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.