The end of the year has long been a repository for listicles designed to carry websites through dark days of slow news, slack productivity, and slim page view stats. The literary industry is as susceptible to such reflective rankings as any, perhaps more so, since most of the people who still read are very eager to prove that they do. Problem is, the same five already overexposed books end up in every “best of” feature. Here they are again—for the last time, we hope.
TENTH OF DECEMBER, George Saunders
Up till 2013, George Saunders was a writer’s writer, producing the stunning debut short story collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and the mostly great followups Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation. But all it took was one salivating New York Times feature on his latest to turn him from a sort-of-unknown author into someone your mother-in-law was asking you about. It doesn’t help that the book is his first true dud: it contains a personal nadir in “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” based on a dream and a decade in the making, and the best thing in here, “Sticks,” is a leftover from his early, dazzling madness.
THE CIRCLE, Dave Eggers
Where Saunders struggles for a while to get his stuff together, and has never produced a novel he considers publishable, Eggers is churning fiction out at a suspiciously hacky rate, with none of the modesty. While the man himself was recently indicted for his “smarmy” persona, it was his cautionary tale about Silicon Valley, an object of instant and unplanned obsolescence, that we wished would go away. At one point, the author of a Facebook memoir accused him of plagiarizing her work, and at others Eggers sounded disgusted with the very concept of researching his topic. Better to stick with William Gibson, I think.
THE FLAMETHROWERS, Rachel Kushner
This is probably a perfectly readable book, with plenty of non-tortuous sentences. Then again, outside of a few choice excerpts and comments from angry Goodreads users, I’ll never know for sure. The glowing reviews for this one were simultaneously the vaguest and most hyperbolic in memory, as if the book were a foreign film the critic had fallen asleep watching in an Ambien haze on a transatlantic flight. Also, if we may express a personal prejudice: we’re sick of 1970s-set stories, or any other historically-minded art, where the time period is the main character. Blaming Mad Men for that one.
SPEEDBOAT, Renata Adler
Well, well, a book about the 1970s that’s actually from the 1970s. An oblique and beguiling novel that, with its pretty reissue from New York Review of Books, instantly became the coolest thing to get spotted reading on the L train. It’s a wonderful, acid book, one a friend accurately compared to a meal of mustard packets, but its overnight, Internet-fueled success among a younger generation unfamiliar with Adler’s career had an air of herd behavior to it: one had the dreary sense that more people just bought a copy for their shelves (or a selfie) than actually cracked the spine in rapt attention.
THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Surely the rankest fog of horrid buzz this year surrounded another book not from our era. The jazz-age standard, often cited as a favorite by people who were forced to pretend to understand it in ninth grade, only to scorn the printed word forevermore, came in for extra scrutiny as fans of Baz Luhrmann carried it around, cover visible, to prep for his garish adaptation. We’ll never know how many of them made it to the green light, but judging how much they enjoyed getting dolled up in straw boater hats and flapper dresses for the sort of theme parties Fitzgerald mocks, we’re guessing not much of it sank in.