When lives, groups, institutions, time periods – anything, really – show signs of ending, lists appear thick and fast. Consider the ubiquity of the Top 10, the Best Of, the Greatest Hits, and the countdowns. Consider, too, the lists of the overlooked and the undiscovered. Lists ranking everything from the worst of the worst, up. Lists of lists.
We must measure this time and the output belonging to it, they suggest. We must conclusively determine the value of how you have consumed and, by extension, how you have lived. Here are the top 10 reasons (except, not really) why I find these lists so deeply flawed in the literary world, and in art and cultural spheres more broadly.
- Lists are subjective
Who is writing the list, and why? What have they read, watched, and consumed? How do they measure quality and how critically are they writing?
Furthermore, why is this list being written now? Has its creation been triggered by an arbitrary temporal milestone? Take the list series ‘The Best of the Decade’ produced by popular website Literary Hub. Why take stock after a decade as opposed to, say, nine years? Carving up culture decade by decade doesn’t make any more sense than carving it up by any other amount of time, theme, or commonality. It’s simply a familiar framework.
Lists are arbitrary because the people and publications creating them are biased. We are all influenced by cultural signifiers telling us how to value artistic products. The problem with lists specifically, however, is that they are typically presented as neutral despite being anything but. They also rarely include disclaimers or discussion by their authors regarding biases and blind spots.
In this sense, lists deceive through their veneer of authority and objectivity – but they are not pure, sterile, or objective. This one certainly isn’t.
- Lists are performative
Lists say as much about their creators as whatever they are ranking. Authors and publishers use lists to signal their values, the ideas they espouse and the audiences they covet.
Take The Guardian’s 2003 list ‘The hundred greatest novels of all time’ as opposed to its 2019 list ‘The 100 best books of the 21st century’. In 2003, 15 of the top 100 books were written by women, all of whom were either British or American. Yet in 2019, five of the top ten books and 50 of the top 100 books were written by women. The 2019 list was also considerably less white. One imagines this contrast is partly due to social norms and the publishing industry becoming more progressive. However, it’s fair to suggest that a perfect gender split doesn’t happen by accident. Does this make its 2019 list well-intentioned and rightly inclusive? Sure. But it also calls attention to the artifice.
- Lists are stuck in their moment
Best-of lists look back and attempt to comment on quality – suggesting, too, that the cultural products on their lists will stand the test of time. Yet lists are always playing to the present cultural moment and risk overhyping the longevity of recent publications.
This means the canonisation of books is tied directly to the issues of the day. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front came to be iconised by their war-blighted audience, and Animal Farm revered by a generation fearful of communism. What we hail as 2010s classics are likely disproportionately related to authoritarian leaders, the MeToo movement, the Sally Rooney aesthetic, and climate degradation. So are we signalling quality or merely our own preoccupations? Just another reason not to trust lists – or canons.
- Lists are static
Best-of lists can’t look to the future. They don’t make space for work to evolve as a living form, and they don’t acknowledge a book can be reinvented by paratexts and ongoing reception.
Take Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt: it was published in 1962 under a pseudonym and was out of print by the end of the decade. Thirty-eight years after its initial publication, Highsmith acknowledged her authorship of it, which led to a repeat round of reviews, this time exceedingly favourable. The book has since been adapted into the lauded 2015 film Carol.
When it was first released, The Price of Salt was more likely to feature on a banned books list than a best-of. Yet in 2017, it was required reading for one of my university courses. Lists are static, as well as myopic. Books and value are not.
- Lists are clickbait
I’m reminded of my dad’s collection of Rolling Stone magazines. As a child, it seemed to me every issue claimed to feature some newer, bigger, better, best-of-all-time list – to the point these superlatives stopped meaning anything. Even back then, this hyperbolic form of content creation struck me as unsustainable.
The attempt to make a list more definitive, authoritative, or ‘correct’ than any other means the whole exercise descend into a listicle arms race. This extends to hyperbolic language and exaggerated praise. Consume enough lists of ground-breaking masterpieces, and readers switch off – which is, off course, part of the reason lists work so hard to grab attention in the first place.
- Lists follow; they don’t lead
Lists – like awards – often follow topical issues and trends. ‘Best of’ lists rarely make ground-breaking claims; and if they do make some value judgement that could be considered noteworthy, it is still likely this ‘brave’ or ‘revolutionary’ assertion will be in part pitched towards an audience pushing for just one such noteworthy statement. That’s how we end up with situations like the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature – where the prize was awarded to Bob Dylan – being lauded as ground-breaking, despite the fact there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about further elevating an artist who has long been part of the mainstream.
Lists, prizes are irretrievably connected to cultural and financial capital. Books that have mouldered in attics, been rejected by prejudiced publishers, or never gained enough popularity to be known owing to social and market limitations do not make lists. Therefore, even well-intentioned lists are inherently limited and risk narrowing our perceptions of ‘successful’ or ‘worthwhile’ culture through their echo-chamber shout-outs of quality. Rarely do lists lead or break new ground; more often, they simply perpetuate power.
- Lists help us believe we can ‘get educated’ quickly
Lists seldom have any analytical qualities. They tell readers which pieces of culture to recognise or consume; however, this knowledge is no substitute for going out and critically consuming culture both on and off these lists.
It’s ironic how saturated the internet is with lists of what to read to become well-read, for example, considering strict adherence to such lists would be antithetical to reading broadly, exploring new ideas, and considering them critically.
- Lists feed the wrong kinds of competition
Lists play into competition and intrigue, ranking creative content and pitting books against one another. Why must writing about books be a competitive sport? Market pressures are competition enough – just think of the algorithms behind Amazon recommendations. Lists ranking books encourage readers to think judgmentally. They also create unnecessary pressure for there to always be a ‘winner’ in the cultural arena.
Happily, award recipients and even award committees are questioning the winner/loser paradigm. Last year, the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction was controversially split between two writers and the four artists shortlisted for the 2019 Turner Award requested the jury select all four as joint winners. Could these cases herald changing attitudes towards the need to rank books and art? A Miles Franklin Award split five ways?
- Lists are arbitrary and unsettling
Lists seek to fit an expansive reality into numbered or themed dot points. They erode broader conversations and ultimately cheapen how we analyse and debate, trading in-depth analysis for clickbait satiation. Lists often have a point 10 for no reason other than to make up a round number.
Considering their flaws, the proliferation of lists is disquieting. Lists constrict culture and limit analysis, funnelling the same old recognition, praise, and promotion around and around an echo chamber. Over time, this repetition risks flattening culture – obscuring much of its nuance and variety, and canonising a select few.
The popularity of lists is unsettling because of what it suggests about us: namely, that we really do operate in terms of lists now. From paper and pen to-do lists to ticking off tasks in Outlook, the list is a constant presence in our lives. Are we drawn to lists because they provide us with information or structure, or is it because they provide us with a prescribed route to becoming informed, well-read, successful? Indeed, perhaps the biggest appeal of lists comes from the fact they speak to us in a language we understand: the contemporary language of productivity and completism.
Lists of the best and most important pieces of culture signal that their contents are all we need to know, and this can be a relief. Finally, the overwhelming and complicated process of learning can be reduced to ticking items off a list, and avoid missing out or appearing left behind.
Lists are bad. Except this one – you can trust this list.
Image by Sebastian Herrmann