NY Times: Notable books of 2012

Written by Donna

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December 4, 2012

The Scream, Edvard Munch

The Scream, Edvard Munch

When I think of the word notable, I must have a somewhat different view from The New York Times, which recently published its list of 100 notable books for 2012.  Of the 53 books listed under “fiction and poetry”, I have read…zero.  I have heard of one of them–Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home.  And of the 53 authors listed there, I’m familiar with 10 of them, meaning I have either read something by them or have at least heard of them.

Of those 53 books, the only one I’m even remotely interested in reading is Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room, the sequel to Life Class (which was a pretty good book, by the way)—I didn’t realize it was out or I’d have been all over it sooner.  The rest of them sound boring.  I mean, they may not be, don’t get me wrong.  But the write-ups, and in the cases where I was curious enough to read the actual review, didn’t exactly inspire me to either run to my library or look them up on Amazon.  In fact, in a lot of cases, they sounded like they’d be too much work.  I’m kind of at a point in my life where when I read a book, I don’t want to feel like I’m back at college struggling through Last of the Mohicans because someone’s going to give me a test on it and I’d better know that Cora’s sister’s name is Alice and that Chingachgook isn’t a river.

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey

Anyway. All the usual suspects are on that list—Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Chabon, Ian McEwan—but you want to know what I find most notable about the Times’  list?  There isn’t a genre book on it.  Apparently new releases by people like Iain M. Banks, Lois McMaster Bujold and John Scalzi aren’t worthy of inclusion. Nor are books by Charles Todd, Peter Lovesey, or any other writer of detective fiction.  If there’s a romance on there, I don’t see it.  Now some of these books that are listed would possibly qualify as genre—two of them appear to have speculative fiction qualities, and a few of them might qualify as thrillers or mysteries.  But I’d be willing to bet the Times considers them “novels” first and “genre fiction” second.  Because while notable is apparently a fine word to use in The New York Times Book Review, genre appears to be a very dirty word.

So I suppose my question here is—what makes a book “notable” to the NYT Book Review editors?  Do they have a set of criteria that have to be met?  Or is a book about a “worthwhile” subject enough? Does it have to do with sales?  Where someone placed on their bestseller list?  How long they were on it?  Because if that’s the case, where is Fifty Shades of Grey, which as I write this is lounging comfortably in the top 10 for the 38th week (incidentally, one has to go all the way down to #8 to find a “Notable Book of 2012”; the top 7 consist of 4 thrillers and 2 contemporary romances, plus the James book, just saying…).  I wish I had some idea what they based this on, because otherwise I’m left to conclude that it’s based on what someone somewhere finds “literary” or “worthwhile” and I suspect we might disagree about how those words are defined.

I don’t want to be pedantic or stubborn or sound stupid, but I have no idea, based on reading their brief summaries, why most of these books are “notable”. Sure, two of these books in some way manage to invoke Anne Frank (one of them, to be fair, is a collection of short stories, so I’m going to assume that the title of Nathan Englander’s book is meant to suggest larger themes), some of them deal with fictionalized foreign affairs stuff, and there’s the usual proliferation of angsty-sounding middle-aged people longing to be anything but middle-aged, but what’s so notable about those things?  The Casual Vacancy is full of angsty middled-aged people, not to mention angsty teenagers, but it’s not notable.  I’ve read other books that have raised the ghost of Anne Frank that weren’t labeled “notable”, so what, exactly, gets a book on the list?  One conclusion I feel I can draw is that being somehow labeled a “genre” book isn’t going to help, and obviously since I’m not the editor that’s not my call, but it kind of ticks me off because the implication is that genre books or popular fiction aren’t worthy of being deemed “notable” or, gasp, literary.  And that’s a load of horse hockey.

Redshirts, John Scalzi

Redshirts, John Scalzi

Because here’s the thing: I can name you oodles of books that qualify as “classic literature” that are also–wait for it–genre books.  Moby-Dick may be the bane of most English majors’ existences, but it’s also an adventure novel.  Frankenstein is a horror novel.  The Time Machine?  Sci-fi.  Animal Farm?  Fantasy.  The Scarlet Letter?  Romance.  And you can call James Joyce’s Ulysses a lot of things, but I dare you to suggest it’s not “literary”.

I know popular fiction is literary fiction’s unmentionable cousin to some people, but please.  Books like John Scalzi’s Redshirts and Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You: Stories—to name just two examples—have merit besides being popular entertainment.  Take Redshirts, for example.  It’s a funny book.  It’s downright hilarious in spots.  But it also inventively takes the whole Red Shirt trope and turns it inside out, and in the process Scalzi makes some pretty trenchant observations about how often we take basic things in life, not to mention life itself, for granted, while musing on the notion that we may or may not actually be in charge of our own destinies.  Now to me, that’s a worthy theme for a notable novel.  But apparently to the Times, it’s only worthy if it’s delivered in an acceptable format, which would be anything that isn’t a science fiction novel.

Since they’re being cagey with their definition of “notable”,  I’m going to tell you what makes a book “notable” in my world.  It’s a book that has something to say.  Or entertains me in some new and interesting way.  Or takes a stale, over-used idea and turns it on its head.  Or does something unusual with a standard type of character.  Or takes my mind off my troubles.  Or just tells me a really good story or takes me somewhere I’ve never been before in some fashion.  It might be a romance, it might be science fiction, it might be a cozy mystery or a police procedural, and it might even be whatever the hell literary fiction is.

