Goodreads has chosen, everybody! These are some of our more interesting awards, because they really are just nominated and selected by the populous, or at least that section of the populous that is represented by the users of giant book-review-site Goodreads. As previously discussed, this creates an interesting window into the workings of how and why people choose and enjoy books.
As such, it’s worth looking at less as a standard awards-granting ceremony, and more as a view of what it is we’re getting out of the books that the people who are willing to spend their time publicly expounding about them find it worth publicly expounding 1 about.
So let’s look upon the expoundment, and come to some conclusions!
Jojo Moyes – Still Me
WHAT IT IS:The third in the “Me/You” series of books, which started with the mega-popular Me Before You series, which was made into a movie starring Danaerys Targarayen and Finnick Odair. It’s here in the “fiction” category, and nowhere to be found in the “Romance” category, which is the result of either some “no true Scotsman” nonsense or the same weird anti-genre impulse that says anything that gets popular and respected can’t possibly be from its original genre ghetto. I suppose which of those things you think is in play depends on which vector your cynicality about the nature of book-expounding comes in from 2.
WHAT IT SAYS: It’s a bit of a boring way to start out here, but it says that people love both romance novels (even if they aren’t calling them that) and already-familiar properties, which leads to a bunch of sequels winning this kind of award.
Mystery & Thriller
Stephen King – The Outsider
WHAT IT IS: A new book from a gigantically-famous writer, working outside of his usual genre (horror), or even the genre of the majority of his non-horror work (crime fiction).
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that people like Stephen King. He’s a wildly-likable writer who usually does interesting work. He’s also long done some expounding of his own about how much he loves mysteries, so it’s probably gratifying to be recognized as such for his contribution to the field, I suppose.
Kristin Hannah – The Great Alone
WHAT IT IS: A story of the hardships of going to Alaska in the seventies, and trying to survive that decision.
WHAT IT SAYS: The aphorism goes that history is about the time it’s written, the time it’s set, and the time it’s read. I think that historical fiction skews more heavily to the time that it’s written, and so it’s useful to see what people are interested in in terms of historical fiction at any given time. I also think that historical fiction is, somehow, given a frisson of pseudo-respectability 3 because it comes with a sort of implied promise that you could “learn something,” as though all fiction wasn’t instructive about something. This is a rant for another day, I suppose, but The Great Alone’s win says a lot about the thoughts of the people who enjoy this particular re-framing. What it says (and I know I’m kind of dodging here) is probably better guessed by someone who would ever read it, a set of people of which I am not a part.
Madeline Miller – Circe
WHAT IT IS: A re-imagining of The Odyssey from the point of view of the titular character, and an examination of a very particular archetype in classical stories.
WHAT IT SAYS: It’s not just the movie-going public/film industry that’s into remakes 4, and when there’s one that’s as thought-provoking, compelling and competently-executed as this one, people really respond to it.
Best of the Best
Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give
WHAT IT IS: So this category is here because it’s the tenth Goodreads awards, and this was the one that was voted better than all the other winners. I suppose it makes sense that it’s a genuine actual popular sensation, with an attendant movie that’s currently in theatres (and has been for, like, months), and that everyone who’s encountered seems to enjoy.
WHAT IT SAYS: That if you execute a piece of literary work that speaks deeply to people, they will reflect that by giving it awards. If this seems like a precise for basically this entire write-up, well, it kind of is, but in something that has been named the non-specific “best,” it’s hard to pull out specific reasons. The Hate U Give is about the best choice going in the category, so I’m pretty happy that I don’t have to try to figure out, say, A Court of Wings and Ruin or The Fart in Our Cars.
Helen Hoang – The Kiss Quotient
WHAT IT IS: A well-received debut novel that seems a little left-field for an awards program without a lot of left-field candidates 5.
WHAT IT SAYS: It beat out some real titans of the field, and also the execrable E.L. James “reimagining” that came out this year, so it says that the Romance field was ready for this kind of left-field stuff, I suspect.
VE Schwab – Vengeful
WHAT IT IS: It’s about superheroes, and their scary dystopian experiments and stuff.
