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Can any author beat JD Salinger in the coming-of-age novel poll?

Next year a panel of literary experts will attempt to name the best coming-of-age novel ever written

Nick Clark
Monday 28 December 2015 20:38 GMT

The coming-of-age story has thrilled adolescents ever since Telemachus’s exploits in Homer’s The Odyssey – and the genre still dominates bestseller lists.

Next year a panel of literary experts will attempt to name the best coming-of-age novel ever written. And in doing so answer the key question: can anything trump The Catcher in the Rye?

The Independent Bath Literature Festival’s organisers have drawn up a longlist of 50 novels, which ranges across centuries and literary styles to pit Harry Potter against Jane Eyre and Pip from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations against Christopher, the autistic teenager in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Viv Groskop, artistic director of the festival, has compiled the list from previous surveys, expert recommendations and suggestions on social media.

The “loose criteria” for entry were that the novels must address the experience of going from childhood to adulthood and be discovered by readers as they pass through their teens. The eclectic choices range from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott to DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Ms Groskop said: “I want it to be as wide as possible so the judges can really debate and properly define what the parameters are.

“It’s important to see these coming-of-age novels as something quite egalitarian, and you can have your eyes opened to someone else’s experience of life through highbrow and lowbrow literature.”

The young-adult novels on the list include Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. “JK Rowling crops up a lot on coming-of-age novel lists. I know Harry Potter well and I never thought of it before as a coming of age novel but, of course, it is,” the festival director said. “For one generation, it is the ultimate coming-of-age novel.”

Among the more unusual coming-of-age stories are Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian Never Let Me Go and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

An obvious favourite is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, taught in schools around the world. “Can anything knock The Catcher in the Rye off the top spot?” Ms Groskop said. “Personally I’m going to be rooting for The Bell Jar as it was the book that made me want to become a writer.”

A panel at the festival on 28 February, chaired by Ms Groskop and including The Independent columnist John Walsh, will whittle the longlist down to 21 must-read novels before deciding on a winner.

“I want to encourage people to reread those books and see if they stand up,” Ms Groskop said. “But that raises the question: does it matter if it stands up? These are books for a specific time in your life. Does it matter if they don’t seem profound to you when you’re 60?”

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