This time of year we're flooded with round-ups and recommendations on everything from books to TV to holiday recipes. But every critic harbors biases, so how can we put any stock in their recommendations?
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The piles of books and galleys that clutter my apartment are overwhelming. This is not a humble brag—more of a cry for help. I’m a culture writer and critic who is deeply entrenched in the book world. I’m supposed to be the one to cut through the noise and locate the good stuff in this haystack of millions of pages of reading material using some special Spidey sense I guess you’re supposed to develop after writing more than your fair share of best-of lists. But the best I can usually do is relocate, moving a stack from the coffee table up against a bare wall and sometimes back again. I’ve read more than 100 books published in 2018, and that quantity barely makes a dent. It would be physically impossible to have a good grasp on the range of books that were published this year. Coincidentally, it’s the first year I’m not jealous of TV critics, who had a record 495 scripted shows to tackle.
In an age of algorithms and best-seller lists dominated by political gossip books, curation matters more than ever. If you find a critic you trust, whose taste aligns with yours, then a year-end list of her favorites can be a great tool. Having someone to guide you in your discovery of new books or films or music by offering their take on the “best” of the year is helpful as long as you remember that such lists are subjective as hell and arbitrary. They represent the state of mind or phase of life of the critic as much as they represent what is “good.” Personal taste is the key factor in making someone connect to art, whether they’re a critic or a civilian. So why are we so obsessed with year-end best-of lists?
The first time I ever stressed about writing a top-ten books list was for the Radcliffe Publishing Course welcome guide, which would be distributed when the course began. I, along with 99 other recent college grads, was going to spend a summer learning about the book industry and meeting future colleagues, hoping to find a job immediately afterward. My books selections had to say many things: that my English degree meant something (Middlemarch), that I had a sense of humor (Sweet Valley High #7) but I was serious (The Beauty Myth), that I read best-selling thrillers (The Alienist) as well as Important Works of Fiction (The God of Small Things).
The next important book list I made was for my OKCupid profile about ten years later. The only selling point of online dating was that I could create a perfect mix of the things I liked in culture that could represent my personality. Sign me up. I would be the “cool girl” even before Gillian Flynn defined it in such perfect detail (The Dirt by Mötley Crüe), I’d be dramatic yet woke (Giovanni’s Room), I’d be romantic (The Giant’s House) and wry (Lorrie Moore forever) but intellectual (Mating). And then there were signifiers for the men I’d stumble upon. If a man clearly hadn’t even considered adding a token female author to their favorites list, they were automatically bad news (that straight white male critics still need to be reminded to read women is even worse). Double negative points if their list included Important Literary Misogynists like Mailer, Bukowski, and Kerouac.
Then I began to do year-end lists on Tumblr, roundups of my favorite books I’d read that year, all with superlatives like Most Anti-Yolo Novel (Life After Life) and Most Horrifying (Going Clear) so readers would know I was being funny and wasn’t making judgment calls about what the best books of the year were. It was only later when freelance work became a significant chunk that I started to earn money for making lists and going deep into the tedium of composing year-end roundups. The Big Thought Pieces About Books I wanted to tackle in digital media performed only okay, but roundups are gold on platforms where SEO clicks were driving assignments.
If you are reading this and you’re an author who published a book in 2018, I apologize. I would tell you not to bother scrolling through lists to see if your name appears or not, but I would never expect you to listen to me. If you feel compelled to look at every user review you receive on Goodreads, who am I to tell you not to? I understand wanting to know. But just a reminder: I have read 100 books published in 2018, and still haven’t gotten around to at least half of the books that continue to show up as critical consensus titles.
Here were my personal hangups of this year: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and trying to feel some affirmation from society about remaining childless, and I can think of at least seven or eight highly lauded books about parenthood I’ve avoided for this simple reason. Other self-imposed blind spots: books about illness, realistic young adult fiction, whatever Karl Ove Knausgaard is doing. I absolutely refused to read any current events books about American politics. My biases are unique to me, and I’m not even a part of the mass of (straight white male) critics devoted to upholding a canon that still favors straight white men above all else. We are all biased in our own particular ways–therefore the “best” means something different to each and every one of us.
In the meantime, I’ve been recommending books to individual people on Twitter, and although I often refer to my own best-of lists because they’re a way of keeping track of what I’ve read, very few people care about which book was the best of 2018. The questions I get seem to be more helpful ways to categorize books: “What’s a big, long novel that I can get lost in?” “Who is writing the absolute best sentences these days?” “What nonfiction can I read about inspiring women from the past?” I’m not sure that thematic recommendations will ever supplant year-end best-of lists in terms of numbers of clicks. But in terms of meaningful ways in which to talk about books, they’re likely to be way more satisfying.
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