Consider this: your editor assigns you the task of looking at the available apples, spiders and switchblades and compiling the top ten for 2015 into an annotated list for the upcoming Sunday paper.
You could look at the apple, spider and switchblade lists that have already come out, mix them up a little, and create your own list. It helps if you’re already familiar with some of the suggestions from the other lists so that you can write what you know rather than stealing what you don’t.
Or, you can try to do a little research, though time is short, and you might–out of well-intentioned ignorance, write something like “1. The Black Widow spider, while ubiquitous is illegal if its legs are over five inches long.”
You see the trouble right away–or, actually, multiple troubles. First, the attributes that make for a good apple don’t necessarily work for knives even though red is often a popular color for both. Second, even if these disparate items did have enough attributes in common to be placed on one authoritative list, nobody has first hand knowledge of all of the potential candidates.
For those who take the herd-behavior approach to creating their best of the year list, you can weed out all the apples, spiders and switchblades that nobody’s ever heard of even if you’ve heard of a few of them and think they’re superior to those that everyone’s heard of. Your editor has told you before that nobody wants to see a top ten list of stuff they don’t know anything about.
Needless to say, if the best switchblade you’ve ever seen in your life is made by the Ace Knife Company of Two Egg, Florida, you can’t mention the knife unless it was reviewed by, say, Kirkus, the Washington Post or the New York Times, and/or sold 100,000 units. If Oprah picked it for the Knife Club, that’s another plus.
To create a viable list, then, you have to balance shameless popularity with actual quality and ensuring value. The creators of viable lists are often forced to acknowledge sentimental favorites such as the case of the inventor of the most famous apple in the world who, after years of not doing anything, comes out with a new apple that’s said by people who actually tasted it to be a bad apple. This bad apple will probably be on everyone’s list, so it better be on your list as well.
Sometimes inventors have a drawer full of old stuff that never worked in the past and they hook it all together as an all-purpose apple, spider or switchblade and manage to get it into the homes of 10000000 people because they (the inventors) are already famous. People buy the things because they don’t want to be left out. Critics are forced to acknowledge that even though an item has no redeeming value that they can find, it may have redeeming value they can’t see. So they write stuff like, “Joe Smith’s new 52-leg Swiss army spider is a cutting-edge insect that’s as tart and sharp as a Granny Smith without falling into the mundane trap of being routinely useful.”
Having thought all this through in my usual cynical fashion, I walked off the job when my editor told me to compile our newspaper’s top-25 list of 2015 books. Frankly, it seemed pretty much like comparing apples, spiders and switchblades and equally absurd.
Malcolm certifies that he did not write this post simply because none of his books showed up on any of the year’s best books for 2015 lists.