Saturday, 17 October 2020

Out of Time, or Why is the "100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time" list so incoherent?

A publication has unveiled a list called “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” Predictably, it has been published to howls of complaints about the makeup of the list and what works are missing. Normally you could dismiss such a thing as hyperbole (what’s wrong with “100 Pretty Good Fantasy Books?”) and the leanings of a single writer or blog, but in this case it is Time Magazine – still an influential publication, especially in the United States – and the list was assembled by a panel of famous and well-known writers, at least several of whom are noted for their deep knowledge of the genre, so the spotty and confusing nature of the list feels particularly notable.

The panel was made up of Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir. Slightly oddly, every member of the panel had at least one book on the panel and several had more than one. Fourteen books – 14% of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” – were written by people on the panel that nominated it, which is an extraordinary figure. Reportedly panel members did not nominate their own books, but instead seem to have nominated one another instead.

According to Time, the original nomination shortlist had 250 books on it and this was whittled down by Time’s editors based on key factors: originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and “influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.” Which is fine, but it does seem to remove the point of the panel in the first place, if Time’s editors chose to then edit the list by criteria that seem nebulous at best and self-contradictory at worst.

The resulting list certainly is not terrible, but it is strange and doesn’t seem to fulfil the remit indicated by the title. It has a very heavy recency bias: two of the books were published this year (one in August, about eight weeks ago), a further twenty-four since 2015 and fifty-one in total since the turn of the century. This recency bias – which by its nature omits vast swathes of acknowledged classics of decades or centuries of standing in preference to the newest, shiniest flavour-of-the-month – makes one wonder why the panel didn’t put together a list of “The 100 Greatest Works of Fantasy of the 21st Century (so far).” The list would immediately become vastly more credible, and indeed, would be enhanced with the addition of forty-nine more books from this century.

Even the recency bias feels somewhat inconsistent, with the absence of several high-profile recent fantasy novels which have enjoyed both immense critical and commercial success: Senlin Ascends (2013) by Josiah Bancroft, The Goblin Emperor (2014) by Katherine Addison, Under the Pendulum Sun (2017) by Jeanette Ng, Gideon the Ninth (2019) by Tamsyn Muir and anything by Kameron Hurley all feel like major omissions in any consideration of recent fantasy works.

The list also seems to lack any of kind of rules regarding what are even technically considered “novels.” The Lord of the Rings – planned, written and executed as one single novel and only published in three for cost and paper rationing reasons - is listed as three books, but The Once and Future King – a series of four previously independent novels, sometimes now available in omnibus – is listed as one. If The Lord of the Rings was also counted as one book, then that would have freed up two more slots for other books. There are also multiple entries for trilogies and series which feel like they could have been condensed into one, allowing the scope of the list to be widened to address the more egregious absences. The list also mostly avoids short story collections before randomly dropping a couple into the mix, which makes it feel like the criteria for the list was not strongly defined beforehand.

The list also has a baffling attitude to pre-modern works of the fantastic. Including The Arabian Nights and Le Morte D’Arthur makes one wonder why The Odyssey and The Iliad are missing, not to mention The Aeneid, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Beowulf feels like it should merit a mention, and perhaps the Finnish myth-cycle, The Kalevala. Gulliver’s Travels, a vital work of early fantasy, is notable by its absence, as are absolutely any works connected to Shakespeare. This part of the list feels very much like a sop to the fact that fantasy is an ancient genre and that a couple of pre-modern works should be slapped in to make it vaguely more credible before moving on to more recent material.

Even worse is the list completely side-stepping the foundational texts of much of modern fantasy: The Rose and the Ring, Phantastes, The Well of the World’s End, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, The Worm Ouroboros and Lud-in-the-Mist being completely ignored is remarkable. Two or three of them being skipped over might be expected, but all of them? The incoherence on whether short story collections count or not may also explain the absence of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and C.L. Moore’s Jiriel stories.

Probably the single biggest absence on the list is that of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, published in 1937. The absence of The Hobbit is baffling, and if The Lord of the Rings had been included as one book (as it should have been), then The Hobbit could have also been included and another place freed up for another writer. As it stands, the list is YA and children’s book heavy but the biggest and most influential children’s fantasy novel of all time is missing. The absence of The Silmarillion is less surprising, given it's (oft-overstated) reputation as a "difficult" work, but its absence in favour of decidedly more disposable, recent fare is interesting.

