Friday, September 25, 2009

The Millions List: Judging the Judges

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.


Max said...

These are valid points. Regarding the makeup of the panel - it's true that there could have been much more diversity there, and if it had been logistically feasible, a much wider net would have been cast (this is part of why we did the readers poll).

But your criticism of the series and of (some of) the pieces within and of The Millions in general misunderstands what The Millions is all about.

Your characterization: "The Millions is, after all, a sort of young writers' network posing as a lit-crit blog." Thus is something we are actively and vocally not, and that's what I've been saying for years, since day one, essentially.

Many of us write, many of us have some kind of training in writing, but as it pertains to The Millions, quite a few of us have backgrounds working in bookstores, and our mission, consciously or not, comes out of that. The Millions exists to appreciate and to promote books - not specific books, but the idea of books and reading - and the conversation around books. I think this series fits very well with that mission.

This idea may seem facile to you and the crowd at "The Valve," but it is simply where we are coming from and there are quite a few readers out there who come at it the same way.

At any rate, I appreciate the comments.

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

Yeah, Andrew, I have to call foul on the little fillip at the end.

Many of these points are well-taken, and I appreciate your open-mindedness about the results. (I personally thought, Cloud Atlas? Really?) But when we publish further results you'll see that almost every ballot named only one of the top five - we had something like 150 books mentioned.

What we've presented is not a unified sensibility in the sense that everyone voted in lockstep, but rather in the sense that part of the effect of a poll like this is, almost by definition, to disclose a place where different sensibilities are unified.

The most heralded book only got a plurality of votes. Thus the point - and I think you picked up on this - was not to be definitive ("Millenium" is obviously, I would hope, tongue-in-cheek), but to start a conversation.

Another way of looking at this is: if we had fatter Rolodexes, the panel might have been more to your taste.

But again, "a sort of young writers' network posing as a lit-crit blog" is true on neither count (from my own, admittedly interested, perspective), as well as being a rhetorical dead-end. And I don't think "posing" is a useful, or in the end accurate, term for inter-blog discourse. I hereby forswear it.

bzzz said...

(I personally thought, Cloud Atlas? Really?)

I personally think, You consider The Corrections a better novel than Cloud Atlas? Really? Now I understand the phrase "There's no accounting for taste".

Rohan Maitzen said...

Max, I guess I'd just say, as one of "the crowd at 'The Valve'" who also reads and enjoys the posts at 'The Millions,' that I am enthusiastically in favor of the mission you describe. I think Andrew is suggesting--indeed, he says pretty directly--that he thinks "profs" could be a valuable part of that conversation because they too read a lot of books (and devote a lot of time to promoting them, if in a somewhat different way).

Also, at the risk of gushing a little on Andrew's turf, I would totally have voted for Fingersmith as one of the best of the millenium so far...

S. said...

The list is indicative of a certain aesthetic sensibility that is natural for the participants and the venue. Instead of calling this the “best” fiction, though, I think it would be more honest and appropriate to rename it “The Best Fiction That Has Been Reviewed in the New York Times” or something along those lines. It would account for the insularity and obviousness of the selections. This is not a jab at The Millions or its panel of judges in particular, but to the claustrophobic narrowness of M.F.A.-sponsored literature in the U.S.

Of the 20 books selected, I believe only 3 were translated into English. Yes, this is a far better percentage than the dreaded “3%” tag that we see so often, and yes, there are selections that represent the multicultural aspects of contemporary global culture, but doesn’t the absence of works written in “minor” languages upset anyone? I’m not of the camp that believes a translated book equals a “good” book (there are plenty of terrible books that get translated), nor do I think there is a certain ratio we should aim for in order to feel better about ourselves as readers, but where are the French? Where are the Romanians? Where are the Africans?

There’s a reasonable, if circular, argument that novels translated into English do not receive much coverage (because they are often published by small houses lacking the means to promote their books, and because “U.S. readers aren’t interested in translations”), making it difficult for readers to learn about these works. But is ignorance an excuse we can tolerate? There are a number of astonishing works written in the past decade that will likely come to define our era in a more significant way that a lot of the books on this list. I will not pick on particular choices; as Andrew writes, there is a fine line between “favorite” and “best.”

My hope is that The Millions, being the vehicle that it is, for better or worse, will somewhere down the line attempt to do a similar list that will expose its readers to a more global literature.

Andrew Seal said...

I'm glad you brought up bookstore employees--that's a category I didn't think to include. But then where are the bookstore owners or employees who aren't Millions contributors?

