… or what about a little perspective?
The other day I was reading a post on Tor.com that listed books in which weather magic was central to the plot – and, yes, The Towers of the Sunset was mentioned. When I came to the comments, all of which either seconded a book on the list or suggested another, one particular comment struck me, because over the past ten years, I’ve seen a form of this comment time and time again. The comment poster wrote, “How the list could be drawn up without [XXXXX] defies belief.” I’ve left out the name of the book because the title is irrelevant to what follows.
Once upon a time, when I was a struggling poet and had a day job, and even before that, I was a voracious reader, largely of science fiction, because that was in the days before much fantasy was published (and part of that time was even before The Lord of the Rings). I read a lot, sometimes close to three hundred books a year, and I’d accumulated a paperback library of some 3,000 F&SF books before I moved to New Hampshire in late 1989 and had to downsize my library – and life – a great deal. At that time, as my late editor David Hartwell pointed out, back then, it was barely possible to read every new F&SF title that came out in a year, and I came close some years.
That was then. This is now, as the saying goes. Right now, the major publishers and the genre F&SF presses publish around 1,800 new titles a year, and reprint another 1,600 – and that doesn’t count mainstream, romance, or mystery books that cross over or self-published titles. So there shouldn’t be a question as to why a science fiction or fantasy reviewer or columnist perhaps doesn’t include all the books that fit a given category, such as weather magic. It’s because, despite best efforts, no one can read them all, except perhaps a speed reader who has nothing else to do.
But then, shouldn’t such reviewers or columnists at least read the “best” books? That becomes a question of exactly what are the best books. Locus magazine, which bills itself as “the magazine of the science fiction and fantasy field,” last year recommended something like 120 titles. That listing doesn’t include some titles recommended by others, such as the Nebula and Hugo awards, or by other recommenders, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, or Publishers Weekly. I’d venture that every year more than three hundred titles make some authority’s “best” list. That’s not surprising; even “experts” in the field have strong disagreements about what constitutes a good book, and I’ve definitely disagreed with some of those “best” recommendations or felt that other books that didn’t get a recommendation deserved such. And, to no one’s surprise, least of all mine, I’ve had more than a few books receive starred or rave reviews from one expert and be totally panned by another.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing sense of outrage, at least among some readers, when reviewers or “experts” disagree with their opinion or fail to mention a work they feel is important or that shouldn’t have been overlooked. There’s no doubt that some works probably shouldn’t be overlooked, for better or worse, because of their enormous impact. In this light, certainly Lord of the Rings comes to mind, as well as other works that have shown their impact by remaining in print and being widely read for several decades.
But the bottom line is simply that it’s difficult, if not impossible, even for the reviewers and “experts,” to read every book recommended as “best,” let alone every book that every reader feels is important, let alone agree on the significance or contribution (or lack thereof) of such books.