A major issue with any list of fantasy works is the propensity of the genre towards long series, often ones which cumulatively have a huge impact but singling out single novels is difficult or contentious. For this reason, most such lists will allow nominations for an entire series rather than individual titles, but this list does not permit that (well, apart from the Once and Future King quartet, for unspecified reasons). This leaves the list in an awkward position where several times it appears to imply a place for the entire series using the first novel as an example (The Eye of the World representing the entire 15-book Wheel of Time, despite the book being middling in the quality level of the series as a whole), but in others it randomly picks a book from somewhere else in the series (The Wee Free Men, a rather minor and very definitely nowhere near the best entry from the Discworld series), or picks out the by-consensus best book of the series (A Storm of Swords representing A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the first book, A Game of Thrones). Towards the end, the list seems to lose consistency altogether by picking out multiple books from very recent series which have not yet had a chance to withstand the test of time. With the exception of the two entries for N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (since all three won Hugo Awards and immense critical acclaim, there is some rationale for that), most of these feel bit over the top: R.F Kuang, Tomi Adeyemi, Ken Liu and Sabaa Tahir are all reasonable recent writers, but giving them two entries apiece feels like overkill when, say, established and important authors like Robin Hobb, Andrzej Sapkowski, Kate Elliott and Steven Erikson are missing from the list altogether.

Fantasy is of course a broad church, far broader than say “science fiction” or “detective novel,” with very elastic boundaries. The list goes for the broadest possible definition, meaning that epic fantasy, magic realism, children’s fantasy, modern YA, science fantasy, fairy stories and myths are conflated together. Even so, the list feels somewhat unrepresentative of the genre. The New Weird goes completely unmentioned (China Miéville or Steph Swainston are both notable by their absences), as does steampunk and, startlingly, urban fantasy: Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series feels like it should have appeared from a literary perspective, or Jim Butcher or Charlaine Harris if you wanted to go for something wither more commercial clout.

The list also leans very heavily towards children's fantasy and YA. Again, if the list was specifically meant to reward books in that mode, that would be fine but it does say it is for the best fantasy books of all time, not the best YA fantasy novels of all time. YA and children's fiction is overrepresented to such an extreme that it's possible that someone looking at this list would conclude that fantasy is a juvenile genre unworthy of serious literary consideration; the absence of fantasy and magic realism's literary heavyweights like Gene Wolfe, Mervyn Peake, Jorge Borges and Gabriel García Márquez, and Rushdie only getting on the list with a children's book, may reinforce this view. This is not to say that YA and children's fantasy should not be represented on the list - there are numerous classic works of fantasy that are YA or children's books in origin (and I previously noted the puzzling absence of The Hobbit) but the field on this list is overrepresented when other incredibly popular subgenres are wholly missing.

The list is clearly aiming for inclusion and fairer representation of non-white and non-male authors, which is great, but does brush against the elephant in the room. Much moreso even than science fiction, fantasy was very white and very male until comparatively recently: pre-1960 female fantasy authors are very thin on the ground, clearly a regrettable situation, but one that is a historical fact. The list seems to address this by simply minimising the importance all of early fantasy altogether, including those female authors who were influential and important (the aforementioned C.L. Moore, Hope Mirrlees of Lud-in-the-Mist fame, science fantasy author Leigh Brackett, Ruth Thompson and Rachel Cosgrove of the later Oz books and more), or throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The list’s criteria for inclusion also do not extend to works not originally published in English. Only three of the books were not originally published in English and the list leaves out other influential and important non-English works. The Dutch De brief vor de koning (The Letter for the King) by Tonke Dragt is missing and the Polish Wiedźmin (Witcher) series by Andrzej Sapkowski doesn’t even rate a mention, despite both being recently brought to a wider English-speaking language by Netflix adaptations. Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) by Michael Ende is also MIA.

