December 17, 2010

Beyond "Best Of": Melville House and the Indie Lists


"Best in Show"

The years draws to a close and we’re all awash in best-of book lists and holiday gift books suggestions. These lists are simultaneously addictive and so abundant as to render themselves meaningless. Largehearted Boy has undertaken the thankless task (though we do thank him for it) of compiling an aggregate list of all “Best of 2010” lists. (It also includes “best cryptozoology books,” “most disappointing books,”  and “best map books.”)

This list of lists is MASSIVE and, frankly, numbing. Among the straight “best fiction” lists, the titles tend to blur. Freedom, Room, Parrot and Oliver in America, A Visit From The Goon Squad, Skippy Dies, The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, Super Sad True Love Story, The Finkler Question, Mark Twain, Just Kids, Cleopatra. They are simultaneously elevated and somehow erased by the “burden” of consensus and saturation. And so I find myself drawn to the unexpected titles on each list (The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra buried at the end of The Boston Globe‘s “best-of” list), and then to the less obvious lists (every title at The Devil’s Accountant best-of list sounds phenomenal). I don’t, in the end, just want a “good” book. I want something idiosyncratic and electric. I don’t just want a good story, but also a great surprise. The New York Times offers not a single unanticipated title on its “best of” list, so I look to see what Flavorwire and The Huffington Post offer on their lists of books neglected by The New York Times list. But even here we find familiar names… Room, Just Kids, Skippy. So you travel to deeper, odder places in the literary sea. To the truly independent end of the literary lists. Which is where Melville House titles thrive.

Flavorwire’s “5 Must-Read Small Press Titles From 2010” includes Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat “From chapter to chapter, readers will find teacher/student lust, drugs (‘snowcaine’), political intrigue, and religious allegory, all deftly packaged in a fantasy world fleshed out to a near-Tolkienesque proportions.”

Aurorarama also made The Fantasy Book Critic‘s “Top Five Books of 2010”: “There is intrigue, action, ice travels, prophetic dreams, occasionally somewhat explicit sex and drugs and just pure fun.” It’s a sentiment shared at Io9, which cites Aurorarama as a science fiction book that makes [a] great gift” and ”a wildly different take on the genre.”

The Hipster Book Club‘s “2010 Holiday Gift Guide” selects Richard Yates by Tao Lin. “There is no better accessory for the self-hating hipster than a Tao Lin book. But what makes Lin more than just a fashionable writer are his deep characters and his evocative writing.”

The Nervous Breakdown awarded a “Nobbie Award” to Richard Yates: “A terrifying ‘mix’ of hilarious and mind-numbingly boring.” You know you’ve entered indie award territory when something can be great and boring at the same time. Pure entertainment and narrative flow are no longer the criteria of the game.

Another “Nobbie” went to How To Wreck A Nice Beach by Dave Tompkins which was called “weird and wonderful.”

The Village Voice also picked How To Wreck A Nice Beach as a “Best Book Of 2010” calling it “comprehensively bonkers.” Once again, the adjective selection shows how differently the Voice thinks about quality: the traditional sense of “best” is breaking down. We’re in underground literature territory.

What’s a “Kitschie”? It’s a literary prize given out by Pornokitsch for books that are “progressive (but not wanky), intelligent (but not arrogant) and entertaining (but not trite).” Aurorarama made the longlist.

And speaking of longlists, where thrilled that both Aurorarama and Lee Rourke‘s “Not-the-Booker”-winning The Canal made the longlist for the single greatest literary prize of them all: The Morning News‘s Tournament of Books. We cannot wait for March when our Cinderella literature gets a shot to tussle with the big boys, the Bookers and Pulitzers.

Meanwhile a very odd thing is happening with Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone: one of 2009’s most celebrated novels, the book was reprinted in the UK as Alone In Berlin which has led to its inclusion on “best of” lists for a second year running! We’re tempted to point out that they’re still talking about the same book that we published in 2009, but it’s such a great book, we wouldn’t want to undercut their appreciation. A rose by any other name, etc. We’re pleased to say that Fallada’s masterpiece has been included on best-of lists at The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Daily Mail.

Which goes to show that the independent spirit lives everywhere. Lists aim to guide our attention to goodness, but, as always, we have to do most of the searching ourselves if we want to find things worth finding. And, sometimes, an appreciation for independent literature appears where it’s least expected. For example, at Amazon, where, to our shock, How To Wreck A Nice Beach beat out Jay-Z and Amy Sedaris to be chosen as THE best entertainment book of 2010. Well damn. Maybe there’s something to this “best of” business after all.