The Cruel Exclusions of the Literary Establishment

A front-runner for the year’s most regrettable literary social-media rant has emerged: Ayelet Waldman’s instant classic of dismayed pique at the non-inclusion of her novel Love and Treasure on The New York Times’s annual list of  “100 Notable Books.”

In an indelible series of nine tweets from 2:35 p.m. to 5:13 p.m. on December 2, Waldman’s emotions run the gamut from sadness and self-pity (“I am really not dealing well with having failed to make the @nytimes notable book list. Love & Treasure is a … great novel [if I say so myself]”), to lashing out (“I never complain about this [stuff] but there are MANY books on that notable list with reviews that were NOWHERE as good as mine”), to bitter philosophizing (“What do they mean by ‘notable’?”), to a putting-a-brave-face-on-it spirit of self-promotion ( “For every preorder I’ll donate $1 to”),  to, at last and inevitably, sheepish self-awareness. The final tweet: “Has the Times list of 2014’s most Notable Twitter Hissy Fits that the Tweeter Immediately Regrets been published yet? #fingerscrossed!”—after which Waldman deleted the entire series.

Although most authors know better than to trumpet their own rage and sorrow online, such emotions in response to being excluded from important best-of lists are surely universal. Waldman’s “hissy fit” also served as a reminder of the necessarily arbitrary quality of all such accountings. As Erin Keane points out in Salon, “A ‘notable’ book has no hard criteria, not even an algorithm to game. It’s all human taste and, depending on your perspective, error.”

One trigger feature of the Times’s list is surely its cruelly capacious (but not quite capacious enough!) length. Contemplating the newspaper’s “The 10 Best Books of 2014”, one could take comfort in the possibility—no, strong probability, why not?—that one’s book was solidly in the top 20 and just missed the cut. But a list in the triple digits that finds no room for one’s book can seem to deal the most flagrant insult, according to the same logic that governs wedding invitations: The larger the party, the more painful the sting at being left out.

Much as we like to reassure ourselves and our crestfallen friends that prizes and best-of lists are silly and meaningless, a more honest accounting will recognize that they are, in fact, crucial to the status systems of publishing and authorship. Best-of lists like the Times’s are an important part of what James F. English has called the “economy of prestige” that organizes the contemporary literary system. It is almost, he writes, as though winning a prize or being named on a prestigious best-of list is “the one thing that really counts in a lifetime of more or less nonassessable, indescribable, or at least unreportable cultural accomplishments.”

The cultural norm for such lists is the category of the “best” or the “top” items of the year, but for its longer list, the Times uses a slightly different rubric. What does ‘notable’ mean? “The word is splendidly, even magisterially equivocal,” Laura Miller writes in a thoughtful piece in Salon.

“Notability,” as the Times list deploys it, seems to overlap significantly with “best” yet allows some room for cultural impact or sociological significance. “For a book to be ‘notable,’ it need not even be particularly good,” Miller argues, contending that “it’s impossible to believe that anyone on the staff of the Book Review” considers Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, which appeared on the 2010 list, “well written.” I’d quibble with her to counter that well-writtenness per se is not the be-all and end-all of literary value; is Uncle Tom’s Cabin especially “well written”?

But the key point is that notability permits a slide from judgments of quality to acknowledgments of visibility or impact, and is therefore convenient as a means to allow the Times to combine elite aesthetic judgment with a more populist acknowledgment of that which may be less “good” but is more popular and discussed.

Yet some of the source of the widespread authorial rage and anguish that found their mouthpiece in Waldman may lie in a residue of aristocratic exclusivity baked into the very concept of the “notable.” In its origins from the Middle French, the “notables” were “a body of prominent men summoned by the king as a deliberative assembly in times of national emergency.” A 1569 text, for example, alludes to “All worthy nobles and estates of the same realme of Fraunce, as well spirituals as temporals, and also Cities, notables and commonalties.”

In February 1787, Louis XVI’s controller general of finance, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, convened an Assembly of Notables, whom he hoped to convince to sign on to significant reforms. Calonne’s inability to secure their consent was one of the final steps leading to the downfall of the ancien regime. By the mid-19th century, the term had become sufficiently Anglicized for Thomas Macaulay to adapt it to describe the British Parliament: “An extraordinary meeting of the privy council, or rather an assembly of Notables, which had been convoked at Whitehall.”

Notability has, of course, moved beyond those elite Gallic origins to mean, in The Oxford English Dictionary’s summary definition, anything “Worthy or deserving of attention, esp. on account of excellence, value, or importance; significant in size or amount; noteworthy, remarkable, striking, signal, eminent.”

Yet a cultural memory of that “body of prominent men summoned by the king” still hovers over our usage, imparting to it a whiff of the ancien regime, of aristocratic elitism, that may smell fundamentally antidemocratic.

Why does the king get to decide who is to determine the ranks of the notable? More than two centuries beyond the American and French revolutions, haven’t we all earned the right to declare ourselves, and our books, to be among the notables?

If we turn a more sympathetic ear to Ayelet Waldman’s Twitter outburst, we might even detect hints of a political subtext in her protest against the often cruelly arbitrary exclusions of the literary establishment. “You pour your heart into your work, you get awesome reviews, and then someone decides it’s not ‘notable.’”

After all, who made the editor of The New York Times Book Review king?

Ivan Kreilkamp is an associate professor of English at Indiana University at Bloomington and co-editor of the journal Victorian Studies.

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