Q&A With Lev Grossman from Time: Part 1
Today’s a cool day at 101 Books.
Lev Grossman was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the selection process for the Time Magazine All-Time 100 list. Lev is a senior writer at Time and one of the two book critics (the other, Richard Lacayo) who selected the entire Time 100 list.
Not only that, but Lev is a successful author himself–having now written four novels. Last Tuesday, The Magician King–the follow-up to Lev’s widely-read The Magicians novel–was released. It’s been described as Harry Potter for grown-ups with a little Narnia thrown in there.
Anyway, in the middle of all that, Lev took the time to answer a few questions about the Time list, the selection process, the books that were excluded, and so on.
Part 2 comes tomorrow. I’ll also include a few of my thoughts after each set of questions.
101 Books: Other than the specific rules (like the publish date), what were you looking for in a book to place it on the list?
Lev: It’s hard to put into a single world. I could say ‘greatness’ — in fact that’s probably what I would say — but I would never get done unpacking it. We wanted books that were rich, moving, entertaining, and unlike anything that had come before them. And that will never be forgotten. That’s a start.
101 Books: Can you talk a little about the selection process and what it entailed for you? How many books did you read or reread? How long did the whole process take?
Lev: I think we took roughly a year to put together the list. We budgeted three months, but it kept moving back and back and back. I reread parts of many, many books. Some I reread completely. It had been a while since I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It held up! Other than that the process involved a mountain of email, some really amateur spreadsheeting, some well-meant trash talking, and some very long lunches.
101 Books: In Richard Lacayo’s description of the selection process, he says you both agreed on about 80 novels. Can you give some examples of a book or two that you disagreed on—and how you worked through the disagreements?
Lev: The truth is, while we disagreed on books, neither of us could come up with a complete list of 100 books that we felt were worthy. It’s harder than it looks — we both went into garbage time around #80. So there was a large Venn diagram overlap between our choices, but it was rare that one of us threw down the gauntlet and said, no, absolutely not. I’m not sure it happened.
I have never and will never be able to finish The Man Who Loved Children or The Sot-Weed Factor, and I think one Pynchon would have been enough (I am one of those people who finds Pynchon to be a bit dreary and dated, which I realize is enough to put me on many people’s list of literary idiots). But I wasn’t going to make a federal case out of it, and in the end I didn’t have books to replace them with.
101 Books: Why didn’t you rank the books, similar to the Modern Library Top 100 list?
101 Books: What is your favorite on the list? Why?
Lev: I can’t name a favorite. There are too many books on the list that I love in too many different ways. I will say that I am proudest of the genre books that we put on the list. Neuromancer, Watchmen, Snow Crash, Ubik, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I think not enough lists like this give great genre writing (and drawing) its due.
101 Books: What was your 101st book?
Lev: The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
- One of the main questions we’ve talked about on this blog is what makes a book “good enough” for the list. Is it the writing? The story? The cultural relevance? The creativity? One interesting thing Lev said…books “unlike any that had come before them.” That explains why a book like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was on the list. Judy Blume definitely broke ground with that one.
- I like what Lev says about going into “garbage time” after selecting 80 books. I think that’s how they were able to get a more diverse list than The Modern Library, putting some more genre specific books on the list.
- So Lev has never finished The Man Who Loved Children or The Sot-Weed Factor. Great. I still have to read those two books.
- Indeed, ranking the books is arbitrary. But it’s fun, and I guess that’s why I do it. Good conversation starter as well.
- Tom Wolfe just missed the list, huh? Haven’t read The Bonfire of the Vanities, but I remember really enjoying A Man in Full.
So, anything from the first part of this Q&A stand out to you? Fire away.
Read Part Two of the Q&A.