WHAT IT SAYS: People love scary-ass stories about how well actually, superheroes are scary and fascists. Seriously, our 6 taste for this stuff is almost-bottomless, and it seems like all of it gets praised to the high heavens. This is also a book in a series, and those do well because of the aforementioned familiarity business.
Stephen King – Elevation
WHAT IT IS: Stephen King’s second Goodreads Choice award of the year.
WHAT IT SAYS: That Stephen King is a familiar and crowd-pleasing name, especially among horror readers, and his work is good enough to easily reach consensus in something like this. It’s a dull answer, but it’s a true answer. Unfortunately his popularity chases away anything that would otherwise be communicated by the winner of this category. That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve it, only that it’s hard to see anything when he wins a popular-vote award other than his popularity, which is extreme, especially in literary terms, even now.
Tiffany Haddish – The Last Black Unicorn
WHAT IT IS: The most recent result of Haddish’s meteoric rise to top-tier funnypersonism.
WHAT IT SAYS: This one has most to do with Haddish herself – she’s a lively, captivating storyteller – and the compelling nature of her narrative, which includes some truly harrowing origins and a genuinely inspiring triumph over same. Since a feel-good story is much loved, and Tiffany Haddish’s rise to fame was quick enough to make people curious about it, and the book itself so satisfying, it stands to reason that people have a lot of good things to say about it.
Michelle McNamara – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
WHAT IT IS: The work of true crime writing that may someday inspire its own work of true crime – it led to the arrest of the titular character after the author’s death.
WHAT IT SAYS: It’s hard to beat the meta-story here, of a deceased true crime writer actually solving a case. It’s also got the fact that the police insisted that she did not, in fact, deserve this credit, despite using her exact information and methods, and that it’s a gripping, exhaustive reading of a very captivating situation. Plus she set out to bring a monster to justice, and then it happened, even if she didn’t live to see it. Let it be a lesson that a job well done, centered around a thing that is important to the person doing it, is often its own reward, and could be so much more. It’s chaos, be kind.
Memoir & Autobiography
Tara Westover – Educated
WHAT IT IS: An account of a woman who managed to achieve the titular education, despite her origins in a survivalist cult in the middle of nowhere.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that we probably find it comforting – for reasons both obvious and not – to read a story about how you can, no matter where you start, overcome those ideas and be a different person 7.
History & Biography
Maxwell King – The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers
WHAT IT IS: A thorough biography of a guy who we all spent a lot of time with on television when we were kids.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that everybody likes Mr. Rogers, and there’s something especially attractive about spending time learning about someone who devoted his life’s work to kindness, and preached of neighborly love to everybody. It’s also got deep appeal for pedants who like to tell people that, in fact, Fred Rogers was not a sniper.
Science & Technology
Stephen Brusatte – The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
WHAT IT IS: It’s sort of half-biography of an extinct set of species (it tells the entire history of dinosaurs, as far as that goes), half-travelogue.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that dinosaurs are awesome, and people like it when other people write about going to far-off places. I’ve spent several minutes trying to come up with a joke whose punchline is “Eat Prey Love”. Get it? Because dinosaurs and prey. I’ll try harder next time, I promise.
Food & Cookbooks
Chrissy Teigen – Cravings: Hungry for More
WHAT IT IS: It’s the newest cookbook by former 8 model and Instagram celebrity Chrissy Teigen.
WHAT IT SAYS: Cookbooks are a weird market that I don’t always understand, despite owning several dozen of them myself. Since it’s less permeable than other aspects of book-selling, famous people tend to do well. When a famous person puts together a well-done collection of well-photographed and of-the-moment recipes, then the result is something that sells a lot of copies.
