I get it: We moderns like lists. The six inhabited continents are messy, big, and multilingual places (yes, even Australia), and we would like the events therein to be curated. Not to mention our short attention spans and our desire to be everywhere at once. Something going on in the Ukraine? We’re on top of it! New Earth-like planet discovered 500 lightyears away? I’ve heard of that, too!
Enter “100 Best Novels” and its ilk. But since this one-size-fits-all,-heavy-on-the-Europeans list doesn’t fit all, there are a myriad of specialized lists as well: “the top 10 novels about priests,” the “10 Best Novels for Foodies,” and so on.
Some of these lists seem designed to help a reader find great literature, such as the “20 best British and Irish novels of all time.” Others cater to the desire to know more about a particular topic: “10 best novels about the US civil war.”
Indeed, the “top 10” has become a hugely popular genre, positing the list-author as a judge who has knowledge to compile a longlist, and a shortlist, and finally selected her (or his) Top Ten, Top 5, or Other Favored Number. It is not unlike selecting the winner of a literary prize, although — in most cases — it requires a good deal less effort. Often, nearly no effort at all.
As often as not, these lists are less about curating literature and more about showcasing our prejudices.
Enter the list of “best books about Africa.”
It is the most drear sort of colonial mentality that creates a list of the best “British and Irish novels,” but a top 10 about Africa. While African novelists apparently don’t need to comment on life in Britain, a list of “Africa” novels must include The Poisonwood Bible and The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Why? Because this is not a list for avid readers, but a list for those who want to “experience Africa,” (and sometimes one does want an overtly cheerful Africa!).
As others have noted, it’s not worth spending too much time with the Telegraph list. But attempting to curate a list of the “best of African literature” has bedeviled authorities beyond whoever compiled this absurdist top 10. Helon Habila’s collection for Granta, for instance, The African Short Story, lacks the giants of the Arabic short story (how does one do this without Yusuf Idris?), as well as stories written in other non-European languages.
But how could you blame Habila? What sort of authority could know what’s going on in dozens of countries and dozens of languages when it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of just the few countries north of the Sahara, where the languages used are mostly just Arabic (fos7a and some colloquial), Tamazight, English, and French?
Surely, I will open a browser tomorrow and find more lists — “top 10 novels to read while recovering from a hangover!” “best 5 novels about Easter-egg hunts!” “top 15 novels to read before you travel to Portugal!” — and why not? I have published an “Arab Authors’ Favorites of 201X” list these last two Decembers, and happily. I also made a list of 12 Arab women’s novels, not because they’re the best, but because I promise they’re worth your time.
Claiming a “best of” is yet a different road, and makes a claim of expertise. If we’re going to call them the top novels, we should at least throw in some evidence that we’ve a) actually read these novels, and b) that we’ve read others in the genre besides.
Oh, and we never need to see another list of novels “about” Africa. Ever. Thanks.
Yes, yes, it was the Telegraph piece that had Chinua Achebe as the author of Children of Gebelawi. Thank goodness it was corrected.