Not only are we deluged with shopping opportunities during the holiday season, we’re also deluged with “best books of the year” lists. There are the long lists, labeled notables and favorites, organized by fiction and non-fiction, as well as top 10 lists, which are the summa cum laude stars of both genres. I thought about these lists being similar to the Miss America Pageant, where 53 contestants (50 states plus Washington D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) are whittled down to the top 10. But that’s where the comparison ends. There are no five finalists followed by a winner among these annual best book lists. Also, there are no uniform selection criteria. For example, not everyone produces a long list of bests, rather only their top 10. In addition, some lists mix fiction and non-fiction; some fiction lists include mysteries and poetry, while others don’t; and, continuing to mix things up, judges range from readers to authors to editors. There’s a lot of noise in this end-of-year book list mania.
Out of curiosity, I wanted to see where there was agreement among the lists, so I cross-referenced four best fiction lists of 2012. I worked with two magazines and two newspapers: Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews is a book review magazine known for its rigorous standards. Publisher’s Weekly is a news magazine for the publishing industry that also publishes reviews.
A note about the calculation: I used the long lists of best/notable fiction for 2012, not the top 10, as I was going for that equivalent of the 53 Miss America contestants. But then I noticed the top 10 selections for The Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly stand apart from their long lists, while the top 10 selections for The New York Times and top 25 for Kirkus are included in their long lists. So I pulled the fiction in the top 10 lists of The Post and PW into their long lists, to keep the data even.
The number of books on the lists came to this: Publisher’s Weekly 24, Kirkus 100, The Post 55 and The Times 53. Among all four lists, five books are listed in common: two short story collections (one by Junot Diaz, the other by Alice Munro) and three novels. They are the books whose cover illustrations you see on this page.
The one book that surprised me is Beautiful Ruins, a novel I’d heard about but didn’t read in 2012. Here, end of year, it is a beauty that steps out of the crowd. Another surprise is the 2012 National Book Award winner for fiction, The Round House by Louise Erdrich — it did not get a common nod from the four publications. More specific, it didn’t make the Kirkus list.
I’m not sure this cross-referencing accomplishes anything other than to satisfy a curiosity on my part. Because there’s a million ways to spin this and no real reach toward sparkling truth, due to lack of list conformity. But I’m thinking this final five is a good bet for a successful gift for a friend or family member, or a good read for yourself. One note of caution, though: many readers have told me they liked Mantel’s historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies, but it was an endurance read, i.e. some said they slogged through it.
For me, this cross-referencing was an exercise that gave some definition to the onslaught of bests lists, with some hoorays and boos along the way – such as for Lauren Groff’s Arcadia, which shows on three of the lists I cross-referenced (hooray!); and for Lawrence Osborne’s seductive novel The Forgiven, which is ignored by the four lists (boo!), although I was glad to see The Economist and Library Journal give it a shout out. Best of all, I’ve discovered two books I want to read: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden. McFadden’s novel appears on the lists of The Post and The NYT.