Tabulating critics’ lists of top books of the year used to be an exercise in masochism for diversity-minded bibliophiles, a “let’s see how dominant white men were this year” sort of game. But slowly, over the past few years, things have changed.
The New York Times Book Review has become notably more democratic and female-friendly of late, but this year, improbably, the Times‘ top ten books of the year has only a single white male author on it. Its longer, 100-book notable list is split close to 50-50 gender-wise — with women somewhat dominating the fiction and poetry half and men the nonfiction half. Yet with a high number of male authors of color, that larger list, too, has a minority of white male authors.
A look at other best-book lists published this week shows that the Times is not making any sort of against-the grain effort here; it’s very much going for the same books as its peers. Essentially, no list I looked at had white men as the majority — rather than counting women and people of color this year, I found myself counting white men (while keeping in mind that these counts may have a tiny margin of error). Slate’s Laura Miller came up with a list which includes only four white men out of ten picks, while her colleague Katy Waldman’s only has two. At BuzzFeed, Isaac Fitzgerald’s fiction list has a mere four white men, out of 24 picks. And at the Guardian, white men comprised just about a third of Justine Jordan’s fiction list.
Part of this must be due to the fact that a significant number of the most critically acclaimed books of the year deal with the issue that dominated the cultural conversation this year, American racism: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World And Me, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen showed up on many lists. Other favorites also eclipsed the new Franzen book (which did show up on quite a few lists), like Marlon James’ award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings and women-penned juggernauts like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, and Helen McDonald’s H Is for Hawk. These were among the buzziest and most celebrated books of the past year, with nary a white, male author among them.
But another reason for the change in culture might just be that the power locus of taste-making has actually shifted, and is no longer entirely in print. Many of these big 2015 books were Internet darlings as well as being searing masterworks. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a magazine journalist, but his deserved popularity is certainly owed in part to the following he built through his incredible blogging. Citizen was promoted in online publications like this one and its peers back in 2014, and evangelized on social media. Young folks in publishing are enmeshed with social-justice types on the Internet and were excited to share and promote books that echoed the big themes of the year and addressed themes of race, sexuality, and gender.
Yesterday’s literary bloggers are running big platforms like BuzzFeed, while big-shot critics at newspapers are on Twitter, reading about events and book clubs. Presumably, a decade’s worth of cries for diversity led to some more interesting book deals that bore fruit this year, and the desire to promote those diverse titles to mainstream critics. And finally, the loud cries of groups like We Need Diverse Books as well as writers like Jennifer Weiner have presumably had an effect.
The Internet has been a democratizing force, and the incredible richness of these 2015 lists (which have already inspired me to buy some new ebooks) is something to rejoice over. The only concern now is that, since critics seem to be approaching a different kind of consensus, the literary community will erect a new class of idols that is unimpeachable and accidentally excludes others. But that is something to worry about only if this kind of progress settles in for good. In the meantime, we should be looking for more diverse narratives in terms of style and format, as well as work from and about the transgender community and the disabled community, among others, and continuing to try to find the best literature regardless of genre or marketing push.
It’s almost baffling; counting gender and race on these lists, imperfect though that approach might have been, has long been an important way to hold literary gatekeepers accountable and take stock of the year in criticism. Today it seems almost like a silly, unnecessary exercise. 2015 certainly seems like the year when tastemakers really “got it” — but we’ll still be counting next year, if only out of habit, to see if the pattern holds.