So here, for your entertainment, are Donna’s Notable Books of the Year for 2012:

  • Redshirts, John Scalzi: notable for squeezing a tired trope into a new and interesting shape.  And because it has ice sharks.
  • Sorry Please Thank You: Stories, Charles Yu: notable for being the best collection of short fiction pieces I’ve read in years and years.
  • Libriomancer, Jim C. Hines: notable for a heroine who isn’t built like a coat hanger, for magic without wands, and for boldly refusing to neatly resolve a romantic triangle at the end of the book by suggesting it’s possible to actually love two people at once.
  • The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean: notable for making an incomprehensible subject (genetics and DNA) easily understandable to a layperson.
  • Granddad, There’s a Head on the Beach, Colin Cotterill: notable for an unusual setting and for shedding light on an under-reported subject matter in the US (the abuse of Burmese refugees in Thailand).
  • Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain, A. Lee Martinez: notable for making me laugh at a time when a good laugh was most definitely something I needed.  Plus it’s a nice homage to pulp sci-fi.
  • The Confession, Charles Todd: notable because Todd is able to continue to make Ian Rutledge fascinating despite the length of this series, and because the plotting in this particular entry is mind-bogglingly good.
  • Live and Let Drood, Simon R. Green: notable for taking a fatigued series and breathing new and unexpected goodness into it.  Also qualifies as just pure entertainment.
  • Cop to Corpse, Peter Lovesey: notable because a new Peter Diamond mystery is always worth noting.
  • Clean, Alex Hughes: notable debut novel set in a future Atlanta society where technology is mistrusted and those with extrasensory powers are mistrusted even more.  Especially notable for its powerful portrayal of addiction and staying clean.  Seriously, pick this up—it’s an awesome book.

 

Clean, Alex Hughes

Clean, Alex Hughes

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6 Comments

  1. Rosary

    There’s been a lot of “controversy” over the NYT list for the big names it left off–like Hillary Mantel’s Bringing Up the Bodies. Really, how do you leave off a book that won its author the Mann Booker–making her the first sequential two year winner? I adored Wolf Hall and can’t wait to get Brining Up the Bodies!

    Clean! I loved that book…not many like it that I know of. Didn’t know you’d read it. More later when I’m not running late (as usual)

    • donna

      I thought Clean was a really awesome book–and unique for a fantasy novel in that the future was a place where even the computer is distrusted and technowizardry practically outlawed. I’d have liked her to go a bit deeper into how they’d gotten to that point, but I suspect an editor’s knife sliced out some of the backstory for length. I’m hoping she goes back to it in the next installment.

      I reviewed Clean for RT, btw.

    • Rosary

      Oops, I see Bringing Up the Bodies is on their list. I do want to read that. I adored Wolf Hall. The only other things on the list that looks interesting to me are Alexie’s short stories and Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. I like Chabon, his genre fiction much more than his straight fiction. I also like he theory that it’s about entertainment. I certainly see the snobbery in the list. What did youthink of their non-fiction list?

    • donna

      I thought it included too many biographies about the Obamas. I can see one, maybe, but three? Surely there were other notable non-fiction books they could have chosen. Like the Sam Kean, for example. Overall, I have less issue with their non-fiction list–it seems far more balanced between the obtuse and the readable. I think I might see if I can find All We Know, which sounds interesting, Oddly Normal I’ve heard very good things about, and The Patriarch as well. Overall, it seems a nicely rounded list–some political stuff, some memoirs, some history, some biography and arts. And a lot of science-y things, although they all seem to pretty much focus on evolutionary stuff.

  2. Mary Ann Vadnais

    So I am a recovering MFA who worked and has worked as a poetry and “literary” fiction editor (now I mainly provide consultations to lit journals as I am in a completely different field). I feel that over the years, editors of this list have moved away from labeling books with notoriety for *craft* and towards the label for how, from the perspective of a dominant and canonical culture, a book subverts or defines that dominant class. A not nice way to say this is that the editors choose books they have read that talk about themselves. This year’s list is no different.

    Ironically, genre fiction does a better job of what the editors like to read about, but books so accessible to the public break camp with the elite persona of this list. What’s more, people who work with and talk to authors rarely relate to this list. Small publishers routinely publish Booker, Pushcart, National Book Award, Pulitzer etc. shortlisters and winners but their winning authors never make these lists. This list represents the various unknowable activities of the Gods of Olympus, meanwhile, the citizenship has its own heros, thank you very much.

    I like your list. What struck me (I’ve read a little less than 1/2 of it), is that it is very much about craft–what these writers are doing with writing, or within their genre. This is, of course, exciting to actual readers–a subversive concept if there ever was one.

    • donna

      Thank you for your comments. I have long suspected a snob factor with the NYT list, but this year’s struck me as being especially exclusive. And I’ve always been somewhat amused that often books that sit for ages on their best seller list never see themselves listed as “notable”.

      I agree that craft is exciting to readers. I suspect that a lot of readers are like me and read heavily from one or two genres, and for people like us, encountering a writer who does something interesting with a well-worn trope or who is willing to push a well-loved series in a new direction for the sake of the series (and not for sales) is exciting. If you saw Natalie’s comments yesterday about where she’d like to see Romance expand–well, it’s the same idea. I think readers love to see authors push those boundries. And I think there’s a lot of exciting work going on that pushes them these days. I thought that was equally deserving of being labeled “notable”.

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