Any Eng Lit academic who admits to not liking long, hard, foreign novels should be publicly humiliated

Have you heard of the game called "Humiliation"? It can be played by a small group of people and no implements are required. Each person has to name a book that they haven't read and they get one point for each other player who has read it. Thus the more famous the book, the higher your score, so you have to humiliate yourself in order to win.

I don't know if the game was actually invented by David Lodge, but it plays a prominent part in his novel Changing Places. One American Eng Lit academic gets so caught up in wanting to win that he admits he hasn't read Hamlet, wins the game and loses his job. I pictured a similar scene on the Monday after the list of John Carey's 50 favourite books of the century was published in the Sunday Times. There would be a knock at the door, anonymous-looking men in bowler hats hovering on the doorstep. "Professor Carey?"


"Very sorry, sir, but we've had reports that you have admitted to not having read Proust. Is that true?"

"Well, yes."

"And you haven't read Faulkner, either?"

"That's right."

"Right, sir, I'm afraid we've got instructions to take your professorship. Now don't make a fuss, it won't do any good. Get him, lads."

Obviously part of the pleasure of lists is to argue with the choices. To take only the examples of writers I know well, I think that The Hound of the Baskervilles is so inferior to the early Sherlock Holmes stories as to be not worth choosing. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday begins wonderfully (with a secret society which, as a paradoxical means of diverting attention, holds its secret meetings on a terrace in Leicester Square) but like many comic novels (Zuleika Dobson is another example) falls apart halfway through.

I would choose Kim as Kipling's masterpiece, rather than one of his short story collections. And Carey chooses a notorious edition of Auden's shorter poems in which Auden dropped some of his greatest works, like "Spain" and "1 September, 1939" while rewriting or heavily cutting others.

But the list seemed faintly depressing to me because it was in the unlovely English tradition of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, in which you claimed not to have read or even heard of trendy modernist writers. Asked in an interview how he compared himself with that other famous literary librarian, Jorge Luis Borges, Larkin replied: "Who is Jorge Luis Borges?" He also approvingly quoted Dylan Thomas's claim that he never read anything "hard". Or, for the most part in Carey's list, long or foreign. Of the 50 authors, no fewer than 35 were either born or lived in England. Only seven of the books were written in a foreign language.

This wouldn't be of much significance except that John Carey is one of the half dozen most senior Eng Lit academics in Britain and perhaps the most influential. In his introduction to the list he is scathing about people who choose books for political or historical reasons or those who compile lists of "great books". These lists are snobbish and off-putting. Well, maybe, but still . . . If you compile a list that includes Steinbeck and Seth and Ishiguro and not Proust or Ulysses or Kafka or Chekhov, then the truth is not that you are courageously individual but that you are simply more comfortable with minor literature than major literature, and there is something wearily English about that.

And from John Carey to Jim Carrey (and there's a neat segue). The other scary piece of criticism during the week was made by Anthea Turner in "My Cultural Life" in the Guardian. She loved The Truman Show "because I identified with the 'living-in-a-goldfish-bowl' aspect". I take it that all readers know that in the film Carrey plays a man who, without knowing it, has spent his life as the star of a giant soap opera in which every other person is an actor.

Turner failed to realise that the character she resembles is not Truman himself (who, after all, doesn't realise he is in a goldfish bowl) but the actress playing Truman's wife, who cynically manipulates private emotions in public, pausing occasionally to market a product with a smile. After all, someone posing on the cover of Tatler, naked except for a snake, is not a person caught unknowingly and helplessly in the spotlight.

It's rather as if Josef Stalin had said that he loved Animal Farm, and he especially identified with those nice horses.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage