This is a self-consciously premature attempt at a 21st Century canon. Constructing a canon of any kind is a little weird at the moment, when so much of how we measure cultural value is in flux, but that won't stop us. We thought it might be fun to speculate (very prematurely) on what a canon of the 21st century might look like right now. A couple of months ago, we reached out to dozens of critics and authors — well-established voices (Michiko Kakutani, Luc Sante), more radical thinkers (Eileen Myles), younger reviewers for outlets like n+1, and some of our best-read contributors, too. We asked each of them to name several books that belong among the most important works of fiction, memoir, poetry, and essays since 2000 and tallied the results. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, one of our panel’s favorite books, came out ten days before the World Trade Center fell; subsequent novels reflected that cataclysm’s destabilizing effects, the waves of hope and despair that accompanied wars, economic collapse, permanent-seeming victories for the once excluded, and the vicious backlash under which we currently shudder. They also reflected the fragmentation of culture brought about by social media. Given the sheer volume of stuff published each year, it is remarkable that a survey like this would yield any kind of consensus—which this one did. Almost 40 books got more multiple endorsements, and 13 had around seven apiece. And a whole lot of them are, predictably, about instability and at least one distinctive new style has come to the fore over the past decade. Call it autofiction if you like, but it’s really a collapsing of categories. This new style encompasses Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; Sheila Heti’s self-questing How Should a Person Be?; Karl Ove Knausgaard’s just-completed 3,600-page experiment in radical mundanity; the essay-poems of Claudia Rankine on race and the collage­like reflections of Maggie Nelson on gender. It’s not really a genre at all. It’s a way of examining the self and letting the world in all at once. Whether it changes the world is, as always used to happen with great literature remains to be seen.

Our dozen “classics” do represent some consensus we've observed in third party "best of" lists; their genius seems settled-on. Among them are Kazuo Ishiguro’s scary portrait of replicant loneliness in Never Let Me Go; Roberto Bolaño’s epic and powerfully confrontational 2666; Joan Didion’s stark self-dissection of grief in The Year of Magical Thinking. They aren’t too surprising, because they are (arguably as always, but still) great. And then there’s The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt’s debut: published at the start of the century, relegated to obscurity for a decade and now celebrated by more members of our panel than any other book with 30% consensus. —Boris Kachka [abridged]


The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt (September 20, 2000)Ask a set of writers and critics to select books for a new canon, and it shouldn’t come as a shock that the one most of them name is a novel about the nature of genius. It is also, more precisely, a novel about universal human potential.Like many epics, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai charts the education of its hero and proceeds by means of a quest narrative. A boy undertakes rigorous training and goes in search of his father. What makes it a story of our time is that the boy lives in an insufficiently heated London flat with a single mother. What makes it singular is that his training begins at age 4, when he starts to learn ancient Greek, before quickly moving on to Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Japanese, Finnish, etc. That’s not to mention his acquisition of mathematics, physics, art history, music, and an eccentric taste for tales of world exploration.Is this boy, Ludo, a genius? Sibylla, his mother, is of two minds about it. She recognizes that she’s done something out of the ordinary by teaching the kid The Iliad so young, following the example of J.S. Mill, who did Greek at age 3. She knows he’s a “Boy Wonder” and she encourages him in every way to follow his omnivorous instincts. But she also believes that the problem with everybody else — literally everybody else — is that they haven’t been properly taught and have gone out of their way, most of the time, to avoid difficult things, like thinking. Otherwise we’d be living in a world of Ludos.So a novel that appears on the surface to be elitist — concerned as it is with great works of art, scientific achievement, and excellence generally — is actually profoundly anti-elitist at its core. DeWitt’s novel is infused with the belief that any human mind is capable of feats we tend to associate with genius. But the novel’s characters, especially Sibylla, are aware that youthful talent can be thwarted at any turn. She knows it happened to her parents — a teenage-whiz father who was accepted to Harvard but made to go to seminary by his Christian father; and a musical prodigy mother who never went back to Juilliard for a second audition — and to herself. Whatever the world had in store for Sibylla changed forever the night Ludo was conceived.                    

