Just what is a cult novel? Well, like so many literary terms, the edges blur whenever you try to look right at them, but in the end, you sort of know one when you read one. Sometimes a cult novel is one that the critics panned but the fans love, or sometimes it’s one that both readers and critics love, but a certain contingent of readers really love. Any book with a squadron of rabid fans swearing that it changed their lives quickly seems cultish. Cult novels often come from the fringes, they often represent countercultural perspectives, they often experiment with form. But again: you sort of know one when you see one, and this list contains 50 of the best (or at least the most notable). As always, there are many more good ones out there, and new cults forming all the time across the world, so if your favorite dog-eared novel-of-worship is missing here, add it to the list in the comments.
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Renata Adler was a formidable critical and literary figure in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the kind of obstinate, intellectual-badass reputation that delights some and faintly terrifies others. Her self-constructed fall from grace, at least with the critical world, is well known, but she is cherished more for her first novel, Speedboat, a non-linear, delicious wisp of a thing, which immediately became a cult classic among writers and lovers of experimental literature. As Michael Robbins of the Chicago Tribune described it, the book is “the kind you buy multiple copies of to push on friends, the kind you dog-ear and mark up until it could line a camster cage. A talisman, a weapon, a touchstone.” When Speedboat and Pitch Dark were re-released by New York Review Books last year, Adler enjoyed another wave of cultish affection, this one more Internet-instant, and perhaps more widespread. Now, having read the book is certainly cool, but if you have an old edition, proving you were in the know before the re-release? That’s the culty-coolest.