Listmania vs. Lake Woebegone

in Andrew Seal, Edmond Caldwell, Helen DeWitt, John Guillory, The Millions

X-posted at Plasma Pool.

There is an interesting emerging conversation about The Millions‘ recently published “Best [Books] of the Millennium” list on a number of blogs I follow. First, Edmond Caldwell over at Contra James Wood questions the whole premise of list-making, associating such lists with the predominantly corporate character of the imprints represented on the list: “the listing and ranking game goes on–and on and on–as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism. “If ordered lists like this must exist,” stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they? Why should we submit to such fatalism? Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve?”

Andrew Seal, responding to Caldwell on his blog, (fatalistically?) argues that “I don’t really see how I’m going to stop them [literary lists]. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they’ve read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don’t function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another.”

An interesting debate. My eyes sort of glazed over when I read The Millions list.


I bear none of these authors any animosity as individuals — though I am frankly not always fans of their books (except for those books I am a fan of!) — but The Millions list seems to me tediously predictable on a number of levels and in ways that I find it hard to articulate. I am left with a number of questions: What’s the matter with lists? If lists can be used as a bludgeon in a game of status-conscious warfare, aren’t lists also a convenient time-saving device, a way of getting started exploring some intellectual or cultural domain for non-initiates? If I wanted to learn more (to pick in an innocent example) about the history of Marxism, wouldn’t a list of the “best” books on the history of Marxism — organized by a trusted expert on the subject — be an excellent and useful thing? Indeed, isn’t a good list a way of getting started in a cultural domain, not the final word on that domain? Is there no practice of list-making which is ideologically neutral? John Guillory has a lot to say about the ideological function of the list in the canon debate in Cultural Capital, but Helen DeWitt gives what seems to me the most lucid answer I’ve found to some of my questions; explaining why she refused to submit her judgments to the listmakers, she writes that “[t]he only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed – which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.”

Aggregation around socially interesting “nodes” is perhaps an inevitable part of social life, but — as I’ve discussed elsewhere — such nodes are also deeply self-reinforcing. In artificial music markets where “consumers” can see the preferences of other “consumers,” initial consumer clustering (almost at random) around certain “seeds” has a powerful effect on subsequent consumer choice. That is, if you happen by chance to take an early lead in a competitive race in an open market, social clustering around apparent “winners” will create feedback loops. The popular become more popular, and the unpopular become less popular. (Moreover, this difference in popularity isn’t just a cynical consumerist copying of the tastes of the Joneses — it’s not all about status anxiety — but is arguably experienced sincerely as pleasure or disgust, though this is a secondary point.) In this context, if the form of the list has an ideological function, it is to reduce thought to a sort of cant, to give an illusion of superiority of one item in a field of more or less equally good (middling) products. Genuine superiority or inferiority is exceedingly rare. Experiments that construct artificial music markets in which consumer choices are genuinely independent — where you make your own choice and issue a rating independently of others — demonstrate in general that consumers have no particular preference for one artist or another, except at the tail ends of the distribution. If you stink, you won’t get very far; if you’re great, you’ll always do modestly better in your ratings. If you’re in the middle of the stack, your fate is a crap shoot.

If we accept this admittedly speculative analysis, and are willing to apply it to our conversation about books, what do these results portend for literary lists? It seems to me that all we can say about lists is that their popularity and consistency is a symptom of a highly stratified, hierarchical culture in which truly independent thought is incredibly hard to find. Eliminating lists will not eliminate this stratification or the social forces that drive us toward some canonized set of authors. To make an unjustly bold claim, given the sketchiness of my evidence: a just distribution of attention — attention allocated in a society where highly educated individuals made genuinely autonomous value assessments, independent of marketing and spin, under conditions free of coercion — would reveal the (arguably) fundamental sameness of most literary and artistic products or at least make constructing literary lists impossible, since the autonomous judgments of a hundred judges like DeWitt would not cluster around any nodes whatsoever. These lists would look like statistical noise to us. Some small set of artists might garner slightly more attention under such conditions, others a bit less, but most would — like the children of Lake Woebegone — be equally regarded as (slightly) above average, and we would be forced at last to love all our above-average children equally.