                                   
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (September 1, 2001)

Arriving in bookstores ten days before the September 11 attacks, The Corrections recounts the tragicomic breakdown of a 20th-century American dream of middle-ness: midwestern and middle-class. The Lamberts, with their mentally disintegrating patriarch, Christmas-obsessed mother, and grown siblings tackling depression, professional failure, adultery, and celebrity chefdom, may not seem as universal as they once did, but the sensation of certainties evaporating as we pitch headlong into this still-young century has only gotten stronger. —Laura Miller

DISSENT: Freedom (August 31, 2010)

I prefer this in large measure because it focuses on a feature of human life that has gotten less fictional coverage than family and love: male friendship. Sure, it’s a love story between Patty and Walter and then between Patty and Richard, but it’s also a love story between Walter and Richard, two friends fiercely at odds and no less fiercely close. To say that the emotional high-note, and the real shocker, of this nearly 600-page novel is a gift that one man makes for his friend is to say that Franzen, who too many people say gets too much credit, doesn’t get enough for what he actually manages to do: reveal the tender, unexpected workings of human animals. —Wyatt Mason

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (March 3, 2005)

You can think of this as Ishiguro’s The Road — his haunting masterpiece. The ratio of taut plot to ghastly subject matter is disturbingly effective. Kathy H.’s multidimensional but methodical storytelling of this adolescent Gothic horror show is indelible (and difficult to review without spoiling). The questions it raises are perfectly of-our-century. Never Let Me Go is a prime example of an author with impeccable taste in ideas and the control to execute them. Most authors are lucky if they have one of those things going for them. This novel is a rare symphony of both. —Sloane Crosley            

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti (September 25, 2010)

Heti doesn’t get enough credit from her advocates for being funny or from her critics for being serious. Slipping imperceptibly from ironic to earnest, challenging to chatty, her voice is sui generis and ideally suited to capturing the experience of making art — and decisions — in the modern world. The concerns of her breakout work of autofiction include sex, self-documentation, aesthetics, and friendship, as well as the titular question. The title is a perfect joke, a mission statement of deranged grandiosity, straight-faced and self-aware. Isn’t this what every book, ever, wants (in its own way) to ask? —Molly Fischer                  

                                   
The Neapolitan Novels, by Elena Ferrante (2011-2015)

Elena Ferrante’s Italy is where the personal is political, the male gaze is visceral, and the past clings to the present with potent force. Across four books and over the lifetimes of its two unforgettable main characters, the Neapolitan quartet explores female rage, agency, and friendship with a raw power. (All that over a decade when women have begun to express their anger and agency in new ways.) Lila and Elena grow up inured to the violence and corruption that defines their hometown of Naples in the 1950s, even as they yearn for something better: beauty amidst the ugliness, and intellectual fulfillment, which can be as heady as romantic love. Ferrante fever struck readers all over the world, captivated by Lila and Elena’s complicated relationship. —Maris Kreizman                                      

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson (May 5, 2015)

Around the time it was published, Maggie Nelson read aloud the opening of this book — an extremely graphic and surprising sex scene, awkwardly lighting up that New York room and clanging a bell that people had just not heard before. Her 21st-century classic is structurally just that kind of awoke re-shuffling. It’s not that you don’t know about anal sex, childbirth, or even about a partner’s transition or a parent dying, but Nelson puts each next to the other in a manner that changes our perception of each and all. I’m always glad to have never had a baby, yet Maggie has writ birthing so deeply that I’m grateful to say I’ve missed nothing in this life, thanks to this uncanny saint of a book. —Eileen Myles                                            

2666, by Roberto Bolaño (November 11, 2008)

Bolaño’s final legacy to the world before his death in 2003 is a labyrinthine mystery taking in three continents and most of the 20th century. Its playful first part might make you think you are stepping into a steady old-fashioned cruise ship of a novel, à la Victor Hugo, but the tone shifts as abruptly as the locale. At its center is the book-length fourth part, a mercilessly clipped recital of some of the hundreds of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, which is both integral to the story and a direct confrontation with the reader. The book is a world: teeming, immeasurable, unplumbable, materially solid but finally enigmatic. —Luc Sante      

