Behind the List: The Making of TIME’s Top 10 Books of the Year

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Or 20, really, since we do 10 novels and 10 non-fiction books.

There are years when I’m absolutely burning to put up my top 10 lists, like I want to chisel them on a tablet and come down a mountain with them and proclaim them to the people. And then there are years when after the first three or four I end up just listlessly shuttling nominees on and off the list, and wondering what exactly ennui means and whether or not I’m feeling it.

This is one of those years. The second kind.

Not that I write TIME’s entire list. It’s a collaboration with a few different writers and editors here. But I have a part in it, and I give that part a lot of thought.

You want to put some rigor into the process. I go back through all my reviews for the year, but more importantly I go through everything I’ve read this year, and I patch the most conspicuous holes. I go through a year’s worth of publishing catalogs and on-sale calendars and New York Times book reviews. I scan the early top 10 lists that the publishing trade magazines put out — Publishers Weekly and Kirkus have already posted theirs. Amazon has one too.

It’s a simple exercise really, making a list, but it’s surprisingly hard to hang on to a feeling of good faith while you’re doing it. After all you can’t read everything. And there are writers to whom I’m just congenitally allergic (cough, Murakami, cough), but whom people I love and esteem happen to love and esteem, which leads me to doubt my own instincts. Maybe they’re broadcasting something amazing that’s just on a wavelength I can’t pick up.

You want to preserve at least a semblance of biodiversity, too, so you tinker with the balance of the list. For example: two great, dark, violent epic fantasy novels were published this year, Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes and George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons. They’re both triple-A examples of the genre, but for the sake of diversity they can’t both go on the list. (This is also to compensate for my known bias in favor of fantasy novels.)

There are apples-to-oranges problems: how do you compare the moody, seedy greatness of a Kate Atkinson novel with a cerebral wreck like David Foster Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King (which so far, to my surprise, I’ve seen on exactly zero top 10 lists). You need to break those books down to some level on which they have a common denominator, but what that level is I don’t know. I was never that good at fractions.

There are unclassifiable works of genius like Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, based on the webcomic, which has to go on some list somewhere, but which and where it’s hard to say. And there are the big books that you know you should love but which you only like. I’m thinking of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which I tried and failed to swoon for, though it’s not fair to single that one out. There are lots of them. You look at them, and you read the raves, and you wonder why you don’t see what the other critics see. Or is it me who sees what they don’t see? Is the culture broken, or am I?

Or is criticism broken? Maybe top 10 lists (which some people claim were invented right here at TIME magazine) are the problem. The novel is a highly corrupt medium, after all — in the end the vast majority of them simply aren’t that great, and are destined to be forgotten. Lots of noise, very little signal. But a lot of grade inflation goes on in literary reviewing, which confuses matters — basically everything that has complete sentences in it gets called an instant classic by somebody.

How many years really see the publication of 10 novels that are actually great? People — me included — want to get excited about books. Good books are a good thing. But it would be a useful exercise for someone to try to figure out whether there has ever been a year in the history of Western culture in which 10 great novels were published.

p.s. Maybe there has. Look at 1925. Albertine disparue (Proust); An American Tragedy (Dreiser);The Counterfeiters (Gide); Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos); The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald); The Making of Americans (Stein); Manhattan Transfer (Dos Passos); Mrs. Dalloway (Woolf); The Professor’s House (Cather); The Trial (Kafka). It was a very good year.

(Editor’s note: Not to pile on with the lists and all, but…)

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