Not being the subject of Ayelet Waldman’s twittewrath, I kind of enjoyed watching her rage against That Other East Coast Newspaper, which dared to omit her novel “Love & Treasure” from its list of 2014 notable books.
Yes, it was a little cringe-inducing to read her Medea tweets, so full of wounded privilege and pricked pride. But what’s notable about Waldman’s complaint is that it’s the only one. Surely, she was giving voice to the disappointment of thousands of authors whose good books have not shown up in year-end features and shortlists and longlists and contests. There’s something refreshing about hearing an author’s unfiltered anger in these deadly polite latter days.
Critiques of popular literary criticism rarely rise much higher than counting — How many women? How many minorities? — as though arithmetic were the ultimate arbiter of literary insight. Those, after all, are perfectly safe objections to raise. I see novels listed on other publications’ best-of lists that were among the worst books of 2014, and I suspect their editors feel the same way about a few books on The Post’s list, but, of course, we wouldn’t disturb one another’s day by expressing that out loud. It’s as though the whole literary community has taken Mom’s advice: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
On the other hand, do these lists matter? I mean, to anyone besides Ayelet Waldman?
They’re certainly fun to peruse. The authors included must feel a surge of validation before the usual anxieties seep back in. The lists generate relatively large Web traffic, compared to regular reviews. And they seem to spur book sales, although the evidence there is spotty and anecdotal.
Beyond that, though, it’s wise to remember that such lists — like literary prizes — are just a snapshot of a few sincere, harried people’s best judgments at a particular moment. The printed page endows a list with the aura of objective finality, but another group of smart readers at another time might have assembled a different roster entirely. The books we’ve read are always better than the books we haven’t read, and we haven’t read most of the books. We editors are trying to satisfy a broad range of tastes. We’re trying not to be influenced by personal or professional relationships. We’re trying to deal with notes from reviewers who confess — after the fact! — that a book they praised really isn’t very good. We’re trying to weigh judgments made in January against judgments made in November. We’re not sleeping well because we know we’re missing an important book, because we know that that reviewer will be offended that we ignored him, because we know we’re including a book that is deeply flawed, because we know readers will take this list into the bookstore, because we know this is the Most Important Thing We Have Ever Done in the History of Civilization.
And then the list is out, and it’s over, and the new year begins, and we’re excited to find new books to love and treasure.