'Tis the season for judgment. What are the best books of the year? This is the burning question a majority of media outlets -- from talk shows to hometown newspapers to blogs -- believe needs to be answered. Not surprisingly, the mega-publishing houses lobby for their books with the muscle of the Weinstein boys working over Oscar voters -- getting "big," "important" books on the list that often overshadow some of the smaller, better work. I find the whole process warped yet can't look away.
Why do we feel a deep urge to order? Why does every critical organ want to put their stamp of approval on the past year's books? It's a curious thing to rank "books" as if all two hundred thousand plus books published last year should, or could be judged, lined up, shoulder to shoulder, palms up for inspection to determine their "bestness." Where do you even begin? Raw numbers? Like Barnes and Nobles with their list of the top 100 bestsellers of the year? I cringed as I opened the page, anticipating red-and-blue-state red-meat rants and I-heart-the-apocalypse novels, but there are some surprisingly good books on the list, from the latest Harry Potter at #1 to David McCullah's 1776 at #4 and Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner at #9. Sure, #2 (James Frey's illiterate memoir A Million Little Pieces) and #3 (Mehmet Oz's You, the Owner's Manual; An Insider's Guide to the Body That Will Make You Healthier and Younger), are head-scratching, but raw numbers have nothing to do with critical success, or shouldn't.
The New York Times does a yearly Notable Books with the 100 books that make their grade. Those not chosen -- let's call them "the un-notables" -- are seemingly doomed to the ashbin of history. Being on the notable list is something like making it past the velvet rope into a very exclusive club. And like any exclusive club, there is the VIP room, which is "The Ten Best Books of 2005." Fiction and non-fiction co-mingle here, with an emphasis on gravitas, with Haruki Murakami, Joan Didion, Mary Gaitskill, and Zadie Smith deservedly strut into the club within the club.
Naturally, the list is cause for much sniping and grousing in the literary world. Poets, in particular, often feel slighted by mainstream coverage, and here it is no exception. The poet Ron Silliman, in his excellent all-things-poetry blog, takes a close look at the Times's notable list, as well as lists from years past to reveal the not-that-surprising pattern of favoring a few well-known poets and publishers. In the lit world, everyone looks to the lists to see if their friends and enemies have made the cut. There's great schadenfreude when an enemy's hyped book is snubbed, and even greater joy when the book is labeled a "loser" in year-end book business articles on "winners and losers."
It's always a pleasant surprise to find an underdog you like on someone's list, like Steve Almond's Candy Freak as a choice for Book Sense, a collective for independent bookstores. I look to the Village Voice's top 25 list for books that are way, way off the radar. You know there's going to be a Dennis Cooper novel on the list, whether he has published one during the year or not, but how about Afflicted Powers, by an author named Retort? The Voice's description of the book begins: "It starts with a rebarbative proposition." Right.
Fimoculus offers up links to 49 different "best books" lists, and the noise from all this clamoring to make it into the great publishing publicity machine can be deafening. It seems there is a lot of canceling out going on -- Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking makes nearly every list, but why does this not leave room for Marjorie William's equally affecting posthumous essay collection Woman at the Washington Zoo? Ishiguru and Murakami also make most lists, but does that mean that these two heavy novels leave no room for the National Book Award-winning novel Europe Central by William Vollmann? Is Curtis Sittenfeld's debut novel really one of the ten best books of 2005 according to the Times? Or is it filling the best debut slot the paper thinks needs filling, a reflection of the publishing industry's -- and our society's -- obsessions with the next young hot thing?
Does Mary Gaitskill's dark, smart novel Veronica eliminate all other smart female writers? Is she the one? What about Lydia Millet's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, or Julia Slavin's Carnivore Diet? A surprise on many lists is Kelly Link's first story collection Magic For Beginners, from the indie publisher Small Beer Press. Which I will definitely check out. Not because it made so many lists -- I don't tend to read anything unless someone I know or respect presses it on me, and big deal it won some awards -- but because Laura Miller, an excellent, incisive critic whose sensibilities I tend to share, picked it for Salon"s list.
Similarly, I love reading Artforum"s top ten lists which has various artists and critics listing their favorite cultural moments of the year, be it in art, film, books, media, or public spectacle. This seems more in keeping with reality -- most people do not read based on a calendar. And it is generally too early to judge a book's greatness months after its publication. It may hit a zeitgeist wave, it may be pushed by a great publicity onslaught, but how does it stand up to rereading and to the test of time? Let me know in ten years what the best books of 2005 are. For now I'll stick to Proust and wait for my friends to press their favorites on me.