The list also has a hesitant attitude towards controversy. The glaring absence of H.P. Lovecraft is likely down to his racist viewpoints despite the immense influence of his work over the modern genre, and I suspect Robert E. Howard’s absence might also be down to the perceived racism in his works (although Howard’s attitudes towards race were vastly more progressive than Lovecraft’s, or indeed most people of his time, and improved remarkably over his short lifetime) as well. The entry for The Eye of the World makes the interesting choice of accusing the author of sexism (the entry has a whole seems apologetic for including the book, making one wonder why they did) and even A Storm of Swords gets a non sequitur side-line where George R.R. Martin’s recent clumsy handling of the 2020 Hugo Awards is noted. However, the mention of controversy is seemingly limited to older authors: Cassandra Clare’s multiple brushes with plagiarism accusations and lawsuits are cheerfully ignored and Tomi Adeyemi’s online meltdown over an author with a similar book title to her own goes resolutely unmentioned.

When it comes to individual works that should have been mentioned but are not, there are too many to mention and of course the fact that 100 positions is far too few to accommodate any kind of broad overview of the genre. However, the absence of both Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, often cited and indeed voted the greatest SFF work of all time, is ridiculous, and the absence of any of Robin Hobb’s work which distils the sometimes-high ideals of fantasy down to the level of human experience is glaring. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell's baffling absence may make some consider if the list has, in fact, gone out of its way to be contrarian.

Ultimately the list can be seen as a form of clickbait to engender greater discussion of the genre, but it feels like Time deliberately misrepresented the list by calling it the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” They should have divided the list in three, publishing perhaps a pre-20th Century list, a 20th Century list and a 21st Century instalment, which is really the only way of doing such an enormous concept justice. As it stands, the list is too incoherent to be of much worth. If this was a Buzzfeed list aimed at new readers, it’d be one thing, but I generally expect better of Time.

  1. The Arabian Nights (c. 8th Century) 
  2. Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1485)
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  4. Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)
  5. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)
  6. Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1907)
  7. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)
  8. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)
  9. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola (1952)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis (1952)
  11. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  12. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola (1954)
  13. The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  14. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (1955)
  15. A Hero Born by Jin Yong (1957)
  16. The Once & Future King by T.H. White (1958)
  17. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl (1961)
  18. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1961)
  19. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
  20. The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez (1965)
  21. Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey (1968)
  22. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)
  23. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
  24. The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart (1970)
  25. The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (1970)
  26. Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)
  27. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
  28. The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973)
  29. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt (1975)
  30. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (1978)
  31. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979)
  32. The BFG by Roald Dahl (1982)
  33. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce (1983)
  34. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
  35. Redwall by Brian Jacques (1986)
  36. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner (1987)
  37. The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones (1988)
  38. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (1990)
  39. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990)
  40. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie (1990)
  41. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
  42. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  43. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (Northern Lights)
  44. Neverwhere by Nail Gaiman (1996)
  45. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (1997)
  46. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (1997)
  47. Brown Girl in the Ring by Naolo Hopkinson (1998)
  48. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (1999)
  49. Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley (2000)
  50. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (2000)
  51. American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)
  52. The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett (2003)
  53. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (2005)
  54. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson (2006)
  55. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
  56. City of Glass by Cassandra Clare (2009)
  57. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (2009)
  58. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin (2010)
  59. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
  60. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)
  61. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)
  62. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)
  63. Angelfall by Susan Ee (2011)
  64. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (2013)
  65. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014)
  66. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)
  67. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (2015)
  68. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (2015)
  69. The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)
  70. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older (2015)
  71. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (2015)
  72. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh (2015)
  73. Song of Blood & Stone by L. Penelope (2015)
  74. Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (2016)
  75. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016)
  76. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir (2016)
  77. The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu (2016)
  78. Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (2017)
  79. The Blade Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang (2017)
  80. The Changeling by Victor Lavalle (2017)
  81. Jade City by Fonda Lee (2017)
  82. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (2017)
  83. Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Choskshi (2018)
  84. Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore (2018)
  85. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (2018)
  86. Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)
  87. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri (2018)
  88. The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang (2018)
  89. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse (2018)
  90. Witchmark by C.L. Polk (2018)
  91. Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James (2019)
  92. Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi (2019)
  93. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (2019)
  94. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019)
  95. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (2019)
  96. Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender (2019)
  97. Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter (2019)
  98. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal (2019)
  99. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (2020)
  100. Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez (2020)


Stephen said...

