Thursday, March 31, 2005

Fiction's Top 20 villains (and Anti-Heroes)

A week ago my friend Mike alerted me to an article that ran in the Guardian (UK) about how Waterstone's (a book retail chain in the UK) had generated a list of Literature's Top 20 villains and Anti-Heroes. Now anytime you attempt to order the top 20 of anything as subjective as this, your most likely achievement is, first and foremost, to make an ass of yourself. That's all well and fine for me as long as you stick to the fundamental criteria of your ranking system.

My problem with the Waterstone list is not so much in the titles they chose, but in the basic criteria they used to construct their list. Now keep in mind that this list was generated by a bookseller, one who presumably has read A LOT of books. Am I to assume that this body of book knowledge couldn't come up with a list of ONLY 20 villains or ONLY 20 anti-heroes? Is the literary world so full of likeable protagonists that we have to lump villains and anti-heroes together into a single "bad" category?

Sure, I can hear the arguments arising already - it could be difficult to draw a clear distinction between a real villain and an anti-hero in some instances - but when you look at the Waterstone's list, it's hardly a fine line to walk.

They start off the list very well with The Master and Margarita, Perfume (one of my favorite books), and Lord of the Flies. Coming in at #4 is a shocker: Fight Club! Some might argue that Tyler Durden is an anti-hero, but in fact he fits the very definition of antagonist even if he happens to physically be the protagonist as well. What should really be the cause of argument here is how the hell did Fight Club make it to #4? I love Chuck Palahniuk as much as anyone, but #4? Above Lolita? Above American Psycho? No way!

A Clockwork Orange ranks at #5, and I have no problem with that, but at #6 is Schindler's List. Who's the villain? Hitler? No, he's not a main character in this one. I realize Oskar Schindler had some character flaws, but #6 on the top 20 novels featuring the best villains? What an insult to great villains!

Okay, so I won't bore you with my analysis of the whole list, but I should note that Lolita at #10 and American Psycho at #14 are ridiculous, as they should both be in the top 5. Additionally, The Great Gatsby at #15 ("he gives Patrick Bateman a run for his money" - WHAT?) and The Catcher in the Rye at #17 are just absurd in the context of villainy! But the worst (well, maybe along with Catcher in the Rye as the worst) has to be #19: On the Road. Waterstone's explanation for this choice, "Two anti-heroes for the price of one in this classic of the Beat generation." And to think they passed over Crime and Punishment for that. Those wacky Brits! How degenerate to be unemployed and go on a roadtrip!

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