literary critics

I never thought I’d say this, but here it comes. I have discovered that there is, indeed, some overlap between my choices in reading and those of some of the country’s top literary critics. On December 16, the New York Times published lists of the ten top books of the year as chosen by each of its four book reviewers: Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, Jennifer Senior, and Janet Maslin. To my amazement, I found three books I’d reviewed on each of the lists of Senior and Maslin. Does this mean I’m becoming . . . gasp! . . . a literary critic? Good grief, I hope not!

Here’s the tally: Jennifer Senior included Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and High Dive, a novel by Jonathan Lee, on her list. (I’ve linked each of these titles, and the three that follow, to my review.)

Janet Maslin’s list of ten top books included Noah Hawley’s novel, Before the Fall; Joe Ide’s IQ; and The Trespasser by Tana French. All three fall into the category I term “mysteries and thrillers.” Admittedly, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Tana French’s latest effort. But I greatly enjoyed the other two.

Something very strange is happening here. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the course of the last year, I found myself largely in agreement with fifteen percent (15%) of those picked by two widely followed professional literary critics. I never thought the day would come.

For solace, all I can say is that the other two Times critics, Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner, listed books I either tried and failed to read or ones I would never think of reading. And, of course, both Senior and Maslin each included seven such titles on their lists of ten. Maybe things aren’t quite as dark as they seem.

For the record, whenever anyone disparages my reading choices as “lowbrow” or “not serious,” I point to the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens. Those two icons of literature in the English language wrote not for literary critics but for popular consumption, much as Stephen King and thousands of other authors do today. Of course, I recognize that book shelves around the world are crowded with really bad mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, and historical novels. I do my best not to read the junk. But in every genre there are great stories told and great writing to tell them — even though they may never show up in The New York Review of Books.

OK, I’ll get off my hobby horse now.

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