In addition to all the glaring omissions you mention — Clarke, Wolfe, Peake & others — I would add another that is equally glaring, possibly even more so: John Crowley, Little Big.

David Millington said...

I can't claim to have read everything on this list but a couple of the very recent choices are absolute differs. Derivative and flat. This, taken with some of the ommissions that you've mentioned, makes it hard to take this list seriously. It reads like an exercise in box ticking and faux inclusivity. Why don't you have a go Adam? 'Best fantasy novels by British and Commonwealth writers' (the old Booker criteria).

insurrbution said...

I wonder why each part of The Lord of the Rings has it's own spot: it should just be one for the whole novel - "The Lord of the Rings."

That'd be like instead of saying "Les Miserables" on a fiction list, it would read "Fantine", "Cosette", "Marius", "Saint Denis" and "Jean Valjen."

Andy said...

It's a worthwhile question to ask who paid for this? I mean, the authors didn't do this for free and neither did Time, so one has to ask how much impact did the publishers have in selecting the books on the list and the authors on the panel? To give a shameless plug to @werthead and others like him, lists like this should be composed by reader surveys and edited by folks who read and review books widely across the genre, and who do not have a specific agenda or connections to particular publishers. If we're talking purely 21st century stuff, I would also like to see an anonymous survey by agents and editors. That would risk being skewed by financial motives, but I would love to see the perspective of agents and editors on what submissions they're getting, and what positive and negative trends they're seeing. Basically, I would want to explore the question of not just what kinds of books are you receiving from authors and seeing published, but what other kinds of works do you think deserve more attention if the market wasn't structured as it currently is?

Dave K said...

Nice review like always. At least the list (and more so your review) will provide some titles to add to my reading list.

p.s. Small typo: It's "De brief voor de koning" by Tonke Dragt.

Wastrel said...

The science fiction people have been having a debate recently - I think you've commented on it - about whether the 'classics' of SF should still be remembered and lauded, or whether they should be replaced in the canon by more recent, diverse, and better works. Perhaps this is applying the same argument to fantasy...

...but if so, I think a '100 Best Fantasy Books' list with no Silmarillion, no Gormenghast, no Book of the New Sun, and not a single Sword and Sorcery work by even one out of Leiber, Moorcock, Vance or Howard is perhaps too radical for me to understand!

It's striking how many problems Time caused for themselves by not explicitly, or implicitly, restricting themselves. They could easily have not included fairy tales - but if they include The Palm-Wine Drinkard and Arabian Nights, how can they leave out Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm? They could easily have restricted themselves to novels (originally) in English - but if they include Jin Yong, how can they exclude... well, so many things? It feels very much as though they made the list they wanted to make - of blockbuster 21st-century novels for a young audience - and then threw in a random smattering of token exceptions. But really, to be coherent, they needed to either limit their scope, or else fully embrace all parts of it fairly and evenly.

[and I've no problem with trying to boost the careers of young, female and non-white authors - but there really does come a level of boosting where you're just undermining yourself, and the authors you're trying to boost. Write a list of classics and throw in a couple of 'neglected' authors, and you can get people to check them out... but write a list that's fairly transparently trying to tick every possible box for the sake of ticking the boxes, and you encourage people to dismiss all your suggestions, even the most valid, as tokenism. From my own reading and reviews of those I trust, I think there's a lot of authors on this list who may be promising, rewarding, worth reading, and yet who are done no favours at all by being hyped as one of the greatest genre authors 'of all time'.]

But anyway. You've extensively explained the 'how' of their errors. I'd like to comment on the 'why': it's a problem of elections. Any list produced by an electorate is meaningless without an understanding of the electoral system used (eg: if your system involves ranking, you'll end up with a bunch of weird, niche picks; if your system instead is based on how many people name a thing, then you'll end up with middle-of-the-road, lowest-denominator stuff) - and even when that's understood, the result is often incoherent. Each voter understands the criteria differently, so the resulting list becomes entirely about how the voting system prioritises some votes over others. If you have one voter, or a small committee working closely together, you can have a coherent list. If you have enough voters, and a good electoral system, some of the oddities can get evened out and a general interpretation of the question emerges. But if you have half a dozen or a dozen individuals answering such an open-ended question, you are almost guaranteed to get nonsense. The list makes no coherent sense ('why this and yet not that?'), because it is cobbled together from individual thoughts in completely different heads.

