By February 5, 2011 2 Comments Read More →

“Best of the Year”: A Critique

A new update to my 2010 Megalist, the compilation of all the major best-of-the-year lists and award winners into one spreadsheet, will be posted early next week. Compiling this list for the last three years has given me a unique perspective on how the business of selecting the best books works. When you’re reading one of those lists, are you really getting the very best of the book world? Well, yes and no…

1) SUCCESS BREEDS SUCCESS

To get on a best-of-the-year list, the first hurdle that a book must navigate is to garner enough interest to be read during the year of its first publication. To put it simply, if a book doesn’t get publicity, it won’t be read by enough of the literati to get on many lists. Books that receive major buzz–Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, or the last entries in the highly touted series by Stieg Larsson and Suzanne Collins, for instance–have a big leg up on the competition. Often, such books deserve the love they receive, but wise readers will also watch for books that have not had massive publicity but still appear on multiple lists.

2) GENRE FICTION IS STILL A GHETTO FOR REVIEWERS

Working as a librarian, it’s my experience that among readers, the stigma against genre fiction is dying. Readers embrace crime fiction and thrillers, grab historical fiction quickly, and love, or will at least occasionally try, works of fantasy or science fiction. 

The last bastions of genre snobbery, however, are the ranks of reviewers for major media outlets. They’ll read (and praise) genre work marketed to them as literary fiction. This year, for instance, there are many mentions for Emma Donoghue’s Room, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, or Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. But genre works marketed as genre works–books like Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, Lee Child’s 61 Hours, Connie Willis’s duology All Clear and Blackout, or N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms–rarely receive their attention. Reviewers for major newspapers and booksellers, unless they are genre specialists, don’t seem to read these books and certainly don’t review them. Are these genre works the best books of the year? Maybe, maybe not, but there are enough high-quality works in the mainstream of genre writing to merit a few more mentions on those long notable book lists.

3) BEING STRANGE AND EDGY HELPS… IN CERTAIN QUARTERS

A significant subset of reviewers seem to be under the impression that their best-of-the-year lists will not be credible unless they unearth a hidden gem. While this has its place, sometimes one gets the sense that these folk are trying too hard to demonstrate their credentials as culture warriors. Their advocacy of the unusual might be more convincing if it looked as if they ever tried anything usual. If you’re a fan of international writers with an avant-garde style, minimalist short story specialists, cutting-edge causes celebre, metafictional riddles, or trippy philosophical noodling, you’ll be well-served by such lists. If your taste runs more toward the mainstream (or if you’re trying to pick something that will fly in a book group), you may have to look elsewhere.

These are just a few of many elements that decide how often a book will make the year-end lists. When it was published in the year, whether or not it is part of a series, which press published it, and the writer’s country of origin also make a difference. (English writers, for instance, get a nice boost because of the many major British media outlets). Certain nonfiction subjects (this year the fiscal crisis is hot, taking attention back from the Iraq and Afghanistan titles of the last few years) get more attention than others. Biographies, memoirs, and history appeal to a broad slate of readers and thus get more mentions.

What conclusion is to be drawn? Just remember that individuals (and usually just one or two) are behind the selection of books at even the largest media outlets. Their lists reflect their reading experience and personal tastes. For the best result, find lists created by readers with tastes similar to yours, and take the others with a grain of salt. If you love a particular genre or subject, look for specialty lists and awards produced by those who know those parts of the literary world. And keep checking in with the Megalist. It’s far from perfect, but it might help you find the forest in an endless sea of trees!

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

2 Comments on "“Best of the Year”: A Critique"

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  1. “The last bastions of genre snobbery, however, are the ranks of reviewers for major media outlets.”

    And MFA Programs–faculty and students alike.

    Great analysis. Thanks.

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