Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Literature and Bestsellers

Don’t They Go Together? 

Whenever I happen to come across a bestselling list somewhere, I can’t help wondering why the books on them are so successful. There’s rarely a title on them which could ever tempt me. Most covers of commercial novels act on me as a deterrent too, and if not, the first sentences of the blurb suffice to put me off. The stories are so much alike! They follow the fashion and well-tested plot patterns, no matter if the genre is romance, crime, history or fantasy. Don’t avid readers get bored? Do most readers pick books without much care, taking whatever comes their way and whatever they have been told they should read? In that case it’s no wonder that I very seldom enjoy a bestseller. I expect more from a novel than just to kill my time and to distract me from everyday life. 

However, it’s no big secret that bestselling lists aren’t actually full of quality literature. I thought that it has always been so because it’s in our nature to look for comfort and escape, especially in hard times, but an interesting online article about Best-Selling Women in the 1930s by Nava Atlas from The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life opened my eyes. She analysed the US bestselling lists of the decade of the Great Depression (1931-39) and found that a great number of books appearing there have endured and are now classics. Writers like Pearl S. Buck, Willa Cather, Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), Aldous Huxley, W. Somerset Maugham, John Steinbeck, Rebecca West, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, and Virginia Woolf figure on those lists, usually more than once. 

So have readers before us been more attracted by good literature? In fact, having a look at all lists of the twentieth century many famous names turn up: Simone de Beauvoir, Winston Churchill, Joseph Conrad, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Umberto Eco, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, Erich Maria Remarque, Françoise Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, H. G. Wells, and Edith Wharton just for instance. There are also lots of authors on the lists whose names I never heard or read in my life, but still it’s obvious that in the 1960s and 1970s the bestselling lists begin to change. They become less diverse with always the same few names on them year after year, most of them the names of popular romance or thriller writers. 

The question is why have reading habits changed? Or haven’t they really? It would require in depth research to solve the puzzle, but I have my own ideas about it. I believe that the major part of people chooses just the same kind of reads as ever, only today more of them can afford buying instead of borrowing them from a library because incomes have increased in the western world and books have become a low-price product. When you don’t have much money, you’ll always give it a second thought if you really want to spend some of it on a book which may be forgotten and worthless within a few years. In addition, it’s my impression that many works which in former times would have been just good enough for a penny dreadful have found their way into the book market. 

Also authors are led to believe that the only way to make a living as a novelist is to follow the fashion. They are always under pressure to write what the market demands. Publishers these days aren’t as daring as they seem to have been some decades ago. They rather trust in established names and proven genres. They are reluctant to try out something new when the odds are high that the adventure will turn out to be a failure and a big loss for the company. Besides, who would neglect the goose laying golden eggs when there are just some ugly ducklings waiting in the background and there’s no way to know if at least one of them will grow up to be a swan or a golden goose? If only people gambling with our money on the stock markets were as conservative and cautious!

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