ANATOMY OF A BEST-OF ESSAY
My Locus Online Best of 2004 article has just been posted, along with another year’s best by Claude Lalumière. What follows provides an inside look at the rationale behind my decision-making, which will be of interest to some of you and boring as hell to others. You have been warned...
Writing a year’s best article isn’t a task I take lightly. It’s also not a task that can be considered completed in any real sense. First of all, there are the books you didn’t get around to reading, no matter how hard you tried. This year, the grievous omissions include Gene Wolfe’s short story collection (I already had The Wizard Knight to tackle), Iain MacDonald’s River of Gods, the two Neal Stephenson novels, and Geoff Ryman’s Air. (I was very glad to see that Claude Lalumière had covered Air.) I also meant to read Alex Irvine’s second novel, One King, One Soldier, but a snafu in getting a copy prevented this (probably my biggest disappointment because I’d allocated time to read it; as soon as I get hold of a copy, I’ll at least blog about the book). And, of course, as soon as I post this blog entry and people read my year’s best article, others will be pointed out to me, some of which I’ll have read but didn’t like.
Then there are the books that you did include that change position in the mind’s eye over time, so that a year later (or five years later) you find you have entirely different opinions about them—the books that don’t hold up to a re-read or a re-re-read; the books that, on a second or third read are better than you remember, etc. Sometimes this happens during the year, before you finish your year’s best article. For example, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke occupied a higher place in my pantheon earlier in the year, before I’d read China Mièville, David Mitchell, and a few others. It’s not only that these books seemed better than the Strange (their greater relevance interesting but having no place in my decision-making), but that their strengths exposed weaknesses in Clarke’s novel. (In a similar but opposite way, the Margo Lanagan may have struck me as stronger than it is simply because I read it late in the year and it was fresh in my mind when I sat down to write my article.)
This point leads me to consider the process of how one decides what books to include in a year’s best article—especially an article covering a particular subset of books: speculative fiction (fantasy and SF).
Deciding on the Best-of-the-Best (and the Curious Case of Clare Dudman)
The first thing I decided was that I try to would avoid saying of the six books on my best-of-the-best list that “these are the best genre books of the year,” but instead just call them the best of 2004. My reading was heavily weighted toward fantastical fiction during 2004, but I did read several mainstream literary novels, none of which were as good as my top six “genre” books.
I did have one dilemma in choosing these top six, because to employ this non-sliding scale I had to mention one book that most people would not define as fantasy: Clare Dudman’s One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead. By the measure (or idea) of fantasy-as-metaphor and One Day’s somewhat surreal style, the novel can be classified as fantasy, but in a very peripheral way. Because I realized including the book might violate the logic of my list, even though I considered the Dudman perhaps the best novel I’d read all year, I had an e-mail conversation with Matt Cheney in which I more or less asked him for reasons the book might be considered fantasy, and his reply (which articulated what I felt but could not fully express at the time) was:
It's fantasy because all historical fiction is fantasy, unless the writer is writing about something they lived through or has completely and totally plagiarized memoirs from the time. It's science fiction because it's fiction about the processes of science, which may be different than K.S. Robinson saying SF is anything that takes place in the future, but seems valid to me, because it's so absolutely in love with the how’s and whys of science as a method and even lifestyle. The only thing that, at least to the point where I've read that separates One Day from a hard SF novel is that a hard SF novel is set in an in-all-likelihood utterly impossible future, while One Day the Ice is set in a certainly fictional but possibly pretty accurate past. It's got the feel of fantasy in how it uses landscape as a literal evocation of its characters psychologies, moods, etc. -- one of the hallmarks of fantasy is its ability to create literalizations of metaphor, and I think that Dudman does a kind of hyper-realistic take on that, turning up the realism into lyricism instead of using fantastic events to move toward lyricism.
This line of reasoning—extracted from Matt under duress—provided enough articulated ammunition for me to keep the Dudman on the list, even if the logic might still not be entirely. Nothing was left off of the best-of-the-best list because of One Day’s inclusion, and without Dudman’s novel being included, it did not feel like a real best-of-the-best list.
The Inclusion of Short Story Collections and Other Novels
The next decision I faced was whether to leave it at that: the six best novels of the year, period. However, that would have left out short story collections as well as many really good to excellent novels that just had a few more flaws than the six on my master list. So I decided to include discussion of these novels, while explaining why I hadn’t included them on the master list (always a perilous proposition, such an explanation, since it can come off less as informative than as trying to spotlight the article writer’s cleverness: “Look at me! I’m spotting a flaw!”). Doing so allowed me to redress imbalances I’d seen in reviews throughout the year, in that some of the good books appeared to me to have been over-hyped, with reviewers being steamrolled by the PR express. Conversely, my best-of-the-best list included books that had been criticized for faults I actually thought were strengths; thus, more extended discussion allowed me to engage in a dialogue with prior reviews of the books.
