A Waste of Time: The Hundred “Best” Fantasy Books
Time Magazine has put out a list of the hundred best fantasy books of all time:
It is bad. Very bad. I get that this is clickbait nonsense, but… really. Time Magazine ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Ostensibly, the selection process was as follows:
To develop our list, we began in 2019 by recruiting a panel of leading fantasy authors—Tomi Adeyemi, Cassandra Clare, Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Marlon James, N.K. Jemisin, George R.R. Martin and Sabaa Tahir—to join TIME staff in nominating the top books of the genre (panelists did not nominate their own works). The group then rated 250 nominees on a scale, and using their responses, TIME created a ranking. Finally, TIME editors considered each finalist based on key factors, including originality, ambition, artistry, critical and popular reception, and influence on the fantasy genre and literature more broadly.
I think it broadly uncontroversial to ask what on earth Cassandra Clare was doing on the panel.
I further note that despite the assurance that panelists did not nominate their own works, every panel member has at least one work on the list, including Cassandra Clare. In fact, no less than fourteen of the top one hundred fantasy books of all time… were written by this panel. Make of that what you will.
Now, as to the list itself. Where to begin?
Let me start by noting that The Lord of the Rings is one book, that was published in three volumes. As such, it would make more sense to list Rings once, rather than have it take up three separate slots. There is also a case for treating Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll in the same way (His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice, respectively). But if Time wants to do it this way, so be it.
The next thing to note is that the list is very heavy with children’s fantasy, to a degree where one wonders if the Time Editors (if not the author panel) were waxing nostalgic about their childhoods. Roald Dahl appears twice, for instance. But if we are listing children’s fantasy… where the hell is The Hobbit? It is all very well to say that Tolkien is ‘maxed out’ at three slots, but why should that matter, if the works were good or influential enough? As noted, they could have treated Rings as one book, and that would free up space for both The Hobbit and the (less child-friendly) Silmarillion.
Then there are the authors who have a legitimate claim to a place, but which have weaker books listed. Roald Dahl has James and the Giant Peach, but not Matilda, The Witches, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Terry Pratchett has The Wee Free Men, but not Small Gods or Night Watch. C.S. Lewis has The Voyage of the Dawntreader, but not The Silver Chair. There are probably other examples too.
Then there is the curious chronological bias towards recent releases. Just seven of this top one hundred list were published before the Second World War. A full fifty – half the list – were published in the twenty-first century (forty-six since 2007!). It is almost as though the Time Editors are not actually that familiar with genre history, outside memories of their childhood reading material. Though where that leaves the actual panel members is anyone’s guess – Gaiman and Martin, for a start, know a thing or two about twentieth century fantasy, but it does not show up on the list. Seeing as the list ostensibly considers a work’s genre influence, one is left scratching one’s head.
But I’m failing to note the elephant in the room. That elephant being the horde of fantasy greats who, for whatever reason, missed out… in favour of Cassandra Clare.
There is no George MacDonald, William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Mervyn Peake, Jack Vance, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, or David Gemmell. In terms of currently active writers, there is no Stephen Donaldson, Steven Erikson, Patricia McKillip, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, or China Mieville. No Stephen King, who writes fantasy, as well as horror. No Terry Brooks, who if nothing else was highly influential on the genre (they’ve got one from Robert Jordan). George R.R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay each get one entry, which puts them at level pegging with… Cassandra Clare. Good grief.
The cherry atop this particular pile of excrement? They only have two works before the nineteenth century. Sure, neither Arabian Nights nor Malory are ‘modern’ fantasy, but if they are there… what happened to Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, and the Nibelungenlied? What happened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, The Tempest, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Faust, in either its Goethe or Marlovian versions? Gulliver’s Travels? And in terms of nineteenth century material, they could at least have listed Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Kalevala. Maybe even Poe’s Masque of the Red Death or Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, to give fantastical horror its due.
As noted above, I know this is just me responding to clickbait. This is a Waste of Time, both literally and figuratively. But honestly, I would have thought that Time Magazine, in conjunction with a few people knowledgeable about the history of fantasy, could have come up with something better than this. Or at least something one could argue properly about, rather than mock. As it is… they’ve handed us a joke, to a degree that actually reflects badly on everyone involved.
The notion of condensing such a history down to a hundred “best” books is arguably a futile endeavour, but I think it potentially serves one useful purpose – helping familiarise people with the genre. Could someone reading this list (and only this list) consider themselves knowledgeable about the genre? Maybe knowledgeable in terms of the past five or so years… but there was a fantasy genre before 2007 as well. One that was not simply children’s books. Call me old fashioned, but I think reminding people of fantasy’s actual roots – rather than the current offerings – is no bad thing.
Addendum: Another thought. If these are, indeed, the best fantasy novels of all time, then logically, most of them should still be on the list in, say, 2050. Can anyone in good conscience suggest that even half of this list would qualify in 2050?