The Catcher in the Rye may be the definitive coming-of-age novel for millions of people around the world, but not for readers in the west of England. Visitors to the Bath Literature Festival have instead deemed To Kill a Mockingbird as the ultimate novel depicting the transition to adulthood.
The surprise result came from an event staged on Sunday to debate the best coming-of-age novels as part of the “forever young” theme of the festival, which is celebrating its 21st birthday.
Three cultural critics debated a 21-strong list that had been drawn up with expert advice, championing their favourites, and the audience voted on a winner.
Viv Groskop, artistic director of the festival, championed Harper Lee’s novel about race relations in the American South seen through the eyes of Scout: “I read it when I was 13 and it changed my life,” she told the audience in Bath’s Guildhall. “It is the ultimate coming of age novel for me because it’s told from the perspective of a changing child beginning to see the world in more mature eyes.
“A coming-of-age novel is a personal book because you identify with a character, and it has resonance in your own life,” Ms Groskop said. “But it also has a wider message about morality and prejudice. To Kill a Mockingbird had all that for me.”
The 15 best opening lines in literature
The 15 best opening lines in literature
1/15 Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
2/15 Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
“All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.”
3/15 A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”
4/15 Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with", which pitches you straight into the story.”
5/15 Middlemarch, by George Eliot
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
6/15 Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
7/15 The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticising any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
8/15 Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie
"All children, except one, grow up."
9/15 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
“They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.”
10/15 Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."
11/15 One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
12/15 The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
13/15 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
14/15 The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
15/15 Catch 22, by Joseph Heller
"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him."
Lee died this month at the age of 89. The literary world was shocked last year when she agreed to publish a second novel, Go Set a Watchman, which was written prior to Mockingbird, and dealt with some of the same characters 20 years after the events of the first book.
Mark Lawson, the writer and broadcaster, caused some dissent when he said that Go Set a Watchman “is better than To Kill a Mockingbird, for the reason that Scout has grown up”.
The titles under consideration
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
- The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
- Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
- The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
- The Secret History, Donna Tartt
- Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee
- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
- Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
- The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
- The Gracekeepers, Kirsty Logan
- The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
- The Go-Between, LP Hartley
- I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
- The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
- The Rotters’ Club, Jonathan Coe
- Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was the focus of some debate. Ms Groskop said that it had topped many previous lists, but Mr Lawson called it “overrated”.
While he said that “stylistically it’s a fantastic book and technically an amazing feat”, he worried it “fetishised alienation”. His favourite coming of age novel from the list was Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson. “To me it’s one of the most original comic and pseudo-comic novels that has ever been written.”
Stephanie Merritt, the novelist and critic, championed Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. “It gripped me completely, it was everything I thought a coming-of-age story should be,” she said.
“Books can really become friends in those teenage years. To find a book whose characters may be different from you but are going through similar things and make you feel less alone and less distant from the rest of the world and opens your eyes to the rest of society is hugely important.”
There was no presence of young adult fiction on the list, and while the Harry Potter series was mentioned, the panel decided to exclude the seven novels.
“I wonder if the idea of coming of age is a literary idea,” Ms Groskop said, and added that the rise of the young adult fiction genre may stop younger readers tackling the classics at an impressionable age.
“They might not read Jane Eyre at the age of 13, but The Hunger Games. They may be great young adult novels, but I’d much rather someone read Jane Eyre.”