The Millions has collated a list of the "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" by asking "48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics" as well as their own contributors to submit a list of their picks.
As with most immediately-contemporary lists like this, it is difficult to tell where "favorite" ends and "best" begins—many of the individual responses belong somewhere in between. Actually, that's not entirely true. A number of the responses are purely, simply gushers.
The inclusions and placements of the list are not really worth quibbling about, and itemizing the good books that were left off is about as easy as falling off a log. I'm not really interested in specifics, because there's a much bigger issue which the list raises: if ordered lists like this must exist, to whom should we be listening to fill them?
First of all, I just want to point out that, of 56 total contributors, it looks like 39 are writers of either fiction or creative non-fiction, or about 70%. And the majority of those are at a fairly early point in their career. This list is heavily shaped by that ridiculous preponderance of a single class. There are only three regular newspaper or magazine book critics (one of whom is Laura Miller, who should count as about a -4. So we're down to -1 book critics). There are two publishers.
And there are solid reasons why these classes might be better judges of something like this exercise. For one thing, I imagine book critics and publishers have to read a lot more fiction than a writer does, simply by virtue of the fact that it is their job. Secondly, they probably read a lot more different kinds of fiction than a writer does, again, simply because they're required to. Personally, I'd be a lot more interested in what Janet Maslin (or the employees of, say, Riverhead Press) thinks are the best books of the past decade than what Yiyun Li liked. Maslin must read a ton and in all kinds of genres. I think her idea of what the fiction of the past ten years is like must be a lot richer and more comprehensive than the piecemeal reading that most of us (including writers) pursue.
Additionally, as far as I can tell, every single judge is U.S.-based, and if that is not the case, then it's pretty darn close. More significantly, perhaps, all or almost all have been educated in the U.S. People have already pointed to a lack of works-in-translation, but that's not a problem that's going to be remedied just by including a few more 'globally aware' Americans. And the reason for that isn't just that we should be seeing more non-Anglophone fiction on the list, but because it might be interesting to hear what Anglophone fiction interests people in non-Anglophone countries.
Thirdly, there are no professors of literature among the judges. There are teachers of creative writing, but nobody who is in the employ of the university to teach, research, and publish on literature. I am getting the feeling that the lit-blogosphere isn't the friendliest environment in which to make this argument, but profs might have something interesting to say about the contemporary novel, and some have even done extensive research on it.
The writer-heaviness of the list accounts, I think, for the high number of short story collections included. I have my own opinions of the relative merit of story collections to novels, but suffice it to say that I find writers' rapturous passions over a competent short story to be a little overheated. The "ZOMG every word is perfect" aesthetic just grates on me. Sorry.
The writer-heaviness also, I think, accounts for why so many of the works included are of the hybrid variety—"literary fiction" that cleverly incorporate genre (SFF, thriller) elements—while there are so few (actually none) books which are actually categorized as genre fiction. Writers who practice this boundary-crossing (while keeping a strong "literary fiction" audience) are simply the most empowering models for aspirant writers: an ambitious young writer would be a fool not to like them. These hybrid books suggest the extent of a writer's powers (crossing or playing with genre boundaries is assumed to be a proof of the writer's talent and imagination) while also instructing on how to rein that power in before falling all the way into genre. "You can play with reality," these books say, "and if you do it like me, you can still be shelved in a respectable location in Barnes and Noble."
I'm not, let me repeat, saying that any of the choices made for this list are unworthy or stupid or "bad." What I'm saying is that they have been shaped by a strongly unified sensibility with almost no opportunity for alternative sensibilities to intrude. I find the stunning lack of diversity in background of the panel of judges disappointing, but not terribly surprising: if the list is really a "young writers' favorites" posing as "critics' measured judgments" that is probably right—The Millions is, after all, a sort of young writers' network posing as a lit-crit blog.
Edit: The Millions has also posted the results of a readers' poll. I did participate in it through Facebook (why not, right?), although only one of my choices made it—Gilead, at #9.
Edit (9/27): Rohan has posted her own list and thoughts, as has Matt at Las obras de Robertro Bolaño.