If you want to produce a meaningful, useful list of favourite works, you need to put a lot more thought into the process than Time clearly did. Time seem to have done the artistic equivalent of whipping up a quick two-minute survey on their website and pretending the result is a meaningful poll of Presidential voting intentions... it's not that simple!

Anonymous said...

This list ignores completely most of the authors i would place on this list. Roger Zelaznys should have been on it, his books came out before a lot of the big ones, and it certainly feels like many of them were inspired by his Amber books

Matt Fillmore said...

Great article, Adam. Personally, I think you could compile a much better top 100 list (or lists), one I would trust more than the Time list. Something to think about . . .

Lou P said...

Thank you for these thoughts, fwiw very much agree. Seems like you need to publish your own counter list Adam.

MrSquiggles said...

That is a fairly decent critique of the list. Good job.

Kavir said...

Maybe this is what's best in the Age of Woke? They can have fun with these, I'll stick to my irrelevant authors like Robin Hobb, China Mieville, Susanna Clarke, Jim Butcher and Michael Moorcock :)

Frankly, for fantasy readers, lists of this nature aren't even worth considering if they continue perpetuating the travesty of leaving Hope Mirrlees out of the limelight.

MeanNiceBrokeFoodReviews said...

They spelled it Qvothe for Name of the Wind. Oy.

Robert Atlas said...

Yes, a lot of the authors I grew up reading aren't here. Leiber, De Camp & Pratt, Vance, Moorcock, Zelazny, Howard, Lovecraft just as examples. I'm all for correcting the errors and injustices of the past, but why ignore things that were in their own ways great achievements and hugely influential?

Nathan said...

This was a marketing ploy, nothing more.

Alex said...

But if there is no Stephen Donaldson (1st or 2nd Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) how can we play the "clench game"? (take a drink every time a character clenches something.)

There are a lot of omissions, and odd choices from authors who are on the list. An awful lot of fantastical kids books too.

I know with any list there will be a tendency for readers to say "but what about my favourite author?" but even so...

The BookWyrm said...

The fact that not one indie or small press book was mentioned invalidates this. There is a thriving community of small press and self published authors writing books and series that bury a good chunk of this list. I understand they're all authors, and that Time handed them a list to curate, but still, that's egregious.

Pulp Herb said...

Although I haven't done a complete cross-check one thing that jumped out at me is nothing Lin Carter selected for Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the late 60s through the mid-70s made it. While not everything in that series is a classic to argue that not one of 65 books published under the Unicorn's Head colophon raised an eyebrow. You mentioned several books that had been published in that series whose absence is troubling, but there are others such as The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, The Night Land William Hope Hodgson, or any of a number of James Branch Cabell novels which also might have made the cut if the period from 1920 to 1970 had not been completely excised from consideration compared to 2000-2020.

The thing that disturbs me the most is there is no Dunsany. He is the most obscure figure whose influence still pervades the genre. The best summation of his influence comes from Ursula LeGuin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie": "The most imitated, and the most inimitable, writer of fantasy is probably Lord Dunsany". The essay is collected in The Language of the Night and it is far from the only mention of Dunsay in the book. She also mentions the aforementioned Ballantine series, which was nearing the end of its run as she wrote the essay.

It would be easy to claim that citing essays written in 1973 and earlier ignore what has happened in the 50 years since their writing. While that is true, LeGuin was further removed when she was writing from Dunsay as we are from her yet she admits to falling into traps for unwary young writers set by Dunsay in terms of imitation.

The inclusion of any work post-2010 and, to my mind, any work post-2000 indicates the lack of seriousness in this list. Those works have not had time to find their second generation of readers, a key test to any "best of all time" list. This indicates criteria around inclusion were rated much higher than were admitted, although this may take the form of unconscious bowing to the current zeitgeist.

