Are The Most Popular Fantasy Books The Best Fantasy Books?

Image: Popular Fantasy Novels

A month or so ago while trawling through Facebook I came across a Buzzfeed article titled The 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written. The image, for maximum click-enticing effect, was additionally headlined “The 51 Fantasy Series You Need to Read Before You Die”.

And yes, like the lemming I am, I clicked on it.

Trawling through the list, I saw many series I had read, and many I had not. I saw plenty of books I love and would consider favourites… but I also saw a few that made me wrinkle my nose. Really, we all have to read that before we die? I wish I could un-read that.

Aside from the fact that most of the books on the list were more traditional epic high fantasies (except a few outliers, e.g. Harry Potter and Outlander), it was also obvious that the majority of the books on the list were either historically or currently popular fantasy series. But does that necessarily make them the best fantasy series ever written?

I guess there can be no impartial measurement of a word like “best”. Best will always depend on the opinion of the person writing it. Certainly, popularity is a good indication that a large number of people have enjoyed a book.

And when it comes to extremely popular books, I usually like them… I would never be turned off something because it is popular. However, I have also been disappointed by bestselling novels. Similarly, I have read great books that are not wildly popular that are better than ones that are.

If I dislike a popular book, I often ask myself why I didn’t enjoy it when thousands of others did. And I find it is often because of the following reasons:

  • It’s not my kind of book, or a genre I dislike (e.g. verbose literary fiction, poetry, abstract or experimental fiction, certain kinds of magical realism).
  • It was popular at the time of publication, but doesn’t hold up for my modern reading tastes.
  • It’s famous because it was historically the first book to tell a story a certain way, but I just can’t get into that story (I recently found this to be the case with The Black Company).
  • It’s full of too many clichés… and particularly fantasy clichés. Perhaps the book appeals to people who haven’t read many other fantasy novels, or don’t mind clichés, but I can’t stomach it. (Eye of the World was far too similar to Lord of the Rings for my taste, and didn’t feel at all original)
  • I just find it badly written, irritating or boring and can’t fathom why anyone would think differently.

Regardless of these situations, I generally find that popularity does mean something. I think dismissing or criticising something solely because it is popular is as silly as liking something purely because it is popular. I believe certain books are successful simply because they are amazing stories well told (e.g. Harry Potter, His Dark Materials Trilogy). At the same time, I think there are probably many brilliant stories out there that never find a big audience or gain the popularity they deserve. So I wouldn’t say something being the most popular makes it the best… and before rushing off to read a “most popular books” list I would want to consider whether the books are the kind I’m likely to appreciate. But popularity certainly means it’s worth giving it a look in.

6 thoughts on “Are The Most Popular Fantasy Books The Best Fantasy Books?

  1. Huh. I’ve read/am currently reading through 28 of those.

    A lot of people like to bandy about the word ‘best’ when they really just mean popular, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Folks with more literary inclinations would probably read that list and scoff, begrudgingly admitting that okay, maybe one or two of those deserves to be on it. Maybe.

    But as you point out, it’s going to vary from reader to reader, and the closest metric anyone has to measuring the ‘best’ is popularity – there isn’t some ambiguous, ethereal judge that holds court and decrees what’s good and what’s not, it’s the general public who develops an interest in a book.

    At the same time, it’s just like politics – no two readers can possibly have the exact same experience even if they read the exact same set of books. So the ‘best’ boils down to each reader’s idiosyncrasies.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think that’s one of the fascinating things about books – that no two readers will ever have exactly the same experience. For every book I would label among the “best of all time” I am certain to find a scathing review online written by someone who hated it… and I guess in the face of such differences in personal preference the only relatively “unbiased” measure you can have is popularity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this list could switch some titles for others, for example, there are no books by Mercedes Lackey and I love her books. Not all of them, but still pretty good fantasy.

    Anyway, popularity is fine and all, there must be a reason that some books are read by so many, even good publicity couldn’t gather such a crowd to read them, but I’ve read some of the popular books that were badly written or boring or I didn’t like them from any other reason, fo example even though so many people seem to love Stephen King’s books I simply can’t stand his writing style. Stories are good, but I don’t like reading them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Perhaps it’s that, as writers, we are aware of the structures within a story. We can guess what’s behind the curtain, if you will.

    Also, you can’t rule out jealousy. We’re only human. I know how it irks me when certain authors get so much attention and I find their work lacking. You’re absolutely right that studying such work to see what the author did right is a great solution, no matter why you disagree that one book or another belongs on a “best of” list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I think as a writer jealousy can mean those popular books that are lacking can stand out more in your mind than all the popular ones that are well written… and be irksome! But I find it interesting to read them, if only to figure out what element of them might have appealed to so many people.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was glad to see my two favorite fantasy series on the list: The Elric Saga and The Chronicles of Amber. At least some older fantasy series were included. A bunch more would have made the list if I were crafting it, especially the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series by Fritz Leiber. But I haven’t read a good number of the more recent series on that list, so it’s impossible to say how much I’d like them if I did read them. Some of the series on the list I have tried to read but felt like I was wading through a swamp in places. I won’t say which ones. Every reader has different tastes, so it’s overly dramatic to say that every fan of fantasy should read all of those series. I haven’t read the Harry Potter books and don’t ever plan to, although I did enjoy the movies and I’m sure the books are great.

    Liked by 1 person

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