Okay, "posing" was mean. But increasingly over the past, say, year or two, I find the general image that The Millions offers of literary practice has become constricted and limiting. I mean, consider the titling of the post introducing the readers' list: "Best of the Millennium: Pros Versus Readers." What are most of the "Pros" professionals at? Writing fiction or creative non-fiction. And almost no other professional form of literary practice is represented adequately.

The literary world I get from reading your blog is that there are writers, who are professionals, and then there are readers, who are not professionals but who are passionate and engaged. I'm not—in italics—not saying that this is like the worst thing ever or will destroy reading or something. I am saying that it's missing out on the diversity of literary practice, and that doing so constructs some frustrating limitations which are evident from this list.

But I think you misunderstood me about the unity of the sensibility displayed: I didn't say that it was a consensus about what specific titles are "best," but about which forms (short story collections, hybrid fiction) are to be given special consideration. There are two short story collections on the readers' list (both falling in the bottom quartile), but five on the "pros" list. That's not a smoking gun of consensus, but that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that what accounts for the significant but not overwhelming difference is the writerly domination of the panel.

Also, I have to point out that your line about the size of your Rolodex is just absurd—this is the internet, most people's email addresses aren't very many clicks away. Especially most professors.

Back to Max,
I'm sorry, but I don't see how The Millions doesn't promote specific books. Features like your monthly list of top-sellers from your site, like the Most Anticipated lists—all these not only have a strong overlap with the same kinds of books (and in many cases, just the same books) as general industry promotion, but are also very much about singling out specific (new or hyped) books to promote.

Now, some other features I will grant you do a great job of promoting reading very broadly (which, by the way, I definitely don't think is a facile goal). I'd say the focus you've made for the Year on Reading as not bowing to the "tyranny of the new" was awesome. I think the "Ask a Book Question" is generally great. I loved Lydia Kiesling's from back when she was doing it on her own site. But I feel (and I'll acknowledge this may be purely subjective) that there is now much more of a conflict on the blog between these type of features and the features which very much are about promoting some specific books which are being singled out because they're new and hyped and by young writers, or are by the favorite writers of young writers.

And that's honestly fine. There are clearly a lot of people who find that very worthwhile and for good reasons. But I think that on an occasion like this, when you're making a bigger claim for what you're doing, more ought to be done.

Amateur Reader said...

Max - a more diverse panel was not "logistically feasible"? Are you joking? They have email in Germany now. Some other countries, too. Translators also have email.

Anonymous said...

I think people are understating the time and effort required to put together a poll like this. Sure, lots of email addresses are out there, but who, specifically, should they have contacted? Putting together a list of professors and translators who would make sense as panelists would have added another degree of difficulty to what strikes me as already a fairly large undertaking.

The other thing people seem to overlook is the way polls like this inevitably push certain common denominators, so to speak, to the top. I haven't been able to finish The Corrections, but I'm not surprised it showed up on enough lists to be #1. Less well-known books are inevitably going to suffer. I can't think of any obvious way to remedy this in a poll of this size. As a result, what's really being demonstrated is what books are regarded by the most of a certain group of people as "the best." That may sound idiotically obvious, but I think it's actually a worthwhile thing to find out.

Of course, it's also worthwhile to think about the group that's being polled, and in that regard, this post serves a worthy purpose. It overstates the case a little bit, though -- there are 7 or 8 panelists who are primarily critics, I think, and a few others who are primarily editors (and a lot of panelists who wear more than one hat). Young writers are, in fact, the largest group on the panel, but not the only one. (And at the risk of sounding snarky and ad hominem, the post has a whiff of "Why didn't they ask us (i.e., academics)?" about it, does it not? Which is fine, but I wouldn't dress up that complaint too extravagantly.)

-- PJ

PS. Oh, also, the semi-decent number of story collections struck me as a feature, not a bug. There should have been more -- like one of Aleksandar Hemon's, e.g. (Nowhere Man would be my choice, and is somewhere between a story collection and a novel).

Andrew Seal said...

According to the about page for The Millions, there are 11 active contributors, meaning that there could be considerable division of labor, and a much wider net.

And, while I don't think Nowhere Man is a short story collection, I'm with you on its deserving a great deal of consideration for a list like this--it was in the top 5 that I submitted as one of the non-pro "readers."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply, Andrew. Perhaps you're right about the division of labor. And classifying Nowhere Man is tricky... "story collection" doesn't sound right, it's true, but as I understand it, the different sections were not written as a single book in the manner of a novel. Great book, in any case.

-- PJ