DISSENT: The Savage Detectives (March 4, 2008)

I have always preferred this precursor to 2666, which is its closest (though much slimmer) competitor in scope. The polyphonic tour de force is peak Bolaño, the purest distillation of its author’s disparate obsessions: the collision of the Old World with the New, mezcal, road trips, Surrealism, sacrifice in lifelong pursuit of art (and the authoritarian urge seeded in creative failure), fraudulence, unrecognized genius, and the maddening and fleeting allure of youth. —Thomas Chatterton Williams                    

                                   
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (March 3, 2015)It takes a master of language, culture, and comic timing to create a satire that excoriates contemporary American life, with jokes coming at a furious pace, almost line by line. The novel takes on the idea of living in a “post-racial” society, which even during the Obama administration was ridiculous. The Sellout details the trials of a black man charged with reinstating slavery and segregation in his California hometown, in a voice that is unabashedly profane; so unflinchingly silly and smart that it’s impossible to look away. —Maris Kreizman            

The Outline Trilogy (Outline, Transit, and Kudos), by Rachel Cusk (2014–2018)

In its basic contours, Cusk’s trilogy is a masterpiece of rigorous denial: The books, mostly plotless, follow a British writer named Faye about whom we learn little. Yet Faye is less a protagonist than a character-shaped black hole, pulling stories and confessions out of everyone she encounters as if by inexorable gravitational force. Their disclosures allow Cusk to examine the ways we try (and fail) to make meaning out of life. The result is fiction like ice water, cold and clear, a mirror of our time. —Molly Fischer                

                                   
Atonement, by Ian McEwan (September 2001)

At once a war story, a love story, and a story about the destructive and redemptive powers of the imagination, Atonement pivots around a terrible lie told by a 13-year-old girl that will shatter her family. At the same time, the novel opens out into a deeply moving portrait of England careerning from the quiescent 1930s into the horrors of World War II. A bravura account of the 1940 Allied retreat from Dunkirk stands as one of the most indelible combat scenes in recent literature, slamming home the confusion, terror, and banality of war with visceral immediacy. It is only the most memorable sequence in a brilliantly orchestrated novel that injects many of the author’s favorite themes — the hazards of innocence, the sudden intrusion of bad luck into ordinary lives, the blurring of lines between art and life — with a new resonance and depth. —Michiko Kakutani                                      

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (September 1, 2005)

This is often referred to as Didion’s “departure” — the underbelly everyone always longed to see after reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem and thinking: But surely she’d pick me. Surely we’d live happily ever after, observing the world with our cool eyes. In short: No, she wouldn’t. And The Year of Magical Thinking is actually not her “personal” anomaly. It’s the Didion that’s been there all along — funny, humane, trenchant — transformed by tragedy and grief. The 21st century is young, but this one will be on this list 50 years from now. There’s something so reassuring about a bar that can never be surpassed. —Sloane Crosley            

                                                                                     Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner (August 23, 2011)When our alien overlords want to know what was new in the novel in the first quarter of the 21st century, give them Atocha Station. Some will contend that Lerner’s second novel, 10:04, is a more mature work, but this one is leaner and shapelier, and more directly explores the disconnect between our hopes for art and our actual experience of it. The narrator, a self-loathing stoner American poet on a fellowship in Madrid, is a privileged jackass trying to appear deep. The trick, of course, is that he’s brilliant, and his anxious stream of thought is philosophically rich. What is the average person’s role in history? How can we live with our own fraudulence? Why should we make art, and what kind of art can we make now? To all these questions Atocha Station is an answer. —Christine SmallwoodDISSENT: 10:04 (September 2, 2014)10:04 is the story of a poet and novelist (the author of a book very much like Leaving the Atocha Station) as he contemplates in vitro uncoupled parenthood, radical politics, fleeting love, and a looming, potentially lethal arterial condition. Lerner moves from touristic escapism and the question of artistic fraudulence to the deeper burdens of settling, reproducing, and creating something great. On top of that he gives the much bemoaned Brooklyn novel a good name. —Christian Lorentzen                                      

