Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why You Should Take Yearend Best Books Lists With A Grain Of Salt

I admit it. Last year, I was somewhat obsessed with the yearend best books lists, keeping track of and tallying the short story collections mentioned by newspapers, magazines, booksellers, blogs, and Web sites as they came to my attention. Short story collections have done so well, on so many levels, in 2009 that I don't feel quite so compelled to trumpet these mentions. I expect short story collections to be well represented on these lists, given the quality and breadth of collections we've read so far this year.

The truth is, readers should take yearend lists with a grain of salt for several reasons:
  1. Newspapers and magazines only choose from among the books they review. And as far as short story collections go, they don't necessarily review very many of them.
  2. Certain books get more attention than others, and those books tend to make the lists. So a tally of short story collections (and all books) on yearend lists is as much a tally of buzz as of excellence.
  3. Good books get overlooked. For instance, I didn't see one of last year's finalists, Joe Meno's Demons in the Spring, on any 2008 list. Also, books published early in the year can be forgotten. I haven't seen any mention of Louise Erdrich's collected stories, The Red Convertible, which came out in January.
  4. It's a matter of taste. This may seem obvious, but some people give a lot of weight to the selections of, say, The New York Times. If you're a discerning reader, you're in as good a position to judge as any reviewer.
Of course the lists that matter most to me are the books we choose as finalists for The Story Prize in early January and the list of other notable books we cite (which we post shortly after we announce our finalists). We will have chosen those books out of 78 entered for The Story Prize, which is probably about two-thirds to three-quarters of the short story collections published in the U.S. in 2009. To a certain extent, that addresses points 1 and 2 above. But points 3 and 4 are still in play--any such choices come down to personal preference, and good books are often overlooked in any process.