The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far): An Introduction

September 21, 2009 | 15 books mentioned 77 5 min read

Ah, 1999… We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we’ve gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named “The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years” in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the ’00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers.

It’s a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the ’00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation.

To that end, we’ve conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: “What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?” The results were robust, diverse, and surprising.

We’ve finished tabulating them, and this week, we’ll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we’ll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we’ll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and “Best of the Rest” lists.

This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle.  We hope you’ll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed.

The List
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Panel

Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like “kissing your sister,” voted to break them.

Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers

This is the byline used for site announcements and for articles by more than one Millions contributor.


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  2. I predict nineteen books originally written in English topped by Bolano at number one. Unmitigated Yankee home field advantage aside, a useful exercise, and I hope you’ll let us see the ballots.

  3. Ron Carlson, Five Skies
    Percival Everett, American Desert, Wounded
    Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist
    Nowhere Man, Alexander Hemon
    Men in Space, Tom McCarthy
    Joseph McNeil, Netherland
    Jonathan Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    Kathryn Davis, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf

  4. So difficult. Possibly Never Let Me Go, The Great Fire, The Road, Kavalier and Clay, Persepolis, White Teeth, Blind Assassin, Kafka on the Shore. A Neil Gaiman, a David Mitchell, or a Geraldine Brooks?. Stieg Larsson and Joseph O’Neill too soon? Bolano seems a shoo-in.

  5. Assuming more than one book by an author is allowed, my guess is that shoo-ins for the top 10 are:

    The Savage Detectives
    The Corrections
    The Road

    And the ones I hope also make it:

    Eat the Document
    Everything is Illuminated
    The Human Stain
    Never Let Me Go

    American-Centric I know, but that’s what I tend to read.

  6. Savage Detectives actually doesn’t make the cut-off:

    “Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000.”

  7. Predictions for the top 5 vote-getters: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; 2666 by Roberto Bolano; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead.

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  9. The Story of Edgar Sawelle- Wroblewski
    Life of Pi- Martell
    Blindness – Saramago
    Fortress of Solitude – Lethem
    The Horned Man – Lasdun
    Elegance of the Hedgehog – Barbery
    I upset myself not to have more women here – Katharine Weber is really wonderful and if we were considering a body of work versus only one novel, she would be on the list. Also Annie Proulx.

  10. “Ten minutes later she was naked, fifteen minutes later she was moaning, eighteen minutes later she was whispering words of love that she no longer needed to feign, after twenty minutes she began to lose her head, after twenty-one minutes she felt her body was being lacerated with pleasure, after twenty-two minutes she called out, Now, now, and when she regained consciousness she said, exhausted and happy, I can still see everything white.” – Blindness by Jose Saragamo

  11. I was going to pick 2666 as #1 at first, but then it came out at #4 yesterday. So, my toss up for #1 now will either be Netherland by Joseph O’Neill or The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Dave Eggers might have a chance too if A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is regarded by the panel as fiction instead of a memoir as promoted by the book’s publisher. But still, being a Bolano fan(and if more than one work from a single author is allowed) I am holding out for By Night In Chile simply because The Savage Detectives which was originally published in Spanish in 1998 is not eligible.

  12. No Tree of Smoke on the above list? Shame, shame. There are some great books on that list but Johnson’s is better than most of them, if not all.

  13. Not impressed with the list at all. I still prefer Franzen’s Strong Motion over Corrections, the latter getting more and more angry as I pick through it.

    A better list would have included:

    Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire
    Roth’s Human Stain & Everyman
    Arthur Phillip’s The Egyptologist
    John Crowley’s Daemonomania
    Houellebecq’s Platform
    Pete Dexter’s Train

  14. Where’s Murakami? Kafka on the Shore and After Dark both appeared this side of the millennium and of course 1Q84 (though that has yet to be translated into English).

    To be quite honest, Atonement appearing on the list seems to suggest laziness on the part of the individuals polled. It’s certainly a well-known book, but it’s hardly well-written what with its conclusion being a cheap trick. Ah well, I guess McEwan’s anti-feminism is appealing enough to overcome such stylistic deficiencies.

  15. The best novel I’ve ever read, a fabulous book that anyone with a uterus ought to own is The Lost Daughter by Daralyse Lyons. It is the most fabulous work of literature I’ve ever read, rich with character, plot, and subtext…

  16. Wow. No J.M Coetzee. In fact, no African authors whatsoever. Well done! *facetious laughter*

  17. is this a ‘worst’ list? did i click the correct link? ‘corrections’ is #1 and ‘known world’ is #2?! are you JOKING?! this millennium list shows the sad state of modern fiction.

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  19. How is it possible that _Infinite Jest_ isn’t on this list?!! I know that this “Top 20” is now over two years old, but still, I’m shocked. DFW’s masterpiece bests most of the novels on this list, in my opinion (if not all of them — hey, I don’t pretend to objectivity!). I won’t name names, but while I agree that approximately 50% of those books (/authors) listed are well-deserving of praise, I am entirely flabbergasted that such a well-read and discerning panel of writers and readers neglected to honor _Infinite Jest_ (/DFW).

    p.s. Franzen’s _The Corrections_… at #1?!! I can almost guarantee that Franzen himself would agree with me (e.g. that _Infinite Jest_ is far more worthy of the blue-ribbon prize).

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