Wait, do you mean Bob Dostoevsky or Fyodor?”)

    Thanks for the rec on Madame Bovary.

  3. Interesting; four British, three French, two Russian, and one American; that probably does roughly characterize the order of importance for the history of the novel, although some might want Russia and France switched. But two women and eight men, which seems lopsided in the first modern literary genre for which women were essential movers and shakers. (Stendhal is a pen-name, so there’d be no first name for him anyway.) Bronte seems a little incongruous on the list; much as I like WH, I would have expected something more like George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

    Pride and Prejudice is a definite must-read; and I second the recommendation for Madame Bovary.

  4. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, and just a bit from The Brothers Karamazov (The Grand Inquisitor). Maybe P&P and Wuthering Heights stick in my mind more because of recent movie versions, but I think David Copperfield was more worthwhile – the antidote to libertarianism 🙂

  5. Maugham’s list of favorites that he would make into abridged classics is interesting. I’m tempted to say that any book I would want to see abridged wasn’t a favorite. When a book is my favorite, I can’t get enough of it. But then when I look at the list, I see books that I loved, but would be happy to see cut. David Copperfield and Moby Dick are both in that category. I can’t get enough of the first half of Moby Dick. But the second half offers little of what I liked about the first half. David Copperfield has great character introductions, and scattered scenes of brilliance. But I didn’t sense a strong narrative arc. (I was only 15 at the time, so perhaps if I went back, I would think otherwise. But when I went back to Moby Dick to finish, I saw that my high school self had chosen the perfect place to stop.) I think what the list tells me is that what Maugham often likes best about literature probably has little to do with plot, and a lot to do with character and dialog.

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