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.
#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
Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine.
Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News.
Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone.
Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books
Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions.
Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction.
Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology.
Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors.
Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus.
Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation.
Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed.
Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances.
Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton.
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions.
John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio.
Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists.
Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels.
Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas.
Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet.
Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions.
Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1.
Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction.
Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books.
Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions.
Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants
Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books.
Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance.
C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions.
Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books.
Laura Miller is the author of The Magician’s Book and is the book critic at Salon.
Meghan O’Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX.
Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer.
Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions.
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review.
Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1.
Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions.
Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World.
Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books.
Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook.
Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books.
David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books.
Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books.
John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass
Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions.
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine
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.
Jeff Hobbs grew up amid the perfumy mushroom farms of Kennet Square, PA. He is the author of the novel, The Tourists, as well as dozens of grant proposals written on behalf of the African Rainforest Conservancy, for which he served as Executive Director for three years. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and the little girl within her ballooning belly, and he talks mostly to his dog, Noah.Dear Mr. West,On behalf of my daughter, who is due on October 8th and so thus far has been shielded by the womb from the loud, generally vacuous remarks of all current celebrity-cum-philosophers – and on behalf of every child living in America who has ever been negatively influenced by a “Kanye-ism” – I would just like to say: Shame on you, ‘Ye.Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.These are your words that you employed, oddly enough, while promoting your own forthcoming book, Thank You and You’re Welcome. This tome of “theories” is reportedly composed of 52 pages and possibly fewer words, since many pages contain only a single almost-sentence, and others are left blank – perhaps a nod toward your blank sense of responsibility for those who pay attention to what you say. Your self-purported intent is to “end the confusion” of Kanye misquotes, which has apparently been plaguing the universe for some time now.Just a heads-up here: Not only does the inherent irony at play in these words make you appear unintelligent, which you obviously aren’t, but you have also undermined the privilege of living in a country in which we can read anything and everything we choose or, as in your unfortunate case, nothing at all. Though you may be a self-proclaimed “proud non-reader,” surely you cannot be proud of rallying others to follow you in this non-ambition.My understanding is that you are a remarkable musician and producer, termed by many a musical genius. You have sold millions of records, won the highest awards, started a respected charitable foundation to help underprivileged children stay in school, cultivated countless fans the world over, and become a bona fide voice of your generation. At the very least, you are that rare talent who appeals to a fan base as demographically diverse as it is ardent.So how could you, the son of an English professor no less, say something so destructive, so moronically conceived, and so contrary to the vaguely youth-centric message of your own music? I ask this question in seriousness and with all the respect I can summon, which admittedly isn’t much at the moment.With regard to the first part of your statement, I grant that the novel as a form, excluding your own, tends to be somewhat “wordy.” It is, after all, typically composed of words. And plenty of the greatest novelists – Hemmingway, Rushdie, Naipaul, and Mailer come to mind – could correctly be dubbed “self-absorbed,” bordering on self-obsessed. It does require a certain amount of arrogance to believe a work of fiction that originates in your brain might be worth a stranger’s time, let alone his money. You know this arrogance very well; in fact, you have coined your own special term for it: Flyness.Incidentally, our president is wordy and self-absorbed, and he might turn out to be the flyest leader we’ve ever had. There are wordy and self-absorbed carpenters out there, and doctors and schoolteachers and, with you as a standard-bearer, musicians – all of whom have contributions to make to society. In many ways, America is a wordy and self-absorbed nation. We are no less fly for being so.So while those two descriptive gems are ultimately harmless, what I shame you for is your presumption to take away, or at the very least discredit, the unique, valuable, and timeless relationship that a child can forge with the world through books.The written word is the only art medium that necessitates a sincere, sometimes even arduous, effort on the part of its audience. Rather than enter instantaneously into the individual’s heart and soul via a direct, simple sensory channel – most commonly sight and sound, and, in the case of a great chef, taste and smell – a printed word must first be filtered, interpreted, and aligned with one’s consciousness through both the right and left sides of the brain; the sensations an inspired sentence brings to bloom within the individual’s interior represent a collaboration between author and reader, a synthesis of dual experience in this world. This special co-mingling can occur between two people who grew up neighbors in the same small Midwestern town, or between a 12-year old Catholic girl in the Bronx reading the words of an 80-year old Hindu man in Calcutta. Basically, what I hope to teach my daughter is that, though reading usually necessitates seclusion – not an easy concept to pitch to a kid, or, apparently, to a hip hop artist – the more you read, the smarter you become; opening a book is a completely self-generated means by which a child may grow more thoughtful, more worldly, more sensitive to others, regardless of what school district he lives in or what his standardized test scores are.A novel takes you away like no other medium can, and while a multi-millionaire music mogul like yourself has no doubt lived an extraordinary “real life” – has experienced directly so many fascinating people and places most of us ordinary folks could never dream of – the majority of your fans, and 99.9% of Americans, do not have the time nor the means to emulate you. Most of us would very much like to “get information from doing stuff,” as you sagely advise, if only our access to the world beyond our immediate environment weren’t limited, basically, to books, television, and music. I venture that escaping into the work of Harper Lee, Jack London, Alice Walker – hell, even Stephenie Meyer, who can barely write an English sentence – is more worthwhile for American youth than, say, watching an MTV Cribs episode featuring Kanye West, or listening to such classics as “Dreaming of Fucking Lil’ Kim,” even in hi-def surround sound.And yet, the written word is being slowly phased out of our culture, no thanks to comments such as yours; it is becoming increasingly apparent that the slow, solitary act of paging through a book has only marginal space on today’s manic, hyper-social canvass. Newspapers are streamlining one by one to cut costs, and the first step in that process invariably entails nixing the Books section. American publishers are faring little better than the auto industry, sans taxpayer bailout. We live in an era in which the first stories some kids read are penned by Madonna, Sesame Street is considered “unhealthy” (because the Cookie Monster promotes obesity, you see), Gawker is a premier source of literary news, snark reigns supreme, the vast majority of written correspondence involves progressions of three-letter acronyms ricocheted across cell phone towers, and, sadly but truly, the blurted opinions of Kanye West actually count for something.Being as your charitable work is geared toward furthering the education of our children, being as the country reads less now than it ever has in its history at the same time as our school system falls behind those of other developed nations, being as you are technically an author now, and being as you are and will remain a role model to so many tens of millions of people – perhaps you, Mr. West, might atone for your statement by (just a thought here) finding a book that means something to you and then recommending it to your fans, thus investing your words in their future rather than your own.To quote you once more, from your song, “Champion”: “‘Cause who the kids gonna listen to? Huh? I guess me if it isn’t you.”Best Regards,Jeff Hobbs (Proud Reader)