What is the Citizen Kane of books?

Disclaimer: This is not a joke.

We’ve all heard critics talk about the idea of a “Citizen Kane of video games,” i.e., the first truly great video game that will set the standard for the medium as a way to make meaningful creative work. The idea is that just as Citizen Kane paved the way for films to be “great” (whatever that means), video games require a work of similar stature in order to gain legitimacy. The people who pose this problem are, of course, almost never willing to accept that any existing game already satisfies this role.

So I want to flip this question. Video games are often compared to films, since film is the most recent new artistic medium. What if we turn time around, imagine that films were invented before books, and ask instead “what is the Citizen Kane of books”? In other words, what book would you say historically gave novels “legitimacy” as an artistic medium? Is there one? Does this question make any sense at all?

The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn is often cited as the first “great American novel,” while Don Quixote is often cited as the first modern novel. Do these fill the same role for literature that Citizen Kane filled for film? Why or why not? What differences in the mediums lead to differences in these “early great works”?

EDIT: A few people have jumped in the replies to tell me that this question can’t be answered in any objective, meaningful sense. I am well aware of this. I’m curious to see how people individually choose to interpret and respond to it, much in the same way that people take a million different angles when the same question is posed about video games.

Maybe it’s a bit cheap, but for the West, I would say The Bible is the book that made printing (immediately) relevant. Or maybe some books of law? It was super important that they could be reproduced easily all of a sudden. I bet you had handwritten books of law that had subtle differences all the time, makes things difficult :wink:


Well, you say that, but…

edit: Okay but seriously, I think there’s so many assumptions to reexamine here that the only way I can possibly respond is in the form of a lecture. A “book” is not even remotely the same thing as a “novel,” for instance; “legitimacy” varies historically and geographically, etc. So no, I don’t think the question makes sense, though it leads into more interesting questions.


Yep, I’d probably (lay-opinion) go with one of the early (and extremely popular) story collections from major religious texts. Can’t really overplay the influence on modern English story structure of the Bible, creating the space for the modern form. That may also have equivalents in various languages and religions.

Of course, we could possibly go towards stuff like the Homeric epics (but you’d probably want someone with better classics to give you an informed view of what were the actual important steps in verse).

Like was pointed out, this can’t really be answered in any meaningful way. But I’ll say Gilgamesh anyway, because we know that’s the correct answer.


The Dhammapada is a pretty good one imo

I was going to say either Gilgamesh or The Tale of Genji, maybe?

I don’t know I don’t like this question.


Okay since I apparently can’t stop myself from nerding out about this: Citizen Kane isn’t even the Citizen Kane of movies, ie, the history of film as an art form doesn’t start in 1941, and many of the works now considered pioneering classics alongside it (Nosferatu, Metropolis) predate it by a good 20 years.

The reason I harp on this, besides being a nerd, is that I think we should challenge these kinds of post-facto misconceptions about the history of art, as well as the history of anything else, in order to not try to live out or reenact something we think happened but what was in fact a later retelling of what happened.


In terms of the impact it’s had, the sheer amount that’s been written about it, and how often it’s been discussed? The Great Gatsby


That’s not really why Citizen Kane is used as a aspirational comparison point. Film was certainly treated as a serious artform before Kane. Nor was in considered immediately canonical so it’s importance was something that came along later as newer creators cited it as important.

There’s really two distinct reasons why people use Kane as a high water mark, one simple and one more complex. The simple one is simply as shorthand for “the best”. Kane is well known as one of the greatest works of it’s medium so people use it when discussing what the greatest works of other mediums. The second meaning is that Kane was a sudden and dramatic leap forward in camerawork style in the west. It’s far less stagey than films of it’s era. Kane feels contemporary today because much of current film style comes out of Welle’s work in Kane. Watch Kane alongside other great works of it’s time like Hitchcock’s Rebecca and you’ll see the difference.

So to get the Citizen Kane of ________. Figure out what’s the starting point for the modern convention of things. For books I’d probably argue it’s whatever cemented the novel as the dominant structure for fiction. You mentioned Don Quixote, seems like a good answer to me. I don’t know enough about literary history to have a good answer myself.


I like this answer! I’m not particularly fond of talking about things as “the best,” which is the reason for my parenthetical after referring to Citizen Kane as a “great film,” but I think you’re right that thinking of Citizen Kane as an “accelerant” to the medium is a good framework. In this sense, Don Quixote might be a good answer as long as we’re thinking about novels—as a few people pointed out earlier, of course, novels are not the be-all end-all literary format.

