Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year list was unveiled today to an expected mixed response, as it is basically every year. It’s hard to garner universal praise for such a list when it crosses lines of politics, economics and general taste, but as a book site, our interest lies with the authors included.
To the surprise of nobody, John Green entered the list in the ‘artists’ section, with a short blurb of praise written by The Fault in our Stars actress Shailene Woodley that, to put it mildly, was bizarre. The moment you start referring to anyone outside of religious circles as a ‘prophet’ and a ‘leader’, you know there’s going to be questions asked. But regardless of subjective opinions of his work, my own included, it’s hard to deny that Green is influential is some way. However, as evidenced by the other authors included in the list, there are more than a few ways to influence and be regarded as influential.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a touching piece on Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan author who fights for gay rights in Africa, Episcopal preacher and writer of spiritual fiction Barbara Brown Taylor is also listed as an artist, while newly awarded Pulitzer winner Donna Tartt and Arundhati Roy were bestowed with the title of ‘icon’. The title of icon is often as tricky to define as influential. Some of the names on the list as known to practically everyone while others send the casual reader scuttling to Wikipedia, yet it’s hard to argue with the placement of any of them once you do enough research (yes, Miley Cyrus is influential, as much as it may pain us to admit it).
So what are the markers of influence for a writer?
The most obvious one would be sales, yet Wainaina isn’t exactly at home on the New York Times best-seller list. Sales in many cases equal influence in terms of the style and genre of the work the author creates, and Green in particular has definitely shaped the direction of YA in recent years, more so now with the upcoming film. Can the same be said for Roy or Tartt or Brown Taylor? Possibly. Tartt in particular is part of a highly revered literary circle that basically created the past 20 years of popular literary fiction.
Influence suggests power, but how does that power manifest? In the ways mentioned above or in another manner? World leaders make the list because their decisions impact potentially millions of lives. Businessmen and women make the list because the smallest decisions made about the economy can make or break a country. Film producers like Megan Ellison make the list because the creative decisions they make impact entertainment on a global scale. Some will impact a tiny fraction of people but do so in a way that causes a ripple effect everyone will notice.
Yet there are also people on the Time list for whom I cannot figure out why they’re considered influential. Amy Adams? She’s a great actress but she doesn’t pack the box office clout or carry the legend status of someone like Meryl Streep, even in a year with an Oscar nomination and two big critical hits. Carrie Underwood? She’s popular but she’s hardly shaped the pop culture narrative in the way someone like Miley Cyrus did in 2013. Is having a big fanbase enough? So it seems for people like Benedict Cumberbatch, but notably not Laverne Cox, who received the most public votes but is absent from the list itself. Honestly, her exclusion from the list hurts more than any questionable inclusion. What’s the point in including a reader poll if you’ve no intention of using the results?
Let’s do a brief compare and contrast of the two most famous authors on the list: Green and Tartt. Both have die-hard fanbases, literary awards and best-selling works, yet the comparisons really stop there. While Green cleverly spent time building up a loyal and wide reaching fanbase of the most dedicated and profitable demographic out there, thus ensuring the kind of publicity for his work that no publisher can buy, Tartt has often been labelled as a recluse, writing one book a decade and giving few interviews. Yet her own public image is in its own way as carefully crafted as Green’s: The fact that she rejects having a public persona is in essence her public persona! None of that lessens her power because her work sells extremely well in a market that often sees literary fiction as a commercial risk.
Lists like Time’s, while ultimately rather arbitrary and questionably compiled, are important for us to gauge the general state of public reaction and the crafting of our cultural narrative, or at least the narrative that the mainstream media wish to convey. Some faces are safer than others. What may be considered influential in one field by Time may not actually be seen as such from within the more knowledgeable industry itself. In terms of influence in authors and publishing, what about names like Jodi Reamer, an agent who basically crafted modern bankable YA with her eye for a hit? How about the goddess herself Judy Blume, a woman whose work continues to be the benchmark of female adolescence in fiction decades after its initial release? Perhaps Sherman Alexie, whose YA novel The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian has been challenged by multiple local authorities in America as obscene and removed from school libraries and curriculums?
Time describes its influencers as those who we can’t wait to see more from. That makes sense, although it feels a little weak when it comes to some of the list (Carrie Underwood?!) Nevertheless, the influenced don’t need a list to tell them who to look out for.