The OF Blog: The dilemma of writing year-end lists

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The dilemma of writing year-end lists

In the 10 days or so, I'm going to begin writing a bunch of posts regarding my 2011 reading, with some concentration on 2011 releases.  Having done something in some form on this blog since 2004, it has become as much an obligation as it is an opportunity for reflection.  I am a surprisingly (at least to myself) conscientious reader in that I take note of what I've read and I look to see if there are any trends that span months or years.  Sometimes, the results of this self-searching are unexpected (like the precipitous drop in category SF/F books I've read over the past two years) while at other times there's nothing shocking (such as the number of non-English language books read usually ranges from 50-100 a year).

But the problem I face the most in writing out these observations is that it's hard to tell what my "core audience" is these days.  It was easy back in the 2004-2008 period, when I largely blogged about "core genre" works, particularly new releases.  But now, when the last fantasy-marketed book was read/reviewed in October and not many in that month or the preceding couple? 

Maybe that's an overly pessimistic view.  I know there will be very little to no overlap with what you might find on the more popular SF/F-oriented sites like The Wertzone (which I think is now the largest single-person SF/F blog I keep track of), Pat's Fantasy Hotlist, A Dribble of Ink, or others similar to them.  This is not a bad or good thing; it's just that my tastes are different from what I've seen covered on their blogs. 

What I have noticed in previous years is that some commentators who frequent multiple blogs seem to judge each blog's list by his/her previous familiarity with the books on it.  Using a hypothetical here, let's say a poster found Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear (a book I own but have not had the desire to read and likely won't this year) to be the best book, irrespective of literary genre, of the year.  If say Pat "ranks" the book as his 17th best book and Adam ranks it as his 5th (totally arbitrary numbers, mind you), that hypothetical poster might declare Pat's list to be garbage while praising Adam's, even if that were the only book on either list that this hypothetical poster had read.  Can you imagine the dismissals I might get when I not only admit that Rothfuss' book has not been read but that there will likely be very few, if any, "core genre" books on a possible Top 50 list (no, I'm not writing a list of that length; separate posts will cover the majority of the books that would appear on a top whatever list)?

Conversely, there are those hypothetical readers who hope that a particular reviewer's top whatever list will contain books they've only heard mentioned in passing, if at all.  Maybe that reader wants something different than Hack and Slash, vol. 20 and is willing to try Jesse Ball's The Curfew or Moacyr Scliar's Kafka's Leopards, for example.  Then maybe a top whatever list, or even better a series of related essays on books read, will intrigue that reader and get her/him to try some older fictions as well as new.  Perhaps one can read afresh Carl Sandburg's poetry or Sufi poetry. 

This of course brings the problem back full circle.  In order to attract any attention, a lot of effort has to be expended highlighting the likely "obscure" books, only for little notice to be taken by the majority of readers because they haven't heard of the books from their other, likely more favored, sources.  It truly is a dilemma in deciding how much effort should be spent highlighting works, as it sometimes takes the "trojan horse" approach of mixing the populist (and possible mediocre) in with the brilliant and likely obscure work.  One runs the risk of diluting the quality of the list.  Let's face it, if I were to have a list with Aimee Bender, Zoran Živković, Milorad Pavić, Thomas Ligotti, and Michael Cisco on it and then tossed in Terry Brooks and Terry Goodkind to make the list more recognizable to readers, the dishonesty in doing so would be so obvious to those who are at least vaguely aware of the first five readers that I would risk losing all credibility as a literary critic/reviewer.  Needless to say, if one were trying to sell books, it would be the heavy inclusion of the Ciscos of the world that would dampen bookseller confidence in promoting such a list.  Thus the world, like the worm, turns.

So what to do?  In my case, it'll be me writing a list for the "fortunate few" who might discover the authors I discuss long after their books are published.  Maybe there might be the odd decently-selling work on there (chances are decent one megaseller will be mentioned this year, something involving a city associated with a dragon), but almost certainly there will be a slew of books that defy easy categorization, except maybe for the epithet of "damn good book."  Hopefully, readers will be willing to pick up a few of the books I discuss that aren't being discussed heavily elsewhere.  But that's out of my hands, no?


Mike said...

roll on with the usual format. I get heaps out of each of your lists when they do appear. Most lists consist of the popular titles in some sort of order, because most listmakers can't read enough. You have solved that nicely ;)

Lsrry said...

Ha! Well, I can promise there will be more coverage of debut novels, collections/anthologies, and non-category fictions this year, so hopefully that'll be of some help to people.

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