The Top Fiction of 2020 (according to 55 lists from across the web)
Every December, hundreds of publications create “best of” lists for the year: the best books, movies, music, and more.
Occasionally these lists are data-driven (popular, aggregate reviews), but more often, they’re subjective: “Books we couldn’t put down,” “Our editors’ favorites,” and so on. I could pick publications and individuals I trust, but I could also look across the web and aggregate the information to get a sense of what has book critics and and other journalists excited across the board.
I did this in 2019, and I found it to be a great recommendation engine for what I should read next. I read all of the Top 10 from my aggregated list, and they all ended up as 4-star or 5-star books on Goodreads.
So why not give it another go for 2020? This year, I scraped 55 websites for their Best Fiction of 2020. Lists ranged from a handful of entries up to over 150. Thank goodness for webscraper.io. (You can see the full list of lists below.)
Behold the winners! Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half was featured on 35 of the 55 lists, far outpacing a tie for second place, Leave the World Behind (Rumaan Alam) and Luster (Raven Leilani), which still appeared on over half the lists I looked at. The full top 21:
I love seeing the diversity in this list. A few years ago, I added a caveat to my annual reading goal of “less than 10% white male authors” to compensate for years and years of over-representation in my (self- and school-imposed) reading, and this list fits my criteria. All top five novels are from authors of color, and a significant portion of these books feature themes of race and marginalized experiences, especially in the US (most of my lists are US-based).
If you want to dig deeper, and/or pick and choose the lists you care about, here’s an interactive version as well, which I’m aware is a pain to use on mobile:
After looking over these lists, I got to thinking — which lists are particularly relevant when trying to predict the “Top 20” books?(Technically top 21, see tie for #20.)
First off, precision: which lists’ entries are most likely to fall in the Top 21? For example, if a list is 10 books long, and 8 of those books are in the Top 21, that’s a pretty high-precision list, with 80% of its entries in the Top 21.(This is true of Entertainment Weekly and L.A. Times’ lists, below. Unsurprisingly, LitHub’s review aggregator site had 100% precision when it listed the Best-Reviewed Fiction of 2020.)
Of course, this isn’t that interesting when a list is only 4 entries long, which happens when we get a “Top 10” list, but 6 of the 10 are non-fiction. (I’ve largely tried to eliminate non-fiction so I have accurate denominators, but it was a manual & flawed process, so take these denominators with a grain of salt.)
There’s another way to look at how relevant these lists are, though, which brings me to recall: which lists have the most coverage of the Top 21 books?
This is easier to do the longer your list is: a list of all books published in 2020 would have 100% recall, but that’s not particularly meaningful. Chicago Public Library achieved this with a slightly shorter list: of their 69 fiction entries (from their longer 100 “Top books” list including non-fiction and poetry), all Top 21 across all lists are present.
(Wikipedia entry on precision and recall, if you want to nerd out with me.)
I’m not sure what I’ll do with this information going forward — I ended up eliminating a couple lists I used last year because they had literally zero precision or recall — but it’s interesting to see which lists are more “mainstream”.
Speaking of “mainstream” — if I’m just looking for a popularity contest, couldn’t I just look at bestsellers? Well…sort of. Looking at the New York Times bestselling Hardcover fiction (or the weekly wikipedia version of all fiction), it has some overlap with these lists, but “copies sold” is simply a different metric. Authors like Nicholas Sparks, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham (and their teams) are really good at selling a lot of books, but their books rarely appear on any “best of” lists. There’s a longer conversation here about the nature of quality and how it does or doesn’t overlap with popular opinion, but suffice to say for now that “Best of 2020” and “Bestselling in 2020” are two very different things.
As a final thought on this contrast: the diversity we see in the “Best of 2020” lists is notably missing from the fiction bestsellers (Hardcover; my proxy for “2020”) , perhaps reflecting long-entrenched systems in the publishing industry and the demographics of book-buyers. If we believe that the aggregate of these lists are a better approximation of quality than a “bestseller” list (which I do), and we note the differences in diversity between these lists and bestsellers, we can infer that the systems in place that produce and sell books underrepresent authors and stories of color, and result in overall lower quality of books consumed. I’m making a lot of leaps here (how do we actually approximate “books consumed?”), but consider this a starting point for your next book club discussion — and then, use the lists above to narrow down your books for the year. Happy reading.