Neither of my two favorite novels made it into the Telegraph’s list of “100 novels everyone should read“, and I feel really bad for them. How must that make them feel? I picture them, sitting on some Platonic Ideal of a book shelf in the universe of Abstraction, hanging their heads a little. They are filled with self-doubt. “Am I not good enough?” they ask. “Is this just the opinion of a few journalists, or does everyone feel this way about me?”
I say “my two favorite novels” because I’ve never been very good at picking out a single “favorite” of anything. Because I think too much, I invariably get lost in a morass of qualifiers and contexts: Do you mean the one I enjoy the most now, or that I enjoyed the most when I first read it? Should my evaluation be based on enjoyment, or based on the impact it had on my life? Should I evaluate based on the level of creativity of the story, or the skill and complexity of the narrative execution? And so on.
The best I can do, when pressed, is narrow it down to two: my favorite science fiction novel is Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card, and my favorite non-science fiction novel is Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins. Both of these are deeply philosophical, deeply creative in their premise and characterization, and have many layers to the plots and subplots that weave in and out from the beginning to the end of the story. Although I can sing the praises of many other novels in both categories, these have inspired me to re-read them over 20 times each, and every single time I’ve re-read them I have come away with a feeling of absolute joy and a sense that I learned something new.
Neither of them made the Telegraph’s top 100 list, however, and I feel like I should reach out and reassure them in some way.
It’s easy to say: “Nobody thinks that a list on some dumb rag like The Telegraph represents the objective truth! Everybody knows it’s just an opinion!” But I’m not so sure.
Sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking. If you are exposed from a very early age to language framed in absolute terms–this is the best, this is what everyone likes, this is what everyone wants–then how can you expect anyone to not think that way?
We are inundated with pop culture op eds with headlines that tell us:
These are the HOTTEST celebrities!
These are the BEST schools!
You will LOVE these songs!
You will LOVE these shows!
Even worse than the headlines are the trashy gossip columns that use phrases like “everyone wants (insert name of celebrity here)” or “how could anybody with eyes not think (celebrity name) is hot?” It completely erases the opinions of people who might dare to have non-mainstream tastes.
It also has the potential to be hugely damaging to self-esteem, especially in children and teens. Every time an article goes on and on about how anybody would be crazy to not think Ryan Gosling (or whoever) is hot, it is training its younger readers to believe that “hotness” is both linear and objective.
When you believe hotness is both linear and objective, you instinctively don’t believe that different people have different tastes. When Sam picks Chris over you, you assume it means Chris is objectively more attractive than you, rather than meaning Chris is simply a closer match to Sam’s specific personal preferences.
Do messages like “You would be crazy to not think Zac Efron (or whoever) is hot!” really have a causal impact on people’s feelings of self-worth? It’s tough to prove. These messages operate in the same functional and conceptual space as “microaggressions”: each individual headline saying “These are the hottest people” isn’t a big deal, on its own. The measurable impact would come as a cumulative effect over time.
The messaging trains you to think a certain way. It trains you to think that hotness exists on a line, and everyone agrees about who is “higher” and who is “lower” on that scale.
I’m a big advocate of free speech, and I’m not a fan of prescriptivism when it comes to the way people talk. So I’m not going to tell people that they have to stop creating lists of the 100 best novels (or whatever) of all time.
But I do let it impact the way I talk about things. I can express my enthusiasm for a novel without saying “it’s the best!” or “you would be stupid to not enjoy it!” I can passionately describe why I would include Speaker for the Dead on my own personal list of favorite science fiction novels, without saying that I think everyone should read it or that everyone would even like it.
In my own small way, I think this is how I can help to educate the world: simply by reinforcing, even in just subtle ways, that personal tastes are personal. It doesn’t diminish my favorites in any way, when I admit that they might not be everyone’s favorites.
Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Maybe, maybe not. But I can’t help picturing my poor favorite novels: doubting themselves, wondering “What does Anna Karenina have that I don’t have? Can anyone ever like me as much as they like her?”
Don’t worry, Half Asleep: I like you much more than I like Anna. But more importantly: the evaluation of novels is an endeavor that is neither objective nor linear. And if we could all internalize that message, we would be in a much happier place.