Wednesday, September 30, 2009

lists

Edmond Caldwell on Contra James Wood has a piece on The Millions' new Top 20 list for the new millennium.

I think EC has slightly missed the problem.

I got an email a while back from The Millions asking me to nominate my top 5 books for the new millennium, with the following constraints: they must be fiction, they must be available in English. The idea was, The Millions would then tabulate all votes and come up with a top 20.

So. If some of the most interesting writing I've read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can't mention it - it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal. Also, if I've read someone brilliant in a language other than English - someone who hasn't happened to sell English-language rights - I can't mention that either. So I can't use this to give interesting writers a better chance of attracting notice and getting an English-language book deal, I just have to endorse the status quo.

Well, let's say I play the game and I just pick 5 novels published in English since 2000; I might still think this was a chance to draw attention to undeservedly neglected writers. Fact is, it can't work that way.

The only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.

On these terms, the only book I can think of that stands a chance of making the cut is Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang - which, as it happens, didn't get onto the list. Possibly because it never did get my vote, because I thought this was silly.

Something that would not have been silly would have been to let people nominate whatever they wanted, and then publish two things:

1. The top 20 list on the original criteria

2. A list of ALL nominations, with the names of the people who put them forward.

We might expect, after all, that writers would read more widely than the general public; we might expect the most interesting contributions to be, precisely, all the nominations that only a handful put forward. The amount of weight we gave to such nominations would, unsurprisingly, be governed by what we thought of the individuals who made them.

(But. You know. Someone is WRONG on the Internet...)

5 comments:

Anthony said...

Sight & Sound judiciously follows your advice: http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/

But. If you have the time and inclination to fine-tooth each top10, you'll notice post-2000 (hell, post-Raging Bull) may as well not have happened. Good or bad, that's what ends up with such broad canons.

Edmond Caldwell said...

These are excellent points -- I wish I'd made them! (And I have no higher compliment in my quiver).

"If some of the most interesting writing I've read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can't mention it - it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal."

I hadn't considered these other venues for writing, which shows that in some ways I'm as (hide)bound to the traditional "prestige" book-form as the institutions I'm supposedly criticizing.

I see us, though, as addressing the same ultimate problem in different but complementary ways. You write that,

"The only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of."

and I say Yes! Yes! And what accounts for that prior restriction of the field, such that playing the List Game always ends up, as you point out, entailing a Heads-You-Win-Tails-I-Lose endorsement of the status quo? It's got to have something to do with the black-hole gravity of that Bertelsmann-Holtzbrinck-Viacom-Rupert Merdedoch-Disney Death Star!

jacob said...

What would be your top five books of the millenium, without the restraints?

Andrew Seal said...

Helen,

Looking around the web at some of the sites belonging to the folks who did contribute to The Millions list, I notice that none of them have published their individual lists (and now The Millions have published a list of all the titles nominated, but without attribution). Was there some stipulation that contributors could not reveal their own lists?

If so, I can fully understand why you might not wish to participate, but if not, I don't really see the harm in playing along, knowing that people will get to see your choices, and in the hope that a couple of other judges share your passion for at least one book. The number of judges isn't so large that it would be impossible for a book with three or four votes to sneak into the top twenty--according to The Millions, there were only 35 books that received multiple votes (the 20 on the list plus the fifteen on the Honorable Mentions list).

Helen DeWitt said...

I like the Sight and Sound approach.

I don't have a list to hand of best writing since 2000; drawing one up did not look like a good use of time.