Every year there are hundreds of thousands of books published. How does one sift through such a huge pile of rubble to find the few gold nuggets? Here is what I do:
1) Literary prizes. I always read anything that wins one of the big three: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, National Book Critics, or Man Booker. I’ve read dozens of these, and have only been disappointed once: Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker.
But you have to be careful with literary prizes. The biggest of them all – the Nobel Prize for Literature – I have found to be rather shaky. Tomas Tranströmer was an excellent choice for 2011, and I absolutely adored 2010 winner Mario Vargas Llosa’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I’ve scratched my head at other winners. I strongly suspect the Nobel Committee has other things on their minds than simply picking the best living writer.
(By the way, I put a little homage in Mohamed 2.0 to One Hundred Years of Solitude. No one has noticed it yet, that I know of.)
I’m careful with the smaller prizes or those with an agenda. Smaller prizes often overlook the best books, because they have already been nominated for the most prestigious awards. Those with an agenda – say, picking nominees based on the writer’s age, race, gender or a limited geography – are doing something besides finding the best books. They might be doing something very good and necessary, but if they are doing something besides awarding the best literature, well, they aren’t awarding the best literature.
2) Professional critics. One critic won’t cut it, but if you hear a chorus of critics praising a book then it is a good chance it is a good book. Some of my favourites are in the New Yorker, New York Times, the Guardian, the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. Some blogs are good, too. I like Bookslut, for instance.
3) People you trust. Recommendations from friends, who know what I like, tend to be very good. Recommendations from professional colleagues or tips from other writers are also excellent. I discovered Karl Ove Knausgård through my Schildts & Söderströms literary director, and I found Don DeLillo from a Jonathan Franzen interview.
Also, if I liked a writer’s previous work I know I will probably like something new. If I see a new book coming out by Philip Roth I’ll buy it before I even know the title.
Yet there are also things I avoid when looking for a good new book:
1) Bestsellers. Some bestsellers are excellent; many are not. High sales does not equal high quality. In fact, I tend to be very wary of bestsellers. The best wine in the world is not the best-selling wine in the world. The same is true of books.
2) Publisher hype. Every book a publisher prints is the best in the history of the universe. Reading blurbs gets you started, but just barely. A blurb is like someone telling you three sentences about the Sistine Chapel. It gives you a bit of an idea about the book, but it doesn’t do the book justice.
3) Amazon’s stars. I would love to see a serious study about the ratings system on Amazon. I suspect the average rating is something like four out of five stars, or maybe four and a half. The typical person tends to extremes with ratings, I think. If you liked it, it gets five stars. If not, it gets one. There is nothing in between. However, if you carefully read through the actual written reviews, you often find some excellent points.
Of course, there are no universally-acknowledged criteria to judge a good book. It’s all a matter of taste. But hopefully this gives you some good ideas.