Possible Impossible: Best-of Book Lists

Jeff VanderMeer • February 12th, 2010 @ 11:48 am • Book Reviews

It’s raining here in Tallahassee, and it’s cold–in a word, narsty. Bearlike and grumbly, I’m about to go back into my hidey-hole soon and resume reading for our collosus of a weird fiction anthology for Grove Atlantic, soon to disembowel or set aside for snacking later many dozens of stories—and likely still grumbly. Picking the best meals from so many world-class cooks is almost an overload to the senses.

Meanwhile, though, a few notes on recent best-of lists of mine that’ve run on Omnivoracious and Locus Online.

The Best of 2009 Locus Online

I’ve written year’s best fantasy/SF/horror articles for Locus Online on and off for several years. Sometimes I pass on doing them because I don’t believe that I’ve read enough in the field for my opinion to be worth setting down on paper. One’s reading will always be incomplete, but you reach a point where you either feel you had a good grasp of what was going on or you didn’t. If you don’t, you shouldn’t attempt this sort of thing, or do so with massive caveats. This past year, I was fully engaged with genre fiction, in part because I wasn’t writing much fiction myself. So I’ve written a Locus Online year’s best, which has just been posted. It’s my longest to date, and it’s still not as complete as it could be, but that’s the nature of the job. (A piece soliciting opinions on best books in other countries may be posted on Locus later or on this blog.)

I have a couple of guiding principles in composing this kind of article. The first is that friends are just going to have to know I still love them even if I don’t mention their books. The second is divulging any potential conflicts of interest upfront. The third is mentioning any potential constraints. In my case, I just didn’t get to much YA or much urban fantasy, so it would be absurd to try to cover those categories. Every time you contribute a year’s best list, too, you’re consigning consideration of your own books to the dustbin.

The Locus article augments and expands upon my official Amazon SF/F Top Ten of the Year. Although I very much like my Amazon list, the early deadline for it meant I hadn’t finished my reading for the year.

The Best of the Decade

If a year’s best list is a kind of “possible impossibility,” then a decade’s best list is a fool’s errand, an absurdity, sometimes even an atrocity. I have seen decade lists with nothing on them from 2000 through 2005. I have seen decade lists weighted down with books from 2009. I have seen decade lists corpulent with the quivering fat of over-hyped books I am pretty sure will be footnotes sooner rather than later. I have seen decade lists supersaturated with one particular kind of fiction. In short, I haven’t seen much in terms of decade lists that I thought was comprehensive, level-headed, or fair.

This led me to the inescapable conclusion that creating best-of-decade lists is incredibly difficult. For this reason, when posting my own decade list on Omnivoracious, I decided my process would simply be this: I would write down all of the books that truly delighted or awed me over the last decade. I would help out my pathetic excuse for a memory by going back over blog posts and reviews I’d done. I’d keep the list under 20, not discriminate by type, and not have too many from the last couple of years. I resigned myself to the fact that, on another day, at a different time, I might come up with a very different list, and didn’t let this worry me.

I also decided to leave off the list anything I had what I would call “intimate knowledge” of—those books, usually published within genre, that I’d had some kind of hand in. I wanted a kind of readerly innocence of the inner workings of the sausage factory to inform my list. Because, as noted previously, this isn’t anything approaching a scientific process, and it can’t be. The resulting list has a purity and eccentricity to it that I like, and there’s not a book on it that didn’t delight or awe me.

Personally, I think everyone should post a list of the books that delighted or awed them over this past decade, without pretending it’s anything definitive.

Looking Forward to 2010

I’m not sure if my reading in genre fiction will be as wide and varied in 2009 as in 2010—several book projects may make that impossible—but I enjoyed two books already this year. The first is, to my mind, a sure-fire instant classic: The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen, which I reviewed for the LA Times. The second is N.K. Jemisin’s very accomplished The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms–I just interviewed her for Omnivoracious. I suggest you seek out both novels.

4 Responses to “Possible Impossible: Best-of Book Lists”

  1. Hellbound Heart says:

    i’m seriously considering a career change so i can accommodate all of the books that i want to read……teacher to night security person……sounds promising…..

    peace and love…..

  2. Nemone says:

    I have to second the “Career Change Project” plan.I could be a profesional cat-sitter!
    so many books ! to be added to the many books on my many TBR lists and to the ones on the book towers around my bed.pleasure-panic-pleasure-panic….such conflict.I’ll better get back to the reading, then.I just got some of the few Kage Baker’s that i hadn’t read.So much more precious, now that she’s gone to the Great Library Up Above. I’m not rushing through those.They are being rationed.

  3. Paul Riddell says:

    Hellbound, I’m glad your reading list is so small. I’m at the point where not only do I need to discover a cure for sleep AND clone myself four times in order to go through my “to read” pile, but I’ve now hit the bane of all nonfiction enthusiasts. Namely, the only way I’m going to find books on several topics is by writing them myself. (And those who know me can understand why those last four words are so sickening to the public at large.)

  4. Juan Nordahl says:

    Is it just me or did this submit strike a cord with others. Keep writing this and I’ll be again.

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