More troubling is the heavy YA skew. It has the same feel as making a similar list for science-fiction dominated by Heinlein juveniles, the Tripods trilogy, and The Hunger Games. Each has a place, but most would be in a YA SF list, not a general one. Their inclusion says something about where reading is placed as a cultural institution. Reading, especially reading for insight or learning, is not for adults. It is for those growing up to help them mature, but after such maturity, there is nothing to be learned from reading.

That is a dangerous standard to let into such lists.

J said...

Nice job breaking it down. A+

Jackalwere said...

What is the point to say something so objective as "these are the best 100" and piss people off? No Zelazny, no Hobb, no Moorcock, no Wolfe, no Hobbit, no Odyssey...what a waste of time. As Wastrel says, the use of a small, closed sample size leads to ridiculous outliers. Why were only authors chosen to create this list, and why these particular authors? Why were they allowed to choose 250 and then Time gets to select 100 without explaining WHY the book makes the list? And perhaps more importantly WHY the books they cut do not make the list? Some of the facts Adam points out: "Fourteen books – 14% of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” – were written by people on the panel that nominated it" and "this was whittled down by Time’s editors" and a book published 8 weeks ago is one of the 100 greatest of all's such a blatant attempt to wield an ax where a scalpel is a better tool, in order to support an agenda using criteria that was "defined" but without the context explaining how it was applied.

Jens said...

Your critique is spot-on; that list doesn't make much sense for all the reasons you mentioned.

Frankly, I'm at the point where I simply don't care about such lists. And what's more, I don't think that they matter.
Why? Because fantasy has become so popular that folks don't need such lists to figure out what to read - and those who don't read fantasy for whatever reason most likely won't start reading it because of such a list, either.
Yes, it's a bit annoying that a casual observer unfamiliar with the genre will have their prejudices reinforced that fantasy cannot be taken seriously because it's "kids' stuff" but I don't give a rat's ass. And neither do, apparently, most other people who read fantasy because, as I've said above, fantasy now has a firm place in the mainstream and can withstand snobbery of the literary critics.

I can only think of a very small share of people on whom this list does some (minor) harm: people who are just discovering the genre and take this list as a reading guide.
Most of these new readers will be children or teenagers and it is questionable that they will read the Time Magazine so no harm done even there. That leaves adults who are just tipping their toe into the ocean of fantasy. If this list is the only guidance they'll ever get, yes, they will come away with a wrong notion of the "best fantasy books" but if they stick with fantasy for more than a few months, in this age of online communities I am sure they will very quickly be exposed to other opinions and forget this weird list.

I suppose, ultimately the most impact that list will have is to become the source for some promotional lines on the covers of the next editions of the books on the list; in other words, it might mainly be used for marketing (which might explain the strong emphasis on recent works).

In short, the list isn't worth losing sleep over.

Fernando G. Orza said...

Great post. As others mention I think after this entry you may easily have more than 75% of a better list. I trust your judgement to deliver your readers with a list (or the 3 you name) that is satisfactory (regardless of the Spanish saying "It never rains to everyone´s liking") and enlightening, knowing it would be a personal view but better poised to do it than anyone I can think of.

Sean said...

I can understand them leaving The Iliad and The Odyssey off the list (and especially leaving off the Ramayana and Mahabharata). Le Morte d'Arthur and The Arabian Nights may have been based off of old folktales, but the versions we read were written by people who knew they were describing fanciful events. Those older epic poems were written by people who believed the gods and mystical circumstances in their tales really existed, that the events they described more-or-less actually happened. While this list worked from a very broad definition of fantasy, they were still wise enough to draw line separating fantasy fiction from religious texts (and since the Ramayana and Mahabharata are still treated as religious texts by millions of Hindus, doing otherwise could have gone very badly for them).

As for The Once and Future King, when it was published as a single volume in 1958, T.H. White made substantial revisions to The Sword in the Stone and The Queen of Air and Darkness from their original publications (heck, in original publication, the second volume was actually titled The Witch in the Wood). And the final part of the quartet, The Candle in the Wind originally appeared as part of that Once and Future King edition, not as its own, separate work. Given that, it does seem fair to regard The Once and Future King as not simply being a collection of books in a series, but as its own, distinct text, containing lots of material not found in any previously published volume.