Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Best-Smeller' Lists: Should You Turn Your Nose Up At 'Top-Ten' Abuse?

As a book reviewer, I’m always being asked to rate my top 10 books for the year, for the century, for all time. People seem to have an insatiable desire to read about top lists. For example, the Telegraph has just published a list of the 25 most influential books in world literature.

In The Guardian this week, John Curran gives us his top 10 Agatha Christie Mysteries. The British periodical even has a whole page of top 10s, including top 10 psychological journeys, top 10 books about outsiders, women poets, short novels, books set in Japan, even smelly books.

It isn’t only The Guardian, though it does it particularly well, using well respected authors to create lists that tie in with their own genres and themes. For years Mark Flanagan, over at About, has been creating a range of literary lists from his annual top ten books of that year, to the top ten best novels of the century, top ten contemporary authors or top ten holiday books. The ABC has the Australian top ten, the New York Times does it every year (as does almost everyone else), and Barnes & Noble does it every day. There’s even a book solely devoted The Top Ten. (How about top ten books about top ten lists and so on and on?)

It’s easy enough to come up with a list, and as an author, I could be forgiven for desperately wanting to be included on one of these lists (with the exception of most smelly), as I’m sure they’re excellent for sales. But are they worthwhile? Do they have a function other than to guide readers towards specific books in bookstores? I can see the pros and cons. On the pro side, they call attention to what ought to be quality-based work in a crowded market. Readers who aren’t sure what to buy can use this as a guide, especially if they trust or have similar taste to the compiler. Just print, bring into Borders, and bang, your Christmas shopping is done.

On the con side, any list is both subjective (like, I have to admit, a review), and exclusionary. My top ten is not only limited to what has come into my view, but also limited by the time and place in which I pull the list together, and by the need to limit the number I choose. Even when I have created such lists (and I have to confess that I even have one of those “so you’d like to..” lists on Amazon), there are always great books I’ve just forgotten to include. And there must be thousands of wonderful books I’ve never heard of, or heard of but never read.

That said, I’m sure the next time I’m asked what I think were the best books of 2009, or the ten best young adult books, or the best literary fiction of all time, I’ll be ready and eager to share my list. I may also go and have a look at The Guardian’s list of lists the next time I’m looking for new authors to read – after all, if it’s good enough for Cormac McCarthy, it’s probably good enough for me. But my list won’t be comprehensive. None are.

1 comment:

  1. Busy people want to be told what to think. That's even true of highly intelligent people who are perfectly capable of forming independent judgments. Consider the CEO who has no time for analysis. Same situation.

    The fact that they ask you means they respect your opinion!