Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Bored by the year’s best

Jean Hannah Edelstein is bored by this year’s lists of the year’s best books. Not even the controversy over the Publishers Weekly list was enough to shake her out of the doldrums, although she admits with a yawn that a list without even one woman is an act “bizarre discrimination.” (Rather than inadequate discrimination, of the literary kind.)

The New York Times has also released its annual list of the one hundred “notable” books of the year, which is slated to appear in Sunday’s Book Review. The editors were careful not to repeat Publishers Weekly’s mistake: twenty of the forty-five choices in the fiction category and thirty-four of the one hundred titles are by women.

Still, I sympathize ferociously with Edelstein. With three or four exceptions—William Trevor’s Love and Summer, my old friend Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver, Thomas Mallon’s elegy for the lost art of writing letters, and perhaps Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty, although I cannot imagine actually reading it—the books on the Times list bore me too. “A senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission assails the Bush administration’s depiction of the event as so much public relations flimflam.” Really? The Times finds this notable? How new! How different! The editors have the uncanny knack for making even a book by the always entertaining Christopher Buckley sound dreadful: “In its moments of real ambivalence, this loving and funny filial memoir of Bill and Pat Buckley is surprisingly strong drink.” I’ll pass, thanks: ambivalence gives me gas.

Last year about this time I pointed out why the annual lists of the year’s best books are worthless. But the point bears repeating. First, a calendar year is an arbitrary slice of time that bears no relation to what is happening in literature. Second, editors and critics are too close to the year’s books; they require at least a decade to separate the books worth rereading from those that need to be carted off to the Salvation Army.

Here, for example, are the Times’s “notable books” of fiction from exactly a decade ago. Several of the same authors appear: Paul Auster, Christopher Buckley, A. S. Byatt, Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Lethem, Valerie Martin, Jean Thompson, Sarah Waters, and Colson Whitehead. But except for Seamus Heaney’s Selected Poems, 1966-1996 and Ha Jin’s Waiting, not a single important book.

Edelstein says it best. Annual lists of the year’s best are a testament to the “bizarre discrimination” of editors and mainstream critics. Like candid snapshots, they capture literary orthodoxy in the act of pretending to be something it is not—informed and reliable literary judgment.


Amateur Reader said...

Hey, watch out, Human Voices is on that 1999 list! Although I couldn't argue that it's important - merely excellent.

Quibbling over a particular book makes no difference to your point. For the last two years, I have written year-end posts on The Best Books of the Year, 1807 or 1808, and I'll cover 1809 this year. My idea is much like yours - time is ruthless. After two hundred years, typically two or three books per year have survived, a half dozen at most. Why should our time be any different?

Chuck Smith said...

Human Voices was originally published in 1980.