Graphic Novels & Comics
Sarah Andersen – Herding Cats
WHAT IT IS: A collection of the tremendously, alarmingly viral slice-of-life webcomics that you’ve seen shared on [literally any place where people can share webcomics] a billion times.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that we still like books of comic strips when they pop up. The resilience of the joke-a-day comic strip is a truly awe-inspiring thing, and while it’s true that their form has moved to one that’s more hospitable than “printed three inches high next to Dear Abby”, it’s also true that the actual inherent qualities of the joke-a-day strip have changed surprisingly little in the 120 or so years since they started existing, and that’s pretty incredible given how much the modes of doing business with them have changed in that same time period. Anyway, people like these comics, so they like books of these comics, just like they always have. Joke-a-day strips are, it seems, a constant.
Amanda Lovelace – The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One
WHAT IT IS: The sassy follow-up to The Princess Saves Herself in This One, this one about witches instead of princesses, information you could probably have gleaned from the title. You’re so smart.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that people like sassy revision of very old stories (see above w/r/t our insatiable appetite for remakes). Beyond that, it’s a mystery to me, as is the reception to most poetry.
Tomi Adeyemi – Children of Blood and Bone
WHAT IT IS: A YA novel that reads like a sort of amalgamation of a bunch of other YA-stuff that people like, only considerably more West African.
WHAT IT SAYS: Adeyemi certainly wrote a very good book, and also revealed a particular talent for getting herself in public, so a lot of people heard about it. It’s easy to read, and it’s a window into a set of cultural storytelling tools and devices that a lot of people aren’t familiar with, which I suppose comes across as a “twist” on some fairly-normal YA storytelling.
Young Adult Fiction
Becky Albertalli – Leah on the Offbeat
WHAT IT IS: A YA book about a young lady who isn’t like all the other girls who finds love in high school and it’s bittersweet and also did we mention she’s not like all the other girls?
WHAT IT SAYS: It says that the portion of the YA audience that votes on Goodreads does not have a wide variety of interests
Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction
Sarah J. Maas – Kingdom of Ash
WHAT IT IS: The final book in the Throne of Glass series, each of which has won this award, which is pretty impressive, in its way.
WHAT IT SAYS: That if the YA lit pack is after stories about girls who are proudly different and fall in love (bittersweetly), then the YA fantasy pack is after the very highest of fantasy, and specifically that they want Ms. Maas to write it.
Middle Grade & Children’s
Rick Riordan – The Burning Maze
WHAT IT IS: If Sarah J. Maas’s run is impressive 9, then Rick Riordan’s is twice so – he’s won this category eight years in a row. They might as well name the thing after him.
WHAT IT SAYS: This category actually has surprisingly more variety (to a degree) than the YA categories, which is why I’m less flippant about this one I guess. But seriously, eight Rick Riordan books in a row says “we the Goodreads awards voters really like Rick Riordan”
Grace Byers – I Am Enough
WHAT IT IS: It’s a picture book. I’m not heartless here. It’s got pictures and a message.
WHAT IT SAYS: It says “I Am Enough” is a very good message for a picture book.
- There’s more to say about this, and I keep meaning to get off my duff and write the thing I’ve got notes for about why I write about awards so much – I think it’s an interesting bit of cultural flotsam – left behind by the crashing of the cultural view into the mass of art that it inevitably crashes through to get to something like a “consensus” – for varying views of consensus. ↩
- I tend toward the latter, as could probably be gleaned from my previous writing on the subject. ↩
- it has its own genre-barriers to contend with, so it’s not actual respectability, it’s not like HF novels win literary awards very often. ↩
- I mean, it’s also the video game industry (see the re-ports of basically every game ever) and the YouTube-viewing audience (see the indefatiguable appetite for people that cover songs on YouTube) and the television audience (see the reboots, and also the clot of shows where people sing and/or lip-sync to pre-existing songs). It’s something about the media-consumptive behavior of Americans, to be sure. ↩
- see, for example, especially the YA categories, which are dominated by the same couple of people, and also a bunch of the non-winners but finalists, who tend to shuffle around in each category from year to year. ↩
- by which I mean “the audience for this sort of thing” I, myself, have no taste for it ↩
- although she does manage this parting of ways without scorching any earth or what have you, which is probably also comforting in its way. ↩
- it is entirely possible she still works as a model, I guess? ↩
- and, as noted above, I do think it’s impressive ↩