Best Of Lists, Part I

It’s late December and that means the so-called experts are inundating us with “best of” lists. Interesting people publish some of these lists, but half-wits who are really nothing more than glorified celebrities publish the majority of them. Does anyone really care what New Yorker magazine or the Wall Street Journal considers the year’s best movies or books? The truth is that at this time of year we suffering from “best of” fatigue. This fatigue is compounded by the fact that the Internet has turned every Tom, Dick, and Harry into a would-be critic. Those who claim that the Internet has turned criticism into a more democratic practice are only partially correct. To be sure, there are some people out there who provide an interesting and informative point of view on culture and politics. However, for every thoughtful critic there are hundreds, and I mean hundreds of thoughtless, self-serving “critics” that have now found a forum from which to launch their rather pedestrian views.

But perhaps the problem is really with me. I’ve never liked best of lists, and I like awards shows even less. These always seem to remind me of high school personality contests where the best sellers or the films that made the most money come out on top, just as the biggest suck ups were the most popular in high school. I write with the full realization that I risk the possibility of coming off as a bitter, unpopular hack that writes and publishes his own blog, which means that I have failed to break into the New Yorker market. Perhaps this is true, but every piece of writing, whether it is a review, op-ed, a piece of investigative journalism, or a novel or film, is a bit self-serving. When we are writing we are always, in some way, writing about ourselves.

Best of lists are only remotely interesting. One of the best books of the year, in my opinion, is Vladimir Nabokov’s play The Tragedy of Mister Morn, which has gone missing from most best of lists. The same can be said for Italo Calvino: Letters, a book that is every bit a masterpiece as most of his novels. But a writer like Junot Diaz, who is a good writer but not a great one, shows up on nearly all of them. The same can be said of Zadie Smith. Even writers of merit like Thomas Pynchon, whose latest novel The Bleeding Edge made the New York Times Bestseller List for a week or so, and was also nominated for a National Book Award has made a lot of lists this year. As a fan of Mr. Pynchon’s fiction, I read The Bleeding Edge as soon as it was published but immediately failed to see its “greatness.” It’s a mildly interesting book that becomes tiresome after the first twenty pages.

Nevertheless, best of lists continue to be a staple of end of the year commentary. Perhaps it’s just another way of taking stock of the year gone by, perhaps it’s the practice of self-congratulation, or perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Whatever the case, we should all take best of lists with a grain of salt. True, the cultural works that were produced in the last year do represent a kind of snap shot of that year, but in most cases I hardly think that most of the works that end up on these lists represent the best culture has produced. Please tell me that Miley Cyrus, Nicolas Sparks, and the guys from Duck Dynasty do not represent the best we have to offer.

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