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Miscellany

The Problem With Best-Of Lists

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We have reached that time of year — and decade — when the lists come out. And, of course, when the complaints about the lists come out.

It was succinctly tweeted by The A.V. Club's Noel Murray over the weekend (as critic Alan Sepinwall dealt with reactions to his multiple end-of-decade lists):

Listmaker: "I love Thing 1, but I love Thing 2 even more." The internet: "What the hell do you have against Thing 1?"

One of the reasons I don't make very many best-of lists is that they seem to accentuate the worst aspects of discourse about culture. The entire "How can this be on your list and not that?" sequence that repeats itself endlessly over and over at this time of year is based on the assumption that if my list would differ from your list, then I naturally conclude that your list is flawed in a way that requires an explanation. It signifies a search for a default setting, where we arrive at a set of accepted principles about what is good and what is bad, such that we can demand that dissenters explain themselves.

One person asked Sepinwall, for instance, whether there was a "specific reason" he hadn't included Pushing Daisies among his top shows of the decade. His response was that he thought the other things on the list were better. It's a very bizarre question, really. How does a divergence between your opinion of a piece of creative work and mine require that one of us provide a "specific reason"? The specific reason is "the fundamentally subjective nature of looking, even thoughtfully and reflectively, at the product of other people's creativity," no?

Let's talk about The Sopranos and make some people mad, after the jump.

Consider this: Had I written a lot of best-of lists, it would be more broadly known than it is that I didn't love The Sopranos as much as most people did. I simply wasn't especially drawn in by the characters, I found the writing a bit heavy-handed for my tastes, and the finale made me very glad I hadn't become heavily invested in it. Those are explanations, but to people who loved that show, they will mean nothing.

There is, or there should be, substance behind critical reactions — this is not about a nihilistic idea that criticism and discussion are pointless because everything is subjective. But when the question ceases to be "tell me what you think" and becomes "justify your divergence from what I am putting forth as the agreed-upon position of right-thinking people," then it ceases to be a real question.

It is at this point in the discussion that someone usually introduces the idea that if you are simply choosing the shows that you liked best, rather than the shows that you believe are actually the best, you should call them "favorites," not "best." This is supposed to play up the subjectivity of your opinion, which is in turn supposed to resolve the cognitive dissonance that simple disagreement inspires. It means this: "I can understand if the shows I think are best are not your favorites, but I cannot understand how the shows I think are best are not the shows you think are best, unless one of us is going about it in the wrong way or lacks the skills to correctly judge 'best.'"

They are my least favorite conversations of any year.

Many lists are perfectly enjoyable — Alan Sepinwall's are here, or try the top ten of 2009 from James Poniewozik at Time here.

And I should probably buck up and do my ten best of the year, I know. But what will it do to my inbox if Hoarders is on it?*

*Hoarders will not be on it.

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