I will say that I was delighted to see Claude Lalumière rate Jonathan Strange and Lucius Shepard's Viator higher than I did, in that both are worthy books. I am delighted that other readers found them more flawless than I did, as in both cases I wish I had found them more flawless. Both are books that may well reward re-reading, Viator for the lush density of its depth and the Strange for its riddled-through-with-stories breadth.
Conflicts of Interest
Finally, I had to consider possible conflicts of interest. For this reason, no Ministry of Whimsy books were mentioned, even though I think that Rhys Hughes’ A New Universal History of Infamy, Forrest Aguirre’s Leviathan 4 anthology (the most daring and lyrical anthology of the year), Zoran Zivkovic’s The Fourth Circle, and Michael Cisco’s The San Veneficio Canon (originally scheduled through the Ministry but moved to Prime) would all have been mentioned in my article otherwise. I felt only a twinge of regret, though, in that none of them would have made my best-of-the-best list and I knew I could mention them here, in the less formal setting of my blog. I also couldn’t mention the excellent Polyphony 4 (edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake) because I had a story in it.
I didn’t see a problem with mentioning Night Shade books (under which Ministry was an imprint) because I did not have anything to do with any the books’ acceptance, production, or the public relations efforts connected to their publication. I did do some acquisition work for Prime Books in 2004, but they had a relatively quiet year, making my job easier. Still, I almost didn’t mention Cathrynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth because I’d had a great deal to do with promoting it, and provided an introduction, but it was too unique to leave off the list. Another Prime book, Tainaron by Leena Krohn, I hadn’t even heard of until December; when I got it, I read it four times to make sure I wasn’t letting an end-of-year marauder steal a top slot just by being brand-new and shiny. To me, Tainaron is the best possible reason for me to do a best-of list: to share a gem with readers who may not have heard of it.
As for any logic behind my reading patterns: I didn’t start thinking about doing a year’s best article until around September-October when Hannes Riffel, my German editor suggested I do one for a German publication, and Mark Kelly at Locus Online agreed to consider the English-language version, so I was already somewhat behind by then. The few tactical decisions I made generally guided me more toward fantasy than science fiction (as you can probably see from my admitted crimes of omission). I also didn’t spend much time with books by new writers that didn’t catch my interest within the first hundred pages, as slogging through one so-so debut would have meant missing out on reading two more promising books. I did aggressively seek out many books I would not otherwise have read, and for this I am grateful. I also didn't focus on anthologies that much, although I read the overrated Flights and several others. My main regret is that I didn't have time for the Datlow/Windling edited The Faery Reel.
I must admit to there being no rhyme or reason to my list of other books of interest. It was just whatever caught my eye, as if I were a magpie, attracted to any bright bauble. I do think, however, that A Serious Life from Savoy Books was one of the very best books of the year and has been criminally neglected, given the wealth of riches it offers to readers and reviewers alike.
Back to the Six...
As for the six novels I thought represented the very best of the year, they all shared three qualities: some degree of stylistic mastery, the ability to affect me deeply on an emotional level, and thematic depth. Also, whether it was China Mièville’s beautifully flawed activists or Clare Dudman’s intimate portrait of Alfred Wegener, Leena Krohn’s evocative, beautifully understated anonymous narrator or Gene Wolfe’s truly noble Sir Able, David Mitchell’s often moving and always interesting ensemble or Philip Roth’s evocative reconstruction of his youth, the people in these books were deeply memorable.
I’ve already said a lot of what I wanted to say about these novels in the actual article, but I would just add that it was such a pleasure to encounter them. Scenes from all six will linger in my memory. Several of them I know I will re-read in the years to come.
(Helpful Monkey: "So, Jeff, I hear you had a fan boy moment today." Jeff: "Yes, along with an abnormal-cells-we're-going-to-cut-stuff-off-your-arm moment." Helpful Monkey: "I don't care about that. Tell me about the fan boy moment!" Jeff: "I got a postcard from Alasdair Gray, about Ambergris." Helpful Monkey: "What did he say?" Jeff: "He said, 'I admired your use of graphic art, especially the Eric Schaller illustrations. The world you create is too appalling to be happy in, but stimulating and, as you say, baroque. I hope my own alternative worlds, though often as ugly, are also as interesting. Yours truly, Alasdair Gray." Helpful Monkey: "Not bad!" Jeff: "I went all weak in the knees for several minutes." Helpful Monkey: "That's just the abnormal cells talking.")