If you’re a bibliophile, you may visit the website of Lit Hub or read one of its newsletters. I do. I get my fix of literary comment and criticism on a daily basis from Lit Hub. And I rushed to click through to The Ultimate Best Books of 2019 List by Emily Temple (Lit Hub, December 11, 2019) as soon as it showed up.
Temple writes, “This year, I counted lists (often multiple lists) from 37 sources, tracking a total of 749 books. I’m sure I didn’t get every single list that’s out there, and more come every day. But for what it’s worth, my findings are below.” Fair enough. So, let’s take a look at that “ultimate” list.
Should we listen to what literary critics say?
Temple’s list of lists contains a total of 112 books. At the top are two that appeared on 21 “best-of-the-year” lists: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (I didn’t read either of them.) Hugging the bottom were 22 books, each of which appeared on four lists.
So, what do those books have in common, other than the fact that literary critics say they’re really good? Let’s see.
Of the 112 books on Temple’s list, the overwhelming majority are what critics call “literary fiction.” Only a handful fall into the category of “genre fiction.” Just 28 are nonfiction, nearly all of them memoirs. And, as best I can tell, 80 of the 112 authors are women.
The herd instinct that’s clear among literary critics
Say what you will, the patterns are clear, and you shouldn’t be surprised. At least not if you regularly read The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, as I do, or any of the other 34 publications that regularly post book reviews and appear at the foot of Ms. Temple’s post. There’s a herd instinct among literary critics, so none of this should shock you.
Maybe four out of five of the best books of 2019 really were fiction rather than nonfiction. And maybe three out of four of the best books published during the year were written by women. But is that likely? Surely, out of the innumerable titles that appeared in print in the last twelve months, the proportion of books written by men and women would likely have come a lot closer to parity. (Statisticians call this regression to the mean.) And nobody, no matter how accomplished a speed-reader, can possibly read thousands of titles in a year. (I sample as many as 500 and actually read about 200—and I feel pretty smug about that.) So, I find it hard to believe that mainstream literary critics actually read enough books to be able to claim they have checked out a fair sample of the total.
How many books are published each year?
According to UNESCO, 2.2 million titles are published every year. But that number grossly understates the reality. UNESCO attributes only about 300,000 books to the United States. However, Publishers Weekly notes that 1.68 million print and e-books were self-published in 2018. Surely, a large proportion of those books were published in the US. In fact, Forbes notes that “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe.” And the true numbers may be even higher, as I explained more than five years ago in my post, “Would you believe how many books are published every year in the U.S.?”
Now, can anyone actually tell me with a straight face that 112 books were really the very “best” books out of hundreds of thousands or even millions published in 2019? I don’t think so. So, since the process is obviously arbitrary, I’ll stick with my own list, The 15 best books of 2019, no matter what literary critics say.
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