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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Books Of The Year

30 December 2017

From The Cardiff Review:

When we talk about “Books of the Year”, what we most often mean is, “Of the few books I read this year, I enjoyed the following…”

Or: when a writer is doing the choosing, I assume they mean, “Here are the books which I enjoyed and were written by people I know—and it would be awkward/rude of me not to mention them.”

Having benefited from having my book on these end-of-year lists in 2015 and ’16, I feel compelled to state that—in the majority of cases—I happened to know the writers who put me on these lists. In the past, when asked for my Books of the Year, I’ve likewise listed some books written by people that I know. In other cases, I’ve omitted books that I liked because of the very fact I knew the author and felt that if I mentioned their book, it would seem like a direct slight to other authors whom I knew but whose books I hadn’t yet read, or whose books I had read but didn’t want to recommend. 

. . . .

I am under-read, and my reading is very rarely up-to-date. So when I’ve been asked to choose Books of the Year in the past, I’ve done so with a heavy dose of guilt—namely because in the rare instances I have a read a book in its year of publication (which always feels too soon, really) it’s more often than not because I now know the author, or because I’ve been put on a panel with them, or because I’ve been a judge on a prize.

. . . .

I think the context of my recommending is further misleading, because:

a) it suggests that I think these books are the best books of the past year; and

b) by extension, it suggests that I have read many, many books published this year, and am thus in a position to make this kind of judgment; and

c) by further extension, it assumes that such a judgement is even possible or helpful—and, indeed, that I believe I’m rightly qualified to make such assertions

I am not naive enough to think that the writing industry can exist outside of the machinations of capitalism, but I do think these kind of lists are in a ragged service to a skewed, misguided market-logic whereby literary “product” values are something measurable and commensurable—and inherently related to newness.

. . . .

And once the year passes, the media—more or less—tells us that a book has had its time (unless it happens to win an award the following year) and so onwards we go to the next year, onwards we go to the next pile of books. Onwards! The march of progress waits for no one! 

But outside of the book industry itself, who gives a crap when a book was published?

Link to the rest at The Cardiff Review

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