I’d love to hear if anyone has thoughts on works that had a similar “accelerating” effect to Don Quixote within the world of novels, or more broadly in different forms of literature.

C’mon guys this one is easy


I haven’t done extensive reading on this, but I do study media and part of that has been film theory and film criticism (probably not unlike a lot of people here, waypoint is like that). I would say Citizen Kane’s reputation is due to a popular reinterpretation of very early film theory & criticism.

Film went through some major transformations in the 1940s and André Bazin, a French film writer, was a major voice at that time - he co-founded one of the first film theory magazines (Cahiers du cinéma), which became globally influential - and is mostly known for his writing on realism in film. He felt that all of the techniques used in Citizen Kane were the best so far, maybe the best possible, example of “realism”. To Bazin “realism” was not necessarily exact one-to-one replication of reality, but it had to get you to forget that it was a film. It’s a lot like the way we use (or hate to use) “immersion” in games writing today.

A lot of film writing that came after the 1940s essentially had to respond in some way to this idea that the best film is the one with the most “realism” (and therefore Citizen Kane was the best movie), but not because it necessarily is, but just because Bazin thought it was the best example of his pet theory.

(Bazin is kind of a blowhard and modern film scholars seem to mostly agree on this, as far as I can tell.)


The Citizen Kane of books, or games, would have to be the one that inspired someone to kick off the first major, influential, critical theory of books, or games. imo. Something that really dug into What Is A Good Book/Game and What Is The Essence Of Books/Games.

I don’t know what that is, for either one.


For Americans specifically it might be The Grapes of Wrath? A lot of works taking a closer look at the flaws in our capitalist system and examining the myth of the American dream that all of us here are brought up on take so many notes from this book it’s hard not to see its impact as anything less than monumentally important. It’s a book that can’t help but admire some parts of the American experience while remaining ruthless and critical. Or maybe I just like it a lot, dunno.

Btw I think this is actually a pretty interesting question to think about. I know we’ve all gotten to a point (thanks mostly to the Last of Us) that we cringe a bit at the Citizen Kane comparison but Like OP said there’s never an objective answer to something like this but it’s cool to see what everyone as individuals regard as having a particular, unique cultural value.

There are quite a number of masterful films before Citizen Kane. Honestly, if you want to talk about the film that paved the way for the medium, it’s the highly problematic The Birth of a Nation which fully realized a lot of the narrative techniques that would go on to define how people tell stories in film. And even then, that’s only looking at narrative cinema and not taking into account the Russian cinema movement at the same time as well as the many films that would abandon film narrative.

Citizen Kane has this mythology built around it because Andrew Sarris, who solidified the notion of film auteur (director as author) in America hailed it as the great American film. I think it’s a great film but I think Sarris and then later Roger Ebert would go on to elevate the film to its high status by giving shot by shot breakdowns of the film.

I think the idea of it setting the standard or paving the way for the medium to become meaningful is just absurd. I guess what I’m trying to say is that even Citizen Kane isn’t the Citizen Kane of films because the notion itself is faulty and absurd.

Different cultures, peoples and times will produce different works that are influenced by what came before and will influence what comes after. Looking for the one to represent the entire medium is to try to put the breadth of a medium into a small container and say everything you could hope to realize in the medium is contained in one work. It’s a mad endeavor.


This one is easy.

The Citizen Kane of Novels is… (drumroll please):

For Whom The Bell Tolls By Hemingway, because it is the best American novel released in 1941, much as Citizen Kane is the best American film released in 1941. Neither art form began or ended or found any particularly unique expression in that year.

I mean, it’s Dune.

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Is it really though? Don’t get me wrong, I love Dune. But it follows ‘The hero’s journey’ archetype pretty directly and that’s as old as storytelling itself.

If you were to argue that it’s the Citizen Kane of Sci-Fi, I’d agree with you. It pushed the genre beyond the somewhat limited scope of early 20th sci-fi. But I feel like to call it the Citizen Kane of books is a bit of a stretch.

I’ll propose To Kill a Mockingbird, purely on the basis of how over-analysed it is. But I don’t really have much follow up because I can’t remember much that happened in the book.

Especially in an American focus, I’d think. “The Great American novel” and all that.