The Goodreads Choice Awards — now in its 10th year — is a massive literary contest, drawing from a membership of 80 million users. (Goodreads is owned by Amazon.com, whose CEO, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) It rivals PBS’s “The Great American Read,” which this fall attracted more than 4 million votes to determine the all-time favorite work of fiction in the United States. The winner in that contest, you may recall, was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but No. 2 — let this sink in — was Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series, a fantasy-romance about a time-traveling World War II nurse in love with an 18th-century Scotsman.
Popularity contests like this are easy for book critics to dismiss, but they serve an important function: They confirm our superiority. As hoi polloi gobble up cheesy romances and corny thrillers, guardians of the literary flame rest assured that they’re playing the long game, investing in the future of great art.
If we’re honest, though, we devotees of obscure literary fiction should confess to deeply rooted anxiety about the standards of literary taste, about the validity of critical judgment and especially about our own relevance. It’s why we’ve been yammering on about the essential contribution of our insights at least since Matthew Arnold published “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” in 1865. Like faithful adherents in some millennialist cult, we wait, assured of our reward in literary heaven. Till then, we scoff at James Patterson’s multiple spots on the bestseller list. We roll our eyes at Oprah. We mock the wisdom of crowds.
And, traditionally, the crowds mock us: the effete brainiacs, the absurd eggheads, the mad scientists. “Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion,” the critic A.O. Scott once wrote.
There must be a better way.
Yes, professional critics who read widely and with discernment contribute something valuable when they curate the best books of the year. But that needn’t necessitate regarding the choices of ordinary readers with disdain. And we’d do well to remember that even the most prestigious literary awards are sometimes given to self-absorbed, desiccated books that quickly evaporate into irrelevancy. Time is ultimately the only critic whose judgment matters.
In 2003, Stephen King won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation. He was well aware that certain august literary critics — among them, Harold Bloom — thought honoring a popular horror writer was idiotic. In his acceptance speech, King pleaded for a more capacious appreciation for the wide variety of books. “Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction,” he said, “. . . if we keep our minds and hearts open.” He went on to call out the elitism of highbrow critics with one particularly devastating question: “What do you think, you get social or academic Brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?”
Looking at the list of Goodreads Choice Award winners (below), it’s easy to feel contrary, even snobby. In almost every category that I know anything about, the voters have picked the wrong book. (Naturally, I’m working from the age-old principle that books I have read are always better than books I have not read.) “A Place for Us,” by Fatima Farheen Mirza, should have won the fiction prize, right? Surely, “There There,” by Tommy Orange, should have been named the best debut. And how could they have chosen King’s “Elevation” as the best horror novel of the year when it’s not even a horror novel? (One victory for truth and justice: “Circe,” Madeline Miller’s brilliant reimagining of the witch in Greek mythology, won the prize for this year’s best work of fantasy.)
If there’s any abiding principle behind online polls, it’s that when asked to choose, users will choose, no matter how ludicrous the task. Consider the Best of the Best — a new category for the “ultimate favorite” selected from 170 Goodreads winners in all categories over the past decade. This impossible catchall contest pitted masterpieces like Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” against a graphic novel version of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” along with cookbooks and Instagram poetry. Ultimately, “The Hate U Give,” a best-selling debut novel by YA author Angie Thomas, won the prize.
After serving as a judge on several literary contests — from the National Book Critics Circle to the Pulitzer — I’ve come to believe that the best measure of the legitimacy of a book prize is the vibrancy of the discussion it inspires. The terms “best,” “favorite,” “acclaimed” and “popular” are slippery, but they aren’t useless. If awards don’t tell us anything definitive about the books themselves, they certainly indicate something illuminating about the era. Notice, for instance, that 17 of this year’s 21 Goodreads Choice Awards were won by women. (Ian McEwan famously observed, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”) The voters seem to skew younger, which is an encouraging sign. And they like propulsive, exciting stories — from Kristin Hannah’s “The Great Alone” (historical fiction) to Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (nonfiction).
Here’s a list of all the winners. Disagree, debate, even argue. After all, what else is a literary contest for?
Best of the best: “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas.
Fiction: “Still Me,” by Jojo Moyes.
Mystery & thriller: “The Outsider,” by Stephen King.
Historical fiction: “The Great Alone,” by Kristin Hannah.
Fantasy: “Circe,” by Madeline Miller.
Romance: “The Kiss Quotient,” by Helen Hoang.
Science fiction: “Vengeful,” by V.E. Schwab.
Horror: “Elevation,” by Stephen King.
Humor: “The Last Black Unicorn,” by Tiffany Haddish.
Nonfiction: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” by Michelle McNamara.
Memoir & autobiography: “Educated,” by Tara Westover.
History & biography: “The Good Neighbor,” by Maxwell King.
Science: “The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs,” by Stephen Brusatte.
F ood & cookbooks: “Hungry for More,” by Chrissy Teigen.
Graphic novels & comics: “Herding Cats,” by Sarah Andersen.
Poetry: “The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One,” by Amanda Lovelace.
Debut: “Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi.
Young adult fiction: “Leah on the Offbeat,” by Becky Albertalli.
Y oung adult fantasy & science fiction: “Kingdom of Ash,” by Sarah J. Maas.
Middle grade & children’s: “The Burning Maze,” by Rick Riordan.
Picture books: “I Am Enough,” by Grace Byers and Keturah A. Bobo.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.