It’s “best of” season. Best books of the year. Movies. Songs. And because we are approaching 2020, the lists are expanding to cover the entire decade.
It’s hard to resist such categorization. I keep a list of books I’ve read on Goodreads, and the site just sent me an overview of my year of reading: 34 books and 11,000 pages. I’m tempted to rank them.
When I scan my Goodreads list, I remember how often I laughed this summer while walking and listening to Luis Urrea narrate The House of Broken Angels. I remember the joy of attending the book launch party for my friend Loreen Lee’s long-awaited memoir The Lava Never Sleeps. And the fun of reading Carmen Maria Machado’s book of clever, often creepy stories in Her Body and Other Parties after meeting her at the AWP conference in Portland.
Great moments, all. But do they have to be ranked? What does best even mean?
Literary critic and academic Harold Bloom died this year. He’s famous for declaring that twenty-six writers belong in the canon – the “best of” list for all time. Naturally, he included only four women (the usual suspects: Austen, Dickinson, Eliot, and Woolf) and only two from countries outside North America and Europe (Borges and Neruda). He considered other writers “canonical,” but he singled out these twenty-six for extensive analysis.
Others have critiqued canonization better than I can (see, for example, Toni Morrison: “Canon building is empire building.”).
What I want to say about canonization comes from a different perspective: as a writer. Of course, most of us writers would love to see our names on “best of” lists. Awards validate our efforts and make publication easier with the next project. The publicity increases the chance that readers will find our work.
But most of us will never see our work mentioned in The New York Times or ordered for college literature classes, let alone canonized. And still, we write. We write to explore, to understand, to feel. To know the satisfaction of creating something artful. And, whether our work is ever widely known, we find ways to connect with readers.
I read from my novel-in-progress at Two-Hour Transport in Seattle a year ago. Two-Hour Transport is a fantastic reading series, mostly focused on speculative fiction, held at Café Racer and organized by Nicole Bade and Theresa Barker (check out the anthology).
That night, I was reading in public from the manuscript for the first time, and I didn’t know how it would go. I read a scene about a man, a radio operator, who volunteered to monitor Mount Saint Helens in 1980. In that moment, he watches the volcano erupt, knowing he will not survive. My hope was to honor him.
As I read, I could feel the room go still. I got to the last line of the scene. There was a pause, then audible sighs. I could feel it – out of words had come a real person, a beating heart, a life.
That is what’s best: when the writing connects.