Elites love little more than to acclaim their achievements, and the millennium's end offers our market culture's elites an opportunity to inflict this shortcoming on the masses. The proliferation of "Top" lists is only one of the more annoying public displays of elitist tub-thumping indulged (too often witlessly) by the mass media. Recent examples illustrate how elites think about themselves, their work, their peers, and we, the plebeians.
The editorial board at Modern Library, a division of Random House, this summer turned out its pick of the "100 Best [English-language] Novels of This Century." The board included literary lions like Gore Vidal (whose autobiographical title "Palimpsest" sent bibliophiles hurtling for their dictionaries), historical recycler Daniel J. Boorstin, and Washington hanger-on Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Only a handful of their choices were written during the last quarter-century. They reflect the board's cerebral lifestyles and patrician sensibilities rather than any popular impact or cultural significance. They range from the meritorious if unread ("U.S.A" trilogy) to the surreal ("Slaughterhouse Five") to the impenetrable ("Finnegan's Wake").
Not to be outdone, reading's arch-enemy, the American Film Institute, released its own "100 Greatest Movies." Fifteen-hundred leaders of the American movie community agreed the best film was-hold onto your hats-"Citizen Kane" by Orson Welles. Then they bowed to every pop-culture wave that's broken on Malibu shores, including musicals ("Singin' in the Rain"), noir ("Double Indemnity"), neo-noir, ("Chinatown"), post-neo-noir ("Pulp Fiction"), science fiction ("Star Wars"), and willful stupidity ("Forrest Gump"). Since Americans made all the greatest movies, AFI's prudently anonymous selection committee didn't have to consider works by Costa-Gavras or Sergei Eisenstein, but granted Hollywood green cards to the unavoidable Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean.
These lists say more about the biases of their authors than about the richness of America's polyglot culture. There isn't one black filmmaker on AFI's list; fewer than a half-dozen African-American authors make Modern Library's. Women score slightly better in the Top 100 novels, but just once in the Top 100 films. This isn't because America's women and minorities haven't excelled, but because the guiding principles of 20th-century mass media are less literary merit or cinematic originality than net profit and market share. Until very recently, and still most often, white studio executives and publishers sold white films and books to a white paying audience. Only this can explain honoring D.W. Griffith's racist paean "The Birth of a Nation" over Spike Lee's troubling "Do the Right Thing," or selecting James Baldwin's spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain" over Alice Walker's searing "The Color Purple."
The mass-market elites will be first to protest that these lists are not compendia but conversation-starters. "After people get finished attacking [us] for putting something in or not putting something in, they generally acknowledge that here we are talking about important books and not talking about Monica Lewinsky," says Random House spokesman Tom Perry.
AFI's Seth Oster adds, "Everyone's opinion counts." Modern Library established a Web site for readers to select their choices. Yet here again, market culture triumphs: In the pay-for-play medium of the Web, only the payers get to play. Thus ML's "Readers' 100" list is dominated by the Cro-Magnon libertarianism of Ayn Rand, interrupted by high-school standards like "The Catcher in the Rye," and shrunken by popcorn classics from Stephen King, Robert Heinlein and J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Top 100 lists from movie-makers and literary lights will undoubtedly inspire animated cocktail chatter, but probably few bar fights or even dinner-table disputes. Elites converse among themselves, but they talk down to the masses. That's because the film and publishing elites are held hostage to people's disposable incomes, so that every accomplishment must also be a selling point. Rarely does a brilliant newcomer have both the talent and the market potential. John Kennedy Toole's hilarious "A Confederacy of Dunces" is an example. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, years after Toole killed himself in frustration over his repeated rejections. His eventual editor wrote a moving foreword to the early editions that was prominently advertised on the book's jacket.
William Hoffman has seen all of the movies and read all of the books mentioned, with the exception of "Ulysses," which he is trying again to read at the insistence of Modern Library. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.