Fifty is too big a list

Over at Book Riot: 50 Must-Read Coming-of-Age Novels

Which caught my eye because of my instant reaction which was: I’m not clicking through to that. Fifty is way too many books to consider.

Then I clicked through, but only so I could write this post. The fast TOO BIG reaction is more interesting to me than the list.

Also, fifty is too small a list! That’s my second reaction, following a split second behind the first. EVERY SINGLE YOUNG ADULT NOVEL is a coming-of-age story. Isn’t it? Isn’t that practically the definition of a YA novel? No matter what else is going on, the protagonist(s) and probably various secondary characters move inextricably from childhood into adulthood. That’s got to be true of 99.9% of everything published as YA in the last 20 years!

On top of that, if the pacing is too slow or the book is too long or for any other reason under the sun, you may publish your specific book as adult, but often it is still a coming-of-age story, so we wind up with what, a twentieth? a tenth? of all adult fiction also falling into the coming-of-age category.

And you’re going to cut the list down to fifty? What a pointless exercise.

Also, if you do click through and glance at the top ten or so titles in this list, you’ll see they’re all contemporary YA. So why not say the top fifty great contemporary YA books? That would help readers decide whether the list is really something they might be interested in or not.

Some of the titles included sound really out-there —

“In an Iranian village, Zal’s demented mother, horrified by the pallor of his skin and hair, is convinced she has given birth to a ‘white demon.’ She hides him in a birdcage for the next decade. Rescued by a behavioral analyst, Zal awakens in New York to the possibility of a future. A stunted and unfit adolescent, he strives to become human as he stumbles toward adulthood.”

…. Can’t quite see myself reaching for that one, no. But it’s still more-or-less contemporary YA, I guess.

This one sounds much more appealing to me:

“He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem—ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them.”

Wow, that must have been a challenge to write. On the other hand, nothing in this description suggests that it’s a coming-of-age story, so if the Book Riot author of this post — Dana Lee — decided to include it, she might have written a description that more clearly suggested a coming-of-age theme.

Well, well, that is beside the point, which is about the number 50. Which is very nearly as bad as the number 100.

Who can decide what to put on a list of the 50 best fantasy novels of all time, or the 100 best historical romances of all time? When I consider questions like that, what I get is FIELD TOO LARGE, both for the list and for the category.

And even after someone goes to that much trouble, who can dredge up enough time and interest to make it to the bottom of the list?

Qualities that produce a superior list:

a) Specificity. The ten YA novels I have loved most this decade, say. The ten novels I remember best from my early teen years. The ten fantasy novels that might have most influenced my own writing. Like that.

b) Brevity. Ten is ample. I grant, five feels like I’m getting shortchanged, and seven feels like a cop-out. If you’re going to hit seven or eight, you might as well head for ten. Nice round number. Ten is good. Twelve if you can’t bring yourself to stop at ten. Fifteen is about as long as any list ever needs to be.

What do you think? Do lists of fifty or more titles act as click-repellent for you?

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4 thoughts on “Fifty is too big a list”

  1. Allan Shampine

    Fifty is way too long for a list of books. Ten is perfect. I won’t read all ten, but I’ll see one or two I may pick up. With fifty, the search costs are too high, and the fact that the list went to fifty makes me think the list creator isn’t all that confident in their top ten. Fifty is what you come up with when you’re throwing everything and the kitchen sink in, and I have zero confidence in the ordering past number one.

  2. Sometimes I enjoy scrolling through long lists of books to see how many I have read, if the list focuses on books I’ve likely to have heard of, if not read (such as favourite/well-known books or a genre I’ve read a lot of). But if I’m looking for recommendations, then shorter and more heavily curated lists are much more useful. Longer lists, as you say, have too many books to consider.

    And now I am going to go away and think about whether YA = coming-of-age. I had thought that YA could be about the experience of being a teenager without being coming-of-age, but maybe it’s just that it’s a more prominent theme in some books than others.

  3. Herenya, I’ll be interested in what you come up with. It was agent Kristen Nelson who gave that definition of YA and it immediately seemed right to me. Nelson separated YA from MG on this one element, I believe.

    But out of the thousands and thousands of YA titles, I expect a few don’t have a coming-of-age theme. OTOH, I can’t offhand think of any that don’t, whereas it’s easy to think of fiction titles that are listed as “adult” but have quite central coming-of-age character arcs.

  4. If it’s something where I know the books, long lists are ok, but I’m not reading more than 10 blurbs for unknown books/authors unless that list is really specific to my tastes.

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