What the Heck Makes a Book “Best”-worthy?

Alex Crowley -- September 26th, 2013

Right now, in a massive collective effort to determine the best books of 2013, PW’s staff of certified, unassailable geniuses are poring over stacks of books already vetted and approved over the course of the year by our stable of reviewers (they literally all live in a comically oversized stable in Ulster County, NY). It’s a fun but arduous process that will lead to us editors gathering in a pub nearby and arguing about the merits of such-and-such’s book versus that other one that’s clearly unfit for the honor of a spot on the top-10 list (and thus must be content with a place in the bottom 90 *boos* *hisses* or, horror of horrors, not on the long list at all *gasps* *widespread fainting*).

Artist's rendering of our Reviewer Stable

Artist’s rendering of our Reviewers’ Stable

This whole process of making a list of “best” things is, of course, terrifyingly subjective. Frankly, we the editors don’t even necessarily agree on what “best” signifies. We each have our own vague idea(s); some abstract platonic concept existing for itself in the void. But is that even helpful? Probably not, since that entails defining a bunch of other slippery concepts that should be working in perfect symbiosis. So maybe the best we can do for now is run the rule over some of those characteristics that will eventually take their Voltron form (and I speak here from a non-fiction perspective only, the concerns of fiction or poetry differ in both obvious and subtle ways). Anyway, welcome to the sausage factory!

Popularity: This rubric is probably the least valuable—if it has any value at all—in this discussion. The number of copies sold reflects only that: copies sold. From a perspective where we’re supposed to be judging quality, knowing that books A and B sold more copies than book C doesn’t tell us anything about book C. A great book can, by all accounts, be popular, but popularity does not make a book great. If anything, we hope our seal of approval creates buzz for what we believe is a worthy book.

The PW seal. It's a Saimaa Seal and lives in Finland.

The PW seal. It’s a Saimaa Seal and lives in Finland.

Cultural Sway: Arguably more valuable than sales stats from a qualitative standpoint, the way in which a book contributes to a cultural context has substance and meaning, though it’s also highly contentious. We live in a world of hype machines, so it’s often difficult to distinguish which books are worth discussing from those we have to discuss because they happen to be the flavor of the moment (and we look like curmudgeons in abstaining from the conversation). Moreover, a book can start a public conversation—or add to an existing one—and still be a bad book due to problematic content/subject-matter. I have one particular title in mind, which will remain nameless, that was notable in its contributions to a public dialogue about work and feminism, but despite its popularity was equally notable for the damning critiques it received from large swaths of its intended audience (and, arguably, given the nature of the book, those for whom it believed it was advocating). Important? Sure. “Great”? Hardly.

Timeliness, of Topicality: To buck the trend of popularity and put a twist on the cultural import rubric, one title that didn’t receive much media attention this year absolutely blew me away and should be part of a national conversation. However, given the nature of what the book reveals about our political system, our military, and our foreign policy, it’s likely to remain a pariah from the mainstream. It’s a book squarely of this moment, yet it provides historical perspective in its hope to alter the present and future. Many books seek to capitalize on a zeitgeist or offer what an established audience already expects—put another way, they take no risks and are a safe move. Great books create an audience where nobody knew there was an audience to be had.

Point of View: It’s cliche, but one of the greatest things about art is how it warps your consciousness of out its holding pattern of solipsism. Since we’re all presumably literate and have a decent grasp of how to use language, we can use the written word to be more direct about this than through, say, the abstractness of music, or painting, or dance. I want a book to knock me out of my comfort zone by injecting something foreign into my thought processes. Maybe leave me baffled, but also wanting more. I want to see the world through the eyes of people I’ll likely never meet and whose life experiences astound or frighten or force me to empathize in a way I couldn’t possibly imagine before. To quote rapper Dose One, “In the immortal words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘a mind stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.’”

Pleasure: I want to be riveted and punch-drunk, ignoring the outside world and slightly angry when I have to put the book down to do something “more important.” A great book should turn me into the annoying friend that brings it up amongst friends at inopportune times and then won’t shut up about it. I want to be sent on wild, tangential google and wikipedia searches so that I end up with 14 open tabs of maps and personal bios and newspaper articles. I’m also a huge poetry fan, which means I also want to roll around in the sentences and get carried off by a writer’s idiosyncratic rhythms. Give me a good turn of phrase and make it look easy.

The Actual Writing: Shouldn’t be ungood.

So these are a few of the things I will be considering. My fellow editors will have their own rubrics, reflecting their particular values, though they will likely all be variations on similar themes. And in the end I’m sure people will find reasons to nitpick our choices, they always do (it’s one of the reasons we keep the location of our reviewer stable secret; probably only the NSA knows from our emails). So in that spirit, tell us some of your favorites of 2013 down in the comments, we won’t judge!*

*not true, we’re very judgmental

2 thoughts on “What the Heck Makes a Book “Best”-worthy?

  1. Cathy Spencer

    I feel for you. It would be hard enough for one person to judge the books, much less to get a panel to decide. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could sweep away the top criteria and just judge by “Point of View,” “Pleasure,” and “The Actual Writing”?

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