                                                                            The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (April 2, 2013)This fever-dream of the 1970s would make a spectacular movie — if anyone had the budget to make a picture that takes in speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, vast street riots in Rome, escapes through the Alps, and intrigue in the international art world. Kushner sets her heroine, Reno, in the middle of all of it, usually astride her battered Moto Valera; passionate, vulnerable, relentlessly curious, and only a little bit compromised. The book is a feminist action-adventure, a love note to the last decade before neoliberalism choked the world, and a monument to sheer gumption. —Luc Sante                    

                                                                            Erasure, by Percival Everett (August 1, 2001)The University of Southern California English professor has published some 30 volumes, mostly fiction, and Erasure is among his best. A comic romp through academic pieties and perversities, it centers on a literary hoax gone bad, in ways that predicted our current higher-educational climate. Everett is always, in a sense, writing about race, and always not. (He also writes about himself — and not — with a Hitchcock-like cameo in the form of a derelict-in-his-duty, wastrel of a literature professor by the name of Percival Everett.) —Tom Lutz

                                                                 Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (September 4, 2002)“Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome,” proclaims Cal/Calliope Stephanides, Middlesex’s pseudo-hermaphroditic protagonist, recounting his family’s long hereditary slide towards her mixed-up gender identity. And then: “Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.” Eugenides packs so much richness into this Classical saga-cum-bildungsroman-cum–paean to the American Dream that Dickens would be proud. Starting with the burning of Smyrna and winding its way through Prohibition to the 1967 Detroit race riots, Middlesex does what any viable candidate for the Great American Novel should; it  broadens the definition of “American.” —Hillary Kelly                                      

                                                                 Platform, by Michel Houellebecq (September 5, 2002)Houellebecq’s second novel (after his incendiary debut, The Elementary Particles) is full of loathsome, corrosive wit; it continues his savagely pessimistic project exploring the future of France (and, by extension, Europe and the West), caught between the distractions of late capitalism and the amorality of a post-1968 society. Houellebecq is abrasive, offensive, and in many ways obviously wrong, but his grim outlook on globalization and his anger at his parents’ generation make him one of the essential European novelists of the 21st century. —Jess Row                                            

                                               Do Everything in the Dark, by Gary Indiana (June 1, 2003)A working title for this novel was “Psychotic Friends Network.” Composed in 74 short sections, it follows a group of loosely bound friends — artists, actors, writers, and careerless people who once had other plans — into the damaged state of middle age. Downtown Manhattan is their center of gravity, but these characters have been scattered, before waking up to find themselves so much human debris in the wake of personal failures, betrayals, and AIDS. A literary descendant of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and a forerunner of recent autofiction, Do Everything in the Dark concludes on the weekend before 9/11, and demonstrates that American wreckage wasn’t something invented on that sunny Tuesday morning. —Christian Lorentze


                                                                                   |$12                  |(was $15, now 20% off)               The Known World, by Edward P. Jones (August 14, 2003)This intimate portrait of the great national nightmare of slavery comes disguised in the britches and mourning dresses of an antebellum historical novel. It was widely praised upon publication for revealing an obscure chapter of American history — free people of color who owned slaves — but the history itself was largely invented. The Virginian county of Henry Townsend’s plantation, the reference citations, and many of the period details are made up. Having denied the consolations of historical distance, The Known World forces a reckoning with a moral horror that lives still. —Nathaniel Rich                  

                                                The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth (September 30, 2004)It can be easy to forget that The Plot Against America, which today reads as a parable for Trump’s America, was widely received as an allegory for W.’s — an interpretation that Roth encouraged by insisting the opposite. The novel begins in a buzz of fear and the pitch increases steadily, unbearably. But it’s Roth’s doomed hero, Walter Winchell, whose speeches have the uncanny urgency of prophecy: “How long will Americans remain asleep while their cherished Constitution is torn to shreds by the fascist fifth column of the Republican right marching under the sign of the cross and the flag?” —Nathaniel Rich

DISSENT: The Human Stain (April 2000)