December 17, 2012

Reviewing “best of the year” lists


I love when Melville House books get included in “Best of the Year” lists. Just this past week, a number of our titles merited inclusion: The Atlantic gave a nod to Rudolph Herzog’s Dead Funny. The Wall Street Journal’s fiction critic wrote more nice things about Tarun Tejpal’s The Story of My Assassins. And David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years keeps getting tapped as a best book, most recently by The Spectator and the ICA.

But all of these lists follow from a certain laziness on the part of editors and critics, says Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer in a clever piece titled “The best of the year in review!”

The point of these pieces, says Shafer, is “to fill the greatest number of pages with the least amount of effort.” How to compose such a list?

To remain credible, a critic’s best-of list must not limit itself to the best recordings, films, theatrical productions, TV shows, or books of the year. It must be “balanced.” For instance, the popular music list must not go to the copy edit desk until it contains a couple of rap selections, a female artist or two, and something exotically ethnic or experimental. Book nods must be given to writers of all genders, of all political persuasions, of all ethnicities, and a few plaudits must be reserved for small presses. To maintain similar cred, a movie list must include a couple of foreign films, even if they’re films nobody sees (or even if they’re bad), to signal the publication’s cosmopolitan virtues. At the same time the movie list mustn’t be too arcane: If it doesn’t include a hit movie from the Golden Globes nominations list, readers will sense snobbishness and grumble.

The pieces may be balanced to death, but it’s not that they are all bad — jeez, see the ones mentioned above — instead they flow because “retreading of old copy is not only easy for journalists and accommodating of their holiday vacation plans, it’s popular with readers.” Such lists, Shafer says, can be “whipped up as fast as a bowl of instant pudding.”

And, indeed, journos need a break.

All the writer need do is drop it in the copy bank by the second week of December, pour himself an eggnog, and go Christmas shopping. The writer need not return any sooner than the first week of the new year. If real news breaks out in the interval, his editors can always run wire copy.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.