The Most Popular Book Among Critics in 2013 Was…

Rachel Kushner's second novel dominated best-of-the-year lists like no other title

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Scribner
Scribner

It’s December, and along with the holiday preparations and the shortened days, this time of year brings with it the barrage of year-end lists. Over the past weeks, critics and editors from numerous publications have released their Top 10 and Best-of-2013 lists in which they share their favorite movies,TV shows, albums, songs, and books (among an array of cultural offerings) of the past year. (TIME, of course, is no exception.)

Just as a small number of films and TV shows can dominate best-of-the-year conversations, so too can a handful of books. And in the world of literary fiction, 2013 was no exception. While a quick glance at lists from some notable publications — including the New York Times Sunday Book Review, New York, The New Yorker, Guardian, Washington Post, the Daily Telegraph and TIME — promises a smorgasbord of fiction, one title appeared with remarkable consistency. That book? Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.

In fact, critics from all these publications, with the exception of Slate, placed Kushner’s second novel among their notable books of the year. (Though TIME did place The Flamethrowers in third place, behind Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and George Saunders’ Tenth of December, both of which also made a number of year-end lists.) The novel, as TIME executive editor Radhika Jones notes, “tells the story of Reno, a young woman striving for success in a man’s world of land-speed racing, the gritty 1970s New York art scene and (eventually) radical politics in Italy — three disparate settings brilliantly realized in Kushner’s vivid prose.”

Not every critic fell in love with the book. It’s worth noting that Flamethrowers sparked a literary skirmish only a few months ago. When Frederick Seidel at The New York Review of Books wrote a largely negative review of The Flamethrowers, Nicholas Miriello came to the novel’s defense in the Los Angeles Review of Books, calling Seidel’s review “gallingly condescending.” The clash itself then prompted writers from  other publications to weigh in. It’s no wonder that New York magazine noted in their recent profile of Kushner that The Flamethrowers was “probably the most heatedly discussed book of the year.”

An (almost) universally acclaimed novel that was also the subject of a lively critical debate? Sounds like a good read to us.