As each year ends, I compile a list of the best books from the lists published by the various newspapers, publishing journals, and other reviews. I use the list to create displays and distribute it to the readers in my library. This year, I’m getting more exact, using a spreadsheet to track how many votes different books receive. It’s important for book group leaders to watch these lists as well, as most of the books on them will be reprinted in paperback during the upcoming year and thus become prime fodder for selection by your group.
Here’s a preview: In literary fiction, the big winners are David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and Joseph O’ Neill’s Netherland. Richard Price’s Lush Life leads the pack of mysteries and thrillers, Jo Graham’s Black Ships is pulling ahead in speculative fiction, and several books are vying for the historical fiction crown. In nonfiction, the leaders are Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution and James Wood’s How Fiction Works. More about those and others in future blog posts.
What I’m interested in exploring today are the lists themselves, because they are a microcosm of the way we write about and promote books… and as much as I look forward to the year-end lists, there is a downside to them.
The lists of best books are still woefully focused on literary fiction. This situation has improved slightly in recent years, with mysteries getting more coverage and historical fiction making an appearance (though usually only when it is lumped in with the literary). But science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, romance, urban fiction, domestic fiction, inspiratonal fiction, and poetry still receive little attention. In nonfiction, a similar argument could be made: Biographies, histories, popular science and books about current events take the bulk of spots on the annual lists while other subjects–humor, sports, travel, religion, and the multitude of how-to books to name just a few subjects–get little attention.
Why does this matter? It’s problematic in many ways. First, it leaves readers, library selectors, and others with little guidance in which books to try. That leaves us all more vulnerable to advertising as the prime way in which we find such books (or more often, don’t find these books.) Word of mouth works to some degree, and there are a few sources of specialized reviews, but hunting these down can be full-time work even for those in the know. The end result is that bad books, sometimes entire lines of bad books, persist and flourish while good books never make it out of the morass.
Second, it perpetuates the myth that these are junk genres, in which little is worth reading or discussing. While I won’t go so far as to argue that the average fantasy, romance, or action novel would work as well as the average literary novel for book group discussion, there are works in all of these genres that are worthy of readership and public attention.
Third, selective coverage retards improvement in writing in these genres and subject areas. In some of the genres I’ve mentioned it’s simply difficult to find enough reviews. In others, it’s difficult to find discerning reviews: It’s as if there is an unwritten code that all reviews must be positive and every book in the genre is of equal quality. In either case, that’s a shame. Quality should rise to the top, but instead name recognition and advertising drive sales and attention.
How do we solve this problem? I’m not sure. The conglomeration of the publishing and book-selling industries work against diversity and book review sections in the media are shrinking, not expanding. I wouldn’t want to see the attention to literary fiction diminish: Many obscure literary titles only find readership when touted in year-end lists. I’m simply arguing for expansion of coverage for other books.
I think our best hope resides in grass-roots writing like that appearing on Internet blogs. Supporting the sites of specialty reviewers and contributing your own opinions on under-represented books will help. Those who blog about under-represented books should consider joining forces: all of the lone-wolf writers are great, but it’s difficult for one reviewer to form an opinion about the best books of a given year. Book groups can make a conscious effort to occasionally select titles that are not marketed as “book group selections.” Publishers of genre fiction and under-reviewed nonfiction could help by putting less effort into copycat, lockstep publishing and more effort into distributing advanced copies to reviewers and readers.
Finally, for those looking for books in the underrepresented genres and subjects, I will put in a plug for myself and my cohorts: Talk to librarians and conscientious booksellers. Seek out the places where we write. As I compare lists of “best books,” I can tell you that those that come from people who work every day with a variety of readers naturally show more breadth in the books they include.
Please continue to read and enjoy those best of the year lists… I know I will. But as you read them, be aware of what isn’t there.