The Best of the Best & Don’t Copy This

Posted on December 21, 2011


While charging my iTouch,  I was bored so I started fooling around and was curious to see how many times I had played certain albums (and songs). I came up with my Top 10 list and posted it to my Facebook wall. Then I started thinking (always a dangerous proposition): If I asked myself to choose my favorite Top 10 list of albums on my iTouch, would I have come up with the exact same list? Would my “Best Of” list correlate with the data? Also: Would the “data” be objective proof? Just because I play something often does not necessarily translate into equivalent meaning or importance. For example, I might just want to listen to something to amp myself up, not necessarily because I find it brilliantly inspired music.

I guess I did that because I wanted to find some way of being a pest, a grinch, during this festive holiday season. I was reacting to all of those Top 10 Best Books of the Year posts flying all over Facebook. Especially, the Best Poetry Books of 2011. Now R.R. Bowker reports that 13,949 poetry and drama titles were released in 2009, with 15,681 projected in 2010. Following that projection, we’re probably heading for at least 17,000 poetry and drama titles for 2011. If we say at least 2/3rds of those titles are strictly poetry, that would give a rough estimate of 11,339 poetry books published this year.

Has anyone had time to read all 11,339 poetry books published in 2011? That would be 31 books a day, more than 1 an hour if you don’t sleep, eat, or have any semblance of a normal life. If you figure 14 hours per day of reading time, that would be 27 minutes a book. Hardly the time needed for a deep, thoughtful reading. And how about paying for those books? You’d better be comped par excellence because at an average retail price of say $12, that would amount to $136,068. Maybe that’s pocket change to Bill Gates, but he’s in the 0.001% bracket. And, wait, last I knew we’re still in 2011. What about those gems with the unfortunate pub date from now (the 21st) to midnight the 31st? They are getting left out in the cold.

I know I’m being difficult here, but it rankles me when someone touts something as the “Best.” First, it’s best in their mind. (And we’ll set aside any arguments about large or small minds for the moment.) But, for that appellation to have some sort of validity, one needs to evaluate all entries equally. That means for Best Poetry Book of 2011, one would need to fairly evaluate all poetry books of 2011. Otherwise, it becomes “Jane/John Doe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011 That They Have Read.” Few people honestly qualify their Bests in such a manner. What I’d really rather have is someone — someone whose taste is a known commodity to me — say, “Here’s a book, or an author, you should check out & why.” I do that with friends and I end up publishing a lot of books this way. For me, my imprimatur is my way of saying, “Check this book out, it’s got something worthwhile going on.”

So, would a book that I have to reread from time to time — is that book a “best”? Or is something else working here? Now with ebooks I can probably track how many times I read a book, or a passage, and how long a time I spend with it. I can get some hard data on my preferences. (Amazon, are you salivating here?)

Are we looking for quantity or quality? Maybe I can only listen to an album once in a blue moon because it is so moving and so powerful and so beautiful. Maybe it is so powerful I can take it with me in my mind and I don’t have to listen to it continually?

OK, back from the speculation cloud.

Sister (or brother) to “Best Of’s” are awards and contests. For books in the States, we have Pulitzers, NBCCs, NBAs, among others (I’m counting in all those countless contests each press seems to offer these days). Same here as with the Bests. The judges do not read every poetry book published for the qualifying period. Only the ones that have been submitted (entered). And, for many of these awards (and contests), the judge or judging panel might not necessarily read every title submitted. Screeners have that privilege. So in a sense, these are not the best books but the “books we/I like the best out of a handful.” And I’m not venturing to bring up the problem of poems competing with each other. All these things — including those notorious Best American Poems or Pushcarts — reflect the judge’s invitation to sit at the table (see my post on anthologies) from a subset of all the available work out there. I wish I wish I wish for truth in advertising.

At least, if you’re going to do a best of 2011, wait until some time in 2012 to post it…

On the other hand, in this dual-subject post, I’d like to pick up a thread from Dove’s anthology I didn’t follow in my previous post — namely, the thorny topic of permissions. Evidently, Dove, working with Penguin, could not secure permissions from HarperCollins for Sylvia Plath’s work (among others). It was not clear whether HC flat out refused (at any price) or whether the price was too high. [Someone in the know, please help out here.]

Most of the work written in the last three-quarters of the twentieth century is still under copyright. Meaning the owner of the copyright can control whether the work can be copied. Meaning if you want to publish said work in an anthology, you need the copyright holder’s permission. They can withhold permission for a number of reasons: they want to publish their own anthology, or they can demand exorbitant fees, or they can be outright looney. (Yes, there are many lunatic literary executors out there and I’m loathe to invite a lawsuit at this moment by naming names.)

At the beginning of the 20th century, copyright was for 28 years, with the ability to renew for another 28 years. If that law had held sway, works published at the end of the 20th century would enter the public domain roughly mid-21st century, and the greater majority would already had been in the public domain by the end of the 20th century. But the duration of copyright got extended twice since then and is now life of author plus 70 years. That effectively means that most of the work published in the 20th century will remain under copyright through the 21st century. Which means anthologies (ostensibly to further human knowledge) are at the mercy of competitive, money-hungry publishers and at the mercy of literary executors who want to wield undue control of their literary estates (controlling how and with whom their author’s work appears or in what light). It does not really afford a chance for furthering scholarship.

On My Soapbox: The Founding Fathers gave Congress the power in the Constitution to set limits to copyright and patents to balance the interests of authors and inventors with the needs of society (and its advancement) as a whole. The last copyright extension did get challenged and the Supreme Court essentially said that since the current law has limits, it is therefore constitutional. But the issue of the Dove anthology serves notice that critical analysis of 20th century literature will not be absolutely free and unbiased until after